GROWING RIGHT: THE DIGITAL EXHIBIT
We’re excited to premiere our pilot Growing Right Project digital exhibit, co-curated by Scott Williams, early OEFFA newsletter editor and founding member of the Federation of Ohio River Co-Ops (FORC); and Growing Right Project Director Jess Lamar Reece Holler! In addition to his work with OEFFA, Scott is a non-profit grants consultant in Columbus, Ohio, and maintains a significant private archive of avant-garde writing, travel literature, and print ephemera documenting the history of the food and farm movement in Ohio since the 1960’s. Scott’s exhibit will be featured on our roving pop-up exhibition tour; but this digital version is meant to re-create the multi-media experience for those who can’t make the tour … or who want to experience it again!
Digital exhibit proudly run on Omeka — an accessible digital repository/content management platform for public humanities projects. The digital exhibit features a rotating sampling of print ephemeral featured in our pop-up (analog) exhibit, and will eventually feature panel text from the exhibit, as well. For more, check out our pop-up exhibit in person, or book us for a “show” at your farmers’ market, grocery, or sustainable agriculture convention/gathering!
Check back soon, too, for our long-form oral history interview with Scott about his role in Ohio’s ecological food, farm & co-op movement, which pays special attention to the role of print culture in the circulation and solidification of grassroots action in Ohio in the 1970s-1990s.
All material from the personal collection of community archivist/OEFFA co-founder Scott Williams of Columbus, Ohio. Please contact the project for any derivative works or adaptive use requests. Special thanks to Scott for his labor in co-curation and carefully scanning all archival materials!
Below, we offer digital versions of some of our many rotating interpretive exhibit panels from our pop-up (analog) exhibit. These exhibit labels were developed by Project Director Jess Lamar Reece Holler, and some are co-curated by Scott Williams and Project Designer Jeremy Purser. The original exhibit labels were designed and typeset by Jeremy at SLOWPOACH Studios, and hand-cut from laser-printed copies.
Our pop-up exhibit features a modular slate of exhibit areas, curating the two main arenas of our exhibit: (1) oral history/folklore fieldwork with Ohio’s early organic food and farm movement leaders; and (2) print ephemera documenting Ohio’s ecological food and farm movement as an intersectional social nexus.
INTERPRETIVE PANEL TEXT
IntroDUCTION TO THE EXHIBIT
GROWING RIGHT: A POP-UP INSTALLATION
FROM THE COLLECTION OF SCOTT WILLIAMS
CO-CURATED BY SCOTT WILLIAMS & JESS LAMAR REECE HOLLER
ON BEHALF of the Growing Right Project, we welcome you to this pop-up exhibition. This exhibition of early OEFFA and Ohio ecological food/farm movement print culture is meant to complement and work together with our collection of oral histories, fieldwork and multi-media pieces from leaders in the field. This exhibition wouldn’t be possible without the heroic vision, work and curation of community archivist and activist Scott Williams in collecting — and contributing to — movement print culture over the years.
“Print culture” means stuff written on paper, from newspapers to novels to glossy magazines to weekly CSA newsletters! And, quite literally, it also refers to the culture — or cultures — created and sustained by the circulation of print. Print culture is especially significant for grassroots movement histories in the 20th century, which often relied heavily on being able to generate and circulate their own news, updates, and forms of address, when official institutional channels did not (or would not) serve. Print culture is especially interesting in the early years of OEFFA— the 1970s and 1980s — because Xerox and other ascendant mimeograph technologies allowed for an even more rapid, affordable and DIY production and circulation of information.
It’s difficult to see, in the Twitter age, the role that newsletters, magazines, and mimeographed sheets had for justice-seeking social movements in the U.S. and beyond. Circulating periodical print publications provided “one body” for movements, and helped organize across geographical distances, and even across state and national borders. Like a public gathered at a protest to speak in one voice from varying vantages, OEFFA’s early bulletins and newsletters both drew together and made the movement.
Print culture — sometimes called “print ephemera” — is a valuable and threatened historical resource: people keep books; but newsletters, pamphlets, brochures and even food labels are often viewed as disposable: something to be read and then thrown away. Losing print ephemera, though, can mean losing the institutional memory of grassroots movements, and the resources, strength, and networks that helped build the more capacious, just systems we benefit from today. Alongside oral histories and other modes of memory-keeping, print culture is vital for movement histories, and especially for truly grassroots movements which operated without support of official infrastructures. These histories, of course, aren’t just “history”: our movement’s pasts can often hold forgotten solutions for the future we seek.
Are you a part of food and farm, environment or social justice movements today? What might you consider collecting that will preserve these histories, struggles, hopes and resources for the future?
