by Amanda Smith, Editor
“They said it couldn’t be done,” Gainesville’s Marty Mesh recalled as the first answer he received from the Florida Department of Agriculture almost 40 years ago, when he first inquired about funding and advocating for organic farming in Florida. In the 1970s, sustainable agriculture wasn’t exactly a buzzword yet, but the ‘no’s couldn’t deter Mesh’s dream of an organic evolution in Florida for long.
“I spent many, many years reaching out to the Florida Department of Agriculture about organic farming and I just wasn’t taken seriously,” Mesh explains. “So I did what anybody committed to change does – as they claimed it was impossible, I just went ahead and did it.”
And by “did it,” he means he learned the dirt beneath his feet, what exactly was failing at the farms and how to unearth solutions to making ‘organic’ work. Mesh eventually discovered the secret was in the system.
“Everything in farming is systemic. Organic farms in Florida seemed impossible because farmers who tried to grow organic were taking seeds and breeds that were designed to be used with pesticides and tried to grow them naturally. It’s little wonder why that didn’t work,” he explains. “It took a lot of convincing to get farmers to reevaluate their whole system, rehabilitate nutrient-starved soil, grow in concert with the seasons and go back to older seeds and breeds. But a lot of times we did it.”
And according to Mesh, that’s really only the tactical approach. Ultimately, he says, a shift in farming is a shift in thinking – a total dismantling of the status quo.
“It’s really about cultivating community, so farmers receive support from the local people and policymakers they feed. Ideally, everybody pitches in however they can to help ease the farm’s transition to organic, because it’s really a transition for everyone – to a cleaner environment and healthier food supply for all.”
With the support of one community behind him, Mesh first established Bellevue Gardens Organic Farm in Archer in 1976, a feat that only expanded his vision and mission. Now, at 62, with four decades of challenging conventional farming methods and progressing public policy under his belt, Mesh is still making waves in the organic world, still ripe with the spirited passion of a revolutionary.
“It’s no secret there’s a lot of bureaucracy involved in Florida agriculture,” Mesh admits. “You’re fighting uphill a lot of the time because, the truth is, the university system has a very cozy relationship with the Agro-chemical industry so farmers don’t see a lot of progressive research on crop sustainability or the long-term medical and environmental costs of pesticides. Instead we see a lot of privately-funded research amounting to little more than corporate seed patenting and product development.”
It’s that brazen candor and fiery zeal that has earned Mesh his reputation as an outspoken hero – who truly walks the walk. In addition to physically working with his hands in the soil, Mesh was instrumental in launching a Gainesville-based nonprofit organization that’s now a national force to be reckoned with.
In 1987, Mesh helped form FOG – Florida Certified Organic Growers & Consumers – a nonprofit devoted to educating farmers and the public about organic food production. Mesh became the Executive Director in 1995, and under his leadership, FOG developed a USDA-accredited organic certification program, allowing FOG to grant national certifications in organic farming. Mesh soon found himself at the center of organic legislation, flying back and forth to Washington D.C., serving as a sustainable agriculture expert in the policymaking process. To bring things full circle for Mesh, he was recently awarded a grant from the Florida Department of Agriculture to help growers transition into organic practices from conventional ones.
Nationally named one of the “Top 25 People Who Have Most Influenced the Organic Industry,” Mesh is practically a household name at organic farms in Florida, some staff of which say they couldn’t offer their community programs without the fruits of his labor.
“We are more than a farm,” says Yvette Rouse, associate director at Sweetwater Organic Community Farm in Tampa. “We’re a nonprofit educational center. One of our main goals is to contribute to the community in a meaningful way and the grant money we’ve received from FOG helps make that possible.”
Rouse is referencing Sweetwater’s participation in the “Fresh Access Bucks” program, initiated by FOG using a specialty grant they secured to aid in increasing sales of Florida-grown produce to Florida consumers – and not just the affluent ones. Thanks to FOG grant money, Sweetwater can offer SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) recipients $20 of select Florida-grown produce for $10 worth of SNAP dollars – a program colloquially known as “Double Your Dollars” – which greatly incentivises purchasing organic local food often deemed too expensive.
“FOG is instrumental in the food accessibility portion of our mission,” Rouse says. “Because they understand it’s about more than food; it’s about community.”
Mesh says FOG-funded programs like these reveal the philosophical tenets behind his lifelong devotion to this work.
“Changing the way we value and prioritize food production as a society is an economic choice, but it’s also a social choice, an environmental choice and an ethical one. What matters more, the brand of our clothing or the way our food was grown? What are the long-term medical consequences of pesticides we may not fully understand? How do we want to leave the planet for our grandchildren?”
In spite of all the progress he’s seen and made since first picking fruit in 1972, Mesh still works overtime for a more sustainable future. He runs FOG, he’s on the Board of Directors of many organizations and remains as focused as ever.
“A lot’s changed over the years,” he reflects. “But we’re a long way off from an environmentally responsible and socially just standard of agriculture. So I just keep chipping away at leaving the planet better than I found it.”