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  • Sara Norton

Remembering our Roots: Al Johnson’s Odyssey Making the NOFA Film

By Sara Norton

With a borrowed camera and a list of people to track down, Al Johnson set out on an odyssey of 1,600 miles to make the NOFA history film: “Organic Roots: 50 years of the Northeast Organic Farming Association.” Criss-crossing Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and New Jersey, he spent three months filming the people who shaped the organization and the organic farming movement. The result is a 70-minute film that gives us the faces and voices of many of NOFA’s founders.

When NOFA turned 50 years old, in the summer of 2021, there was a lot of talking and planning for the celebration of the anniversary of this unique organization with an exceptionally rich history. The Interstate Council formed a 50th-anniversary committee, and what emerged from all the meetings, thoughtful conversations and remembering were published articles, presentations at the 2021 Summer Conference, and very significantly, a film that tells the story of this revolutionary, grassroots movement. That film is Al Johnson’s labor of love.

Al was involved in NOFA very early on. From 1979 when he volunteered to organize NOFA’s education program, he has been active ever since running educational forums, organizing NOFA-New Jersey’s certification program, serving as the president of the Interstate Council and now its treasurer. “NOFA became part of my life in the 70s and has continued to this day,” he told me, “so I had a personal stake in NOFA’s story and I knew it had to be told.”

Al began his search for the NOFA story in the archives of the University of Massachusetts. The late archivist, Robert Cox who died of COVID, had a special interest in the organic farming movement. Cox clocked in many hours of interviews with NOFA’s founders. He was fascinated with how the organic farming movement was intertwined with the activism of the 1960s and 1970s – the civil rights movement, the Viet Nam war protests, and the rise of the co-op movement.

“Listening to all these interviews in the UMass Archives, I got really inspired,” Al told me. “It is a great story. So I went back to the committee and said, ‘We’ve got to make a film. It’s got to be done.’ And they said, ‘sure, but who will do it?’ I had a flexible schedule; I’m an organic inspector and could push my work off for three months and just concentrate on this project. So I volunteered.”

I still have a clear image in my mind of Al sitting at my living room table hunched over his computer struggling to grasp the intricacies of working a film editing program. With his cursor, he delicately inserts a minute of one person talking about NOFA starting the farmers’ markets and then inserts another few sentences from another person keeping the narrative going. Each insert involves many clicks, highlights and saves. He had never made a film before. Everything was new: the camera, the sound, the lights, the editing. “I didn’t know I had to charge the microphone,” he said, “I learned the hard way discovering that there was no sound for the first 10 minutes of the first interview.” Organizing all the footage and putting it into a cohesive narrative was daunting. There on the computer unfolded the construction of a narrative cobbled together from the words of the interviewees. “I wanted the story to be told in the words of the people who created the organization. I didn’t want an overall narrator,” Al said. “So I had to go out and find the story that was told in those people’s words. Everyone was passionate about this and I wanted that passion to be captured on film.”

Al came up to my Vermont homestead three weekends that spring and summer. Slowly the story emerged from all the footage. Or, I should say, “stories.” For there are a number of stories that needed to be told for each era of NOFA’s history. This comes out in the film: how as time goes on and the organization matures, there are new challenges to face. The history not only of an organization emerges but a history of a whole era of contributing to the organic farming movement. In the beginning, it was the basics: how do we farm organically, how can we network and help each other raise food and how can we market what we grow? Consumers in those days did not know about organic farming and the importance of buying local produce. It may be strange to us now to recall that there was actual opposition to farmers' markets in some towns as Howie Prussack, one of the organizers of the Brattleboro farmers market, tells us in the film. Joey Klein, one of the early organic farmers, says, “Back then, at the farmers' market, if you told people your beans or tomatoes were organic, it was a strike against selling them.”

The film continues to trace NOFA’s history showing us the challenges of starting new chapters, developing certification standards, farmland preservation and more recently, the vision of a culturally and racially diverse organization. And although each era of NOFA has its own story, the deep story of NOFA remains the same - it is the story of a vision for a different world than what conventional agriculture and economic systems offer us. It is people working together to build a sustainable and just world, and it is a story of farmers creating a healthy and intimate relationship with the land. The film concludes with a quote from Samuel Kaymen, the founder of NOFA, saying, “NOFA should have 200 million members. Everyone has to share in the care for the earth and the production of food. We are all members of the soil community.”

Al began filming in the spring and on into the summer of 2021. The deadline was approaching. The film’s debut was scheduled for the keynote presentation at the NOFA Summer Conference. “I was anxious to find a professional video editor to polish the film,” said Al. “At last, I found a videographer who worked for NOFA New Hampshire, Chadley Kolb. He was wonderful. He put in archive photographs and music.” It was down to the wire for the opening of the Conference on Friday, July 30th. Al spent the last week at Chadley’s house in New Hampshire working on it until the afternoon before the viewing on Friday night. “I finished it Thursday afternoon and drove the thumb drive down to Essex Massachusetts and delivered it in person to the Conference committee.”

I believe it is important to watch this film. It is available on each NOFA chapter’s website and on the website of the NOFA Interstate Council. In the film, you have a rare view of NOFA’s founders in their own contexts - sitting on their porches or in their farmyards with chickens or goats wandering in and out of the frame. Talking extemporaneously, they look back, amazed at what has been accomplished over the years. We get a clear sense of the hard work that so many people put in to make the movement happen. “How wonderfully crazy we all were,” says Liz Henderson in the film, “to think that we could be doing this. We were setting out an alternative that despite all the evidence that said it was not going to happen, we did it anyway. And we are all a little bit odd because of that.”

As we NOFA members think forward into the future, we also need a retrospective vision that grounds us in our roots, helps us to remember, to find meaning in what we do in the present and informs our vision for the years to come. As Al says, “We need to appreciate where we came from and the passion and dedication that was there from the beginning. This is so important because we still are a movement that is fueled by passion and volunteerism. We need this story in order to take our work on into the future.”

I want to shout out a big “thank you” to Al Johnson for all the hard work making this film. He has provided us with a treasure for the NOFA archives for years to come that is accessible to everyone.

Sara Norton was the director of Vermont NOFA from 1980-1985

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