This pop-up exhibition is made possible, in part, by Ohio Humanities — a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, finding, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessary represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
CURATOR’S NOTE: FROM CO-CURATOR/COLLECTOR SCOTT WILLIAMS
My talents at writing, marketing, organizing information, and raising money were all put to use volunteering for OEFFA over the decades. Back in 1979, the first thing I ever did for OEFFA – at Mick Luber’s urging – was to get from FORC several hundred dollars for OEFFA’s founding. In the latter 1980s, I wrote OEFFA’s first grant proposal—a federal “LISA” grant not funded! In the 1990s I again helped with fundraising and marketing. Most of my career has been as a professional grant writer/manager for nonprofits. It was a delight to “return” most recently in 2014 and give a Conference workshop on rural grant writing strategies.
Well, I am humbled to be so profiled in this exhibit when so many others did so much more than me to build OEFFA and take it to where it is today — a national leader. By dumb luck, and the marvelous work of Jess Lamar Reece Holler [OEFFA’s FOLKLORIST!], I get to be profiled in this exhibit because I was always collecting, distributing and saving OEFFA’s print materials… Thus you also get to see some of my FORC materials too, which predate OEFFA; and a fun collection of organic fruit & veggie labels that also go back in time. There are, of course, missing pieces which perhaps other members of OEFFA may retain? If so, let us know! I know that my perspective is narrow and incomplete as to what all went on!
As Mick Luber, a founding member, noted: OEFFA was an intentionally diverse coalition of young and old, urban and rural, farmer and consumer, not to mention various sub-cultures (faith-based and healthy living). When people joined, they felt at home in our diversity, giving us a firm base to start and then grow very quickly.
— SCOTT WILLIAMS, Ohio Food Movements Archivist & Materials Curator
PUBLIC ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES METHODS
WHAT IS “PUBLIC ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES”?
Growing Right is a public environmental humanities project. That term combines two approaches to humanities work — public humanities and environmental humanities.
Public humanities is a relatively old term, used to describe projects that take the toolkits, skills and methods of the humanities — from anthropology to literature to history to the arts — and interpret the human story for wide audiences. Unlike academic humanities, where the goal may be to publish a very long and erudite book for audiences of fellow professors, the goal of public humanities projects is to promote dialogue about human lives and endeavors in a way that’s accessible, relatable and real.
Public humanities projects have been around for almost as long as the story of human culture — from architecture to masks to festivals, many enduring forms of human cultural expression seek to communicate our stories to wide audiences, both in the present and for the future. Today, museums are a popular example of public humanities efforts — they seek to make their subject material accessible, fun and engaging for diverse audiences. In a U.S. context, other famous public humanities efforts have included the Chautauqua movement of the 19th century, the public arts works, murals and American Guides series of the Works Progress Administration during the New Deal, and the network of historic markers dotting our fifty states and territories.
Environmental humanities, by contrast, is a relatively new term. Scholars began using the term in the 2010’s, to describe an emergent interdisciplinary set of humanities endeavors and concerns that puts the relationship between humans and our environments and ecologies front and center. The rise of environmental humanities was especially catalyzed by the declaration of the “Anthropocene” by an international team of geologists. The “Anthropocene” is the idea that the Earth — down to its very geologic layers — is being irreparably shaped by human activity … so much so that the age of mankind has shaped its own geologic epoch (called the “Anthropocene,” age of man). As some have put it: man has become a geologic force.
Many scholars and scientists are concerned about this; and the pressures human activity puts on the planet, other species, and local ecosystems — as well as on vulnerable human communities at the front lines of environmental changes. Environmental humanities projects seek to combine humanities methods (like local history or folklife documentation!) with perspectives from the sciences (such as agriculture and ecology) to tell a more complex story about our relationships with the places we love and live in an era of great ecological change.
Public environmental humanities projects like Growing Right seek to do this work and make it public — to spark urgent conversations about our entangled human and environmental futures. Our project, in particular, encourages audiences to think about the way our narrators have conceived of their relationship with the land, with species beyond themselves and with ecologies; and to make the connect to how they connect to place, landscape and environment in their own lives. Who and what is a part of your ecology? What is your environment? How is it changing as a result of human lives and endeavors? And have you been changed by your environments, in turn?
FIELDWORK: AN INTRODUCTION
THE FIELDWORK JOURNEY
Every public folklore project begins with fieldwork. After long weeks and months of contacting interviewees (called “collaborators” or, in oral history, “narrators”) and arranging travel plans, a folklorist sets out to go visit a collaborator in her home territory. It’s often the most exciting part of the project.
