Common Ground Country Fair - MAINE State Winner

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Common Ground Country Fair - MAINE State Winner

Estados Unidos
Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
Budget: 
$500,000 - $1 million
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

To produce a gathering, the Common Ground Country Fair, in the spirit of a harvest festival that serves to encourage the revival of agriculturally-based rural communities.

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

The success of any idea, product or practice is built upon a supportive ecosystem. MOFGA's primary focus is to support and promote organic agriculture. To do so effectively we need to cultivate a holistic framework that includes engaged and educated consumers, skilled and business smart farmers, appropriate processing and support systems in the market, and supportive and knowledgeable community leaders. In 1971 when MOFGA started there were 15 organic farms and 20 acres of organic farmland in Maine. Today there are 400 organic farms and over 40,000 acres in organic production in Maine
About You
Organization:
Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
Section 1: You
First Name

Jim

Last Name

Ahearne

Organization

Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association

Country

, ME

Section 2: Your Organization
Organization Name

Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association

Organization Phone

207-568-4142

Organization Address

PO Box 170, 294 Crosby Brook Rd., Unity, ME 04988

Organization Country

, ME

Your idea
Country and state your work focuses on

, ME

Innovation
What makes your idea unique?

Foremost, Common Ground is guided by the educational mission of our association. The purpose of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association is to help farmers and gardeners grow organic food, protect the environment, recycle natural resources, increase local food production, support rural communities, and illuminate for consumers the connection between healthful food and environmentally sound farming practices.

The conception, content and execution of the Fair grow from this mission. Two examples:

All of the food served at the Fair is organic or sustainably raised, and most of it, in Maine. This includes all of the food concessions. In doing so, the Common Ground Country Fair provides a ready market to many organic farmers and producers in Maine. It also provides our fairgoers with delicious healthy foods.

Unlike many fairs, Common Ground's main attraction is not a midway carnival. We still have a lot of fun – there are games, contests and entertainment at the Fair. But the real "entertainment" at the Fair comes schedule of programming that invites fairgoer participation. At the 2010 Fair there were almost 730 talks, workshops, hands on demonstrations, and artistic and musical performances. It is this accessibility and participatory nature of Common Ground that enables fairgoers and exhibitors – farmers, artisans, small businesses and organziations – to make lasting connections with one another.

Do you have a patent for this idea?

Impact
What impact have you had?

As the oldest and largest celebration of it's kind in the nation, Common Ground is an iconic event that supports and inspires many.

Internally, Common Ground has provided MOFGA with a significant means of financial and member support. In large measure to the public awareness and exposure generated by the Fair, MOFGA has over 6,000 members. Today, the Fair's activity is profitable and generates 40% of our organizations operating budget. This contribution helps support our numerous education programs, including new farmer training, organic marketing, educational workshops and market development initiatives.

In turn, the success and recognition of the Fair has provided MOFGA with a platform for engaging consumers and Maine's legislative leaders in broad conversations on food, farming, pesticide regulation, and rural economies. With an average of 59,000 attendees over the course of three days, each year the Common Ground Fair makes connections an active slice of Maine's population.

Plus, by prescribing the use of organic foods and local products, the Fair provides a viable market for 700 local businesses and artisans. The benefit is not just anecdotal. Our Farmers Market provides its vendors with, on average, 10% of their yearly gross income, in just three days. The Fair also helps new businesses take root. Burts Bees, the successful personal care products company started with a booth at the Common Ground Fair.

Actions

Our success is built upon changing without changing. The challenge is to evolve and grow while adhering to our mission. To do so we set realistic, yet ambitious goals, regularly evaluate our work, and annually recommit to our direction. Every fall after the Fair we embark upon an extensive review process, eliciting and distilling feedback from our volunteers and stakeholders. In January the Fair Steering Committee convenes a gathering to address the most pressing issues and chart our course for the year. And every five years, the Fair Steering Committee renews a Five Year Plan.

