How A Locavore Executive Director Came to Be

20 Sep

We are so excited to have words from Kate Mendenhall, Executive Director of NOFA-NY to cap off this week’s Take Action theme.  Read on for her story of becoming interested in, and then highly passionate about, organic farming.  We know not all our readers plan to become executive directors of organic farming organizations, but we believe that this example of an (ahem) organic pathway from passion to action is a realistic form of inspiration.  Let it help you tune in and react to your surroundings, perhaps taking some unplanned leaps of faith about those issues that stir your soul (related to organic farming, we hope!).

Those of you who have grown up in the country know that the cycles of farming keep you sane and grounded. Although I did not have the opportunity to grow up on a farm, my little Iowa hometown was surrounded by miles and miles of farms—mostly corn, soybeans, and hogs. Watching the fields be prepared for planting, the corn and beans grow, and the combines out until the wee hours of the night harvesting were incredibly important in creating a landscape of comfort while I was growing up.

Because I didn’t grow up on a farm and farming happened around me, I was only peripherally tuned in. However, I did notice change happening in the 80’s. By the time I graduated from middle school, the farm crisis had caused almost all my friends who had grown up on farms to move into town. There was a heavy sadness about farming that I couldn’t quite understand, but I did start to put the pieces together. The size of farms was growing, the hog operations were growing and smelling more, and farm houses were removed to make way for more soybeans. Little towns in the middle of miles of corn were putting boards on the windows and surrendering as ghost towns. Schools were consolidating at an alarming rate, which to a small town can be the kiss of death. What do you do on a Friday night if you can’t root for the home team? When I expressed interest in studying ecology to someday become a farmer, I was told that there wasn’t a future in farming. I left Iowa for college feeling sad that the once thriving rural agriculture and the family farm were dying.

A young Kate Mendenhall hangs out with some big pumpkins.

A young Kate Mendenhall hangs out with some big pumpkins.

all grown up, still in costume!

all grown up, still in costume!


When I landed in Maine for college, I first was blown away by not being surrounded by the cycles of farming every day. I missed seeing for miles over tassels of waving corn. But what I did find was a thriving farmers market in downtown Brunswick, Maine where I peppered the organic farmers with questions about their farms and the food they were growing. At MOFGA’s Common Ground Fair in Unity, Maine I saw hope for a new way of farming. I saw that while the Farm Crisis of the 80’s was destroying rural family farms in Iowa, the Northeast was paving the road for a different way of farming—one that worked with nature instead of against it, promoted small farms to support small rural communities, and supported each other as farmers. I was inspired. There was hope. And I was convinced that organic farming was the answer. I feel called to help grow this organic farming movement. It is our hope for a better future.

This movement is innovative, responsible, and creative! The community of organic farmers that make up New York State and NOFA-NY are some of the most incredible people I’ve ever met. They are scientists, explorers, botanists, ecologists, entrepreneurs, inventors, and artists. They grow delicious food and make eating fun! NOFA-NY is also driven by incredibly dedicated eaters who vote for a better food system with their dollars at the farmers’ market, CSAs, farm stands, and co-ops. Together we can inspire a culture of change that is healthy for our soils, animals, plants, and people. This Locavore Month is a great opportunity to really revel in the glory and bounty of New York State’s delicious organic movement, and to thank our farmers for all their hard work in stewarding our open spaces and providing their communities with local organic food. Next time you buy organic food from your local farmers, give them a firm handshake and thank them for carving a better way forward. Eat up!

Thanks, farmers, for the delicious organic corn (and for keeping our communities small and intact) this September!

Thanks, farmers, for the delicious organic corn (and for keeping our communities small and intact) this September!

Interested in reading more from Kate?  Check out the Director’s Outlook in each issue of the New York Organic News (it’s mailed to you when you join NOFA-NY as a member, which supports our organization’s mission to keep organic farming part of our present and future lives, and you can access the archives online).


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