For Growing Right, folklorist and oral historian Jess Lamar Reece Holler criss-crossed Ohio in her 1997 red Honda CR-V, to visit farmers, grocers and ecological food and farm movement movers and shakers in their own home environments. All told, we have visited and conducted interviews and fieldwork in upwards of twenty-seven of Ohio’s eighty-eight counties, in landscapes ranging from the Lake Erie Coast to the coalfields of Southeastern Ohio to the rich black-soil mucklands of Ohio’s former swamp belt to the fracked landscapes of far Eastern Ohio.
Each Growing Right interview has several parts: the “sit-down” oral history interview; a walking or driving interview, and, sometimes, a “process” interview or soundscape recording. “Sit-down” interviews usually take place inside, at a table. The interviewee and interviewee sit next to or across from one another, with two microphones set up on the table. An interviewee is prompted, by open-ended questions from the folklorist or oral historian, to tell her life story — in this case, as it’s intersected with the history of the ecological food and farm movement in Ohio. Rather than bring a prepared list of questions, the oral historian or folklorist is trained to respond in the moment — almost like an improv actor — to what, in memory and telling, seems the most important to the narrator. The interviewer tries to create space for the interviewee to share her story in a way that is meaningful — which involves a lot of deep listening, and, sometimes, a surprising amount of silence on the part of the interviewer!
After the “sit-down” interview, many of our Growing Right fieldwork visits — especially to Ohio’s active organic farms — often involves a walking or driving interview. This is where the “folklore” comes into play. Here, we ask our interviewees to share the processes, practices and tactics they use to farm ecologically — to maintain proper soil chemistry, encourage beneficial insects, maintain healthy pastures and keep cows healthy, or keep berry bushes thriving. This “day to day” information might seldom come up in a formal “sit-down” interview; but these practices are the process of years of aggregated wisdom and exchange — often through networks like the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, and participation in its series of educational farm tours. Because the ecological food and farm movement is a grassroots movement, which established itself without the official early support of land-grant universities or the Extension system, these practices and systems of knowledge are especially important to document, preserve and share.
In keeping with our public environmental humanities mission, on some farms, we’ve also started to do soundscape recordings or “sound walks” — we record the sound of the land, the plants, the livestock and the surrounds as a complete ecology. Unlike oral histories, these walks aren’t narrated — we walk silently with a microphone around the property, listening deeply, and picking up the unique symphony that each place and ecology makes. We hope these soundscapes will help transport you to the particular places and environments that have made up the ecological food and farm movement in Ohio.
Are any of the places we’ve visited also your places? What connections do you have to Ohio’s diverse landscapes, ecologies, and environments? If you imagine listening deeply to the soundscape of your own environment, what would you hear?
FIELDWORK: PUBLIC FOLKLORE
WHAT IS FOLKLORE?
What do you think of when you hear the word “folklore”? You may think: urban legends. Old wives’ tales. Myths. “Fake news.” Things that might get talked about but simply aren’t true. Things that get talked about that might be true; but might conflict with what official or empowered sources say at the time. That’s part of the story.
Folklore is both a “thing” and a practice. Folklore, to borrow from many definitions popular in the field, refers to any number of cultural expressive practices that are passed on informally — not through official channels of knowledge — and by people participating in small groups. Historically, genres of folklore that folklorists document have included verbal practices (folk songs, folk tales, oral histories), material culture (vernacular architecture, folk art, foodways), and customary practice (holiday celebrations, festival and ritual, folk belief). Some genres of folklore — like legends and rumors — occupy multiple categories: legends, for example, are genres of verbal art that negotiate a community’s sense of belief. That is: the contemporary legend of the “Gahanna Lion” is less about whether there really is a lion amok; and more about listeners deciding what it means for it to be conceivable that there would be a large feral feline roaming a Columbus suburb like Gahanna.
“Folklore” is also a term used to refer to the study of expressive, community-transmitted cultural arts — the field and discipline sometimes academically known as “folkloristics.” The field of folklore studies emerged in the late 19th century during the rise and codification of both anthropology and literary studies — and the field, to this day, bears traces of both. Folklore studies, at first, was deeply concerned with documenting “lore” — think of the “songcatchers” of the early 20th century — motivated by the idea that folklore was “vanishing” under the standardizations of industrial society and the violent erasures of Anglo-American colonialism.
Eventually, by the mid-20th century, the field was also equally concerned with the “folk” themselves — the people and cultural and community groups who sustained informal expressive cultural traditions. Thanks to the work of folklorist and religious studies scholar Warren Roberts and others, Scandinavia’s “folklife” movement began to make waves here in America, and influenced an entire generation of folklorists to turn to the study of material culture and everyday life, and the way those cultural forms — from vernacular architecture to working practices (called occupational folklore) to food and farmways — are made possible in and sustained by communities.