Our own success is now our greatest challenge. We need to find solutions to real problems that arise from a gathering of this scale. Most notably traffic, consumption and waste all have an impact on our environment, our site and our neighbors. If we don't work to address these issues we ignore our purpose.

Results

In 2010 the Common Ground Country Fair will be in its 34th year. What began with a surprisingly strong showing of 10,000 people in 1977, has only grown. Fair attendance now regularly approaches 60,000. The Fair will continue to evolve and grow, and in this we have expectations that are in our near term focus. That brings us three to five years out. Beyond that, we have bigger questions to address about growth, and we are beginning that work now.

It is our expectation that the Common Ground Country Fair will continue to expand educational, economic and social opportunities for MOFGA, fairgoers, farmers, and Maine businesses and organizations. While doing so, the Fair celebrates rural living, inspiring and educating a broader audience to create and support viable communities. And as an event, the Common Ground Country Fair is a model for the sustainable use of resources at public gatherings.

What will it take for your project to be successful over the next three years? Please address each year separately, if possible.

In the short term, we recognize the need to address some key infrastructure issues. The most substantial of these is traffic. We need to:

• reduce the number of vehicles traveling to the Fair,
• provide more camping space to encourage longer visits and reduce traffic flow,
• and reduce the traffic access during peak periods.

Internally, we also have systems that would benefit from updating. For example, we still utilize a paper registration system for vendors and exhibitors. Transitioning to a paperless system that integrates fully with our database and website is a process we have begun this year and will need to roll out fully for 2011.

For the long term, we have designed a process intended to help us address other issues of growth and determine our path for addressing continued growth. For this work, our biggest need for 2010 is to take stock. This year, we will be asking a lot of questions of our fairgoers, of our volunteers, of our exhibitors, of our vendors, and of our neighbors and members of the Fair community.

2011 will be the year we will need to work with what we learned at the 2010 Fair, to take a closer look at where we are and begin to map where we are headed. This is the year we explore our opportunities and constraints, and give shape to a vision for the next years of the Fair. It is a particularly good year to do so, for as the 35th anniversary of the Fair, it presents us with an opportunity to launch the next phase of the Fair.

2012 may be a busy year. If our initiatives of 2010 and 2011 are on track, we will have the capacity, both operationally and physically, to address any changes of consequence we may want to implement. 2012 may be a year of action, but foremost, it is our plan for it to be a year of possibility. A year in which we have the capacity to act as chosen.

What would prevent your project from being a success?

No Change. Or change for the wrong reasons. We can rest on our laurels, so to speak. And become a memory. Implementing change does not come easy when change is associated with loss so out of fear, many organizations resist change. Were we to produce the same Common Ground Country Fair every year, soon we would not have that obligation for it would lose it's reason to be and in time, the Fair would lose its way. Or if we were to change simply for change sake, and in doing so ignore our mission, the Fair would lose it's identity and more importantly, our community of volunteers, participants and fairgoers would lose their commitment, motivation and passion for the Fair.

Conversely, change that grows organically is welcome, even necessary and sustaining.

How many people will your project serve annually?

More than 10,000

What is the average monthly household income in your target community, in US Dollars?

Less than $50

Does your project seek to have an impact on public policy?

Yes

Sustainability
What stage is your project in?

Operating for more than 5 years

In what country?

, ME

Is your initiative connected to an established organization?

Yes

If yes, provide organization name.

Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association

How long has this organization been operating?

More than 5 years

Does your organization have a Board of Directors or an Advisory Board?

Yes

Does your organization have any non-monetary partnerships with NGOs?

Yes

Does your organization have any non-monetary partnerships with businesses?

Yes

Does your organization have any non-monetary partnerships with government?

Yes

Please tell us more about how these partnerships are critical to the success of your innovation.

MOFGA actively collaborates with other organizations and agencies where our participation is constructive and collaboration essential to success.

