Remembering Samuel Kaymen
by Steve Gilman
As a coda to the obituary for Samuel Kaymen, I feel so grateful that our Founder was with us for last year’s 50th Anniversary Celebration of NOFA’s beginnings in 1971. He was featured in Al Johnson’s wonderful NOFA history compilation, “Organic Roots” as well as a panel participant in the ‘Thrilling Tales of Yesteryear'' presentation. These Anniversary videos, along with Elizabeth Henderson’s “The Next 50 Years of NOFA” are available for viewing at https://nofa.org/nofa-50th/.
As presented in his soulful obit, there are many awesome aspects of Samuel’s very full life that I’ve been unaware of. However, they all resonate with the phenomenal person I feel privileged to have learned from in my own journey as a beginning organic farmer back in those early days. But in listing his enormous attributes and accomplishments there was only room for a passing mention of his enduring 50-year impact on the grassroots organic movement that lives on in NOFA.
During a time before the existence of mass communications, the ‘Back to the Land Movement’ took off in the late 1960s as a spontaneous radical response to society’s rank materialism and the ongoing struggles over the Vietnam War, the draft, Civil Rights, nuclear annihilation and a host of other counterculture issues. Heeding the call, Samuel left his New York City roots, moving his growing family to Vermont with an impassioned vision of self-sufficient living in concert with nature. But, as with so many others at the time, such inspiration was initially long on fervor and short on experience.
In a wonderful oral history interview in 1998 that is housed in the NOFA archives at UMASS Amherst, Samuel described naively starting from scratch while building a new life in the North Country. His fledgling experience in nature was growing a first-time garden with Louisa that was “overwhelmingly fruitful” and that “blew us away”. This led him to devour all the pre-industrialized agriculture books he could find to learn more about growing food naturally.
He described a very powerful book in particular that led to a sudden revelation and insight that subsequently redirected his life. Written by Edward Hyams in 1952, “Soil and Civilization” historically look at the decline and fall of humankind’s past great civilizations due in a large part to ongoing injurious practices that degraded and depleted their soils, thereby undermining their societies and leading directly to agricultural failure. Coming from an urban environment where food seemingly originated in the back rooms of grocery stores, Samuel said simply, “I didn’t know agriculture was important” and he emerged with a passionate “born again” focus on the primacy of fertile soil and nutritious crops via organic farming. The book he said, “made me into an environmentalist and self-taught agronomist”. Out of print and pricey, the book archive is now available for free at: https://archive.org/details/SoilCivilization/page/n11/mode/2up
An energetic and experienced organizer with skills honed during his social activism days in NYC, Samuel felt a burning need to connect with like-minded practitioners to share his learning about taking care of the earth and farming organically – while wanting to be taught everything he could from them. With his infectious enthusiasm in high gear, he began to link up with like-minded others scattered throughout the countryside. Building on the positive response the next step was to create an organization.
Traveling far and wide, he distributed flyers at feed stores, bulletin boards, and Cooperative Extension offices all over Vermont and New Hampshire announcing the founding meeting of a new “Natural Organic Farmers Association” to take place on June 7th, 1971 at his Nature Farm in Westminster West, VT. Showing up at that initial hillside meeting was a disparate assemblage of activists, hippies, homesteaders, gardeners and farmers who put together their initial intentions. And NOFA was born.
Learning directly from fellow hands-on growers openly sharing their knowledge and skills proved to be a priceless peer education model. Passing the hat to cover expenses, Samuel began a newsletter, “The Natural Farmer”, to keep members informed and coordinate activities. He initially drove the truck picking up produce from farms along the route for delivery to Day Care centers in Harlem. He started the bulk buying of soil amendments and created an apprentice program before turning these functions over to skilled members to take things even further.
Samuel was also the spark plug at the Summer Conferences that began alternating annually between NH and VT. His high-powered “soil is alive!” workshops were legendary. The membership grew mightily, eventually establishing new state Chapters under the banner of the “Northeast Organic Farming Association” to continue the work. While Samuel moved on to teaching jobs, starting a yogurt company and other endeavors, the sturdy groundwork he created still permeates NOFA and we are all the richer for it. May his memory be a blessing, even as his life was.