Two examples:

MOFGA recently partnered with the Maine Department of Agriculture, the Maine Farm Bureau, and two commercial dairy operations to launch Maines Own Organic Milk as a vehicle for organic dairy farmers in Maine to bring their milk to market.

MOFGA is a member of the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine, a diverse coalition of environmental, health and community organizations engaged in a public health campaign to phase out the long-lived toxic chemicals that build up in the food web and our bodies.

What are the three most important actions needed to grow your initiative or organization?

The Common Ground Country Fair is focusing on the following in order to remain viable, sustainable, and relevant:

1. Address the infrastructure and operational challenges of the Fair. As an event, success is tied to the caliber and thoroughness of execution.

2. Support and cultivate our volunteers. Over 160 volunteers manage each element of the Fair. The people in these key leadership roles must be engaged, their vision honored and their commitment respected. Also, their replacements must be nurtured. New energy. New talents. New commitments to our mission are vital.

3. Planning and review. Plans that live in a file are no help. To ensure we are on track we put a considerable amount of energy into planning, and not just the how or who elements, but the why. We intentionally provide the space to plan, and then reflect. Along the way we check in on our internal agreements. And at the appropriate times we review how well we lived up to our aspirations.

Concerted action in these three areas – operations, people and planning – enable us to execute well. And above all else, we have a good time.

The Story
What was the defining moment that led you to this innovation?

see #36 below

Tell us about the social innovator behind this idea.

In 1971, Charlie Gould, a Cooperative Extension Agent in Lewiston, called together a gathering at Thomas Point Beach in Brunswick. Attending were some of the many people who had been calling Charlie with questions about organic gardening and farming. Scott and Helen Nearing were guest speakers at the gathering, and from that meeting, over the winter, sprang MOFGA.


MOFGA started as a group that brought people together so that they could learn from one another a model that we have continued to follow since. We started with local chapters, pot-luck suppers, and garden tours. In 1972, we ran our first organic certification program, following the Rodale Organic Garden certification guidelines. Shortly thereafter came a farm apprenticeship program, "Spring Growth Conferences" (at the Hinckley School and College of the Atlantic), and MOFGA's first steps into public policy initiatives ­ a "No-spray Register," organic food labeling, and a campaign focusing on the hazards associated with pesticide drift. By 1972, we had a regular newsletter, which, by 1974, evolved into a newspaper ­ The Maine Organic Farmer and Gardener. In 1986, MOFGA became the first organic farming organization to hire its own "Extension Agent."


MOFGA held its first Common Ground Country Fair at the Litchfield Fairgrounds in 1977. Fair organizers conceived the Fair as a "harvest celebration." Roughly 10,000 people came from Maine and beyond. By 1981, the Fair had outgrown Litchfield, so MOFGA began renting the Windsor Fairgrounds, where the fairgoing crowd eventually grew to more than 50,000 visitors. Since the earliest days of the Fair, MOFGA had envisioned a home of its own ­ not only for the three days of Common Ground, but also for a year-round agricultural education center. A "Vision Committee" searched tirelessly for the perfect place, taking long looks in Wayne, Livermore Falls, and elsewhere around the state. The search for a permanent home ended in 1996, in Unity, with the purchase of more than 200 acres of fields and forest. We opened our doors to the public on September 25, 1998 ­ opening day of the Common Ground Country Fair.


MOFGA now has more than 6000 members, a staff of 21 employees, an organic certification subsidiary that certifies 5% of Maine's farms and 15% of the state's dairies, a year-round education program offering dozens of conferences, presentations and workshops throughout Maine, a Journeyperson Program providing advanced training for people wanting to become organic farmers, and countless opportunities for more than 2000 active volunteers.


MOFGA is working with the University of Maine Folklife Center to conduct oral history interviews with people who have played key roles in the history of the organization. Over time, the recorded interviews are being transcribed. We hope that the collaborative effort, with its many fascinating accounts, will soon produce a rich historical account of this vibrant organization.

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