Folklore documentation seeks to understand the complex entanglements between people and their cultural, historic and physical environments. Although folklorists often also document “sit-down” oral histories, they also commonly document processes: from how a hatmaker makes a hat to how a traditional Vietnamese meal is prepared to how an organic farmer stewards her soil.
For the Growing Right Project, we traveled the state of Ohio not only to document the life stories and “movement histories” of the ecological food and farm movement in Ohio, but the ways our organic farmers, grocers and advocates steward their land, produce, markets, and communities. As such, we’ve made a series of multi-media pieces that amplify not only the stories of these visionary Ohioans, but showcase their “sense of place” and connection to Ohio’s diverse environments, landscapes and ecologies.
FIELDWORK: ORAL HISTORY METHOD
WHAT IS ORAL HISTORY?
Oral history is the radical art of interviewing everyday people about their life histories, experiences, and memories — to add to the historical record, to encourage deep listening across difference, and to spark conversations for our future.
The practice of oral history grew out of the “history from below” movement in the mid-20th century — though it was also influenced by elite institutions, like universities and large corporations, wanting to capture their own institutional history and culture. The first university-based oral history program was developed by Alan Nevins at Columbia University in 1948; but the history of the field was equally influenced by the work of populist oral historians such as Studs Terkel, and the even earlier New Deal-era work of Americans recording and sharing out the stories of other Americans through the projects of the Works Progress Administrations — such as the Federal Writers’ Projects Ex-Slaves Narratives Project. The development of oral history was similarly influenced by the work of public folklorists and ethnomusicologists at the time — including Zora Neale Hurston, and John and Alan Lomax — who often interviewed their collaborators to gather important social and historical context for the folk songs or tales they documented.
Oral history, as a practice, is deeply democratic — it’s the idea that all of us participate in history and have a story to tell. Rather than believe that history is something that the only the rich and famous get to participate in, the practice of oral history promotes the idea that history is made in everyday lives and everyday actions.
Since its inception in the 20th century, oral history has become especially important as a tool for documenting social change — and for recording the histories of movements for social justice around the world. Because its methods are non-hierarchical, oral history is a fitting tool to capture the stories of movements for social change that often operate underground, without access to the power or resources of official institutions. Oral history is also a tool for social change — as oral historian and folklorist Martha Norkunas has argued, the very act of witnessing an oral history can promote the sort of “listening across difference” that can provoke empathy, and even personal transformation. What would happen if you took two hours to sit down and listen to the life story, fears, concerns, hopes and motivations of someone very different from you?
Today, debates in oral history include not just how best to document oral history; but how best to make it accessible and meaningful for listeners and audiences now. New tools, such as the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky’s “Oral History Metadata Synchronizer” (OHMS) help to “chapter-mark” audio and video files like a book, to make oral histories keyword searchable for the digital age. Other digital tools, such as Curatescape (developed by the Center for Public History + Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University) help organizations and individuals “map” oral history recordings or excerpts onto the places where they occurred. Some efforts, like Mississippi’s Southern Foodways Alliance, use oral histories and photography to produce short multi-media pieces profiling growers, grocers and kitchen workers in the South — much like we do with Growing Right. These shorter pieces are suitable for web browsing, radio play, or re-mixing into longer documentaries. Still other organizations, such as California’s Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, use oral history as a tool for social justice, to highlight the displacement of long-term residents in the Bay Area.
The Growing Right Project hopes that our oral histories and short multi-media pieces will help Ohioans think about the rise of the ecological food and farm movement in Ohio as an intersectional social movement, shaped by the multiple and overlapping social justice concerns of its time — from environmental crisis to calls for economic justice and worker rights to stirrings for the sovereignty and revitalization of rural communities, and beyond. But we also hope these oral histories will encourage you to think about our collective future. How do you connect food to health to environment in your own lives? What sort of food system would you like to see in Ohio for the future?
PRINT EPHEMERA: OEFFA NEWSLETTERS
Looking back at our first two decades of these “homemade” newsletters, one can see our quickly evolving sophistication! Throughout the 1980s, mailed newsletters were every movement organization’s cheap networking tool because “long-distance” phone calls – even outside your county – were costly! Sally Banfield, Bill Strachan, Cynthia & Larry Ringer, Phil Hale, Jack Kuehn, former OEFFA President Becky McDowell, are among the early co-editors of our first newsletters. Eddie Kruse from FORC became editor in 1984, but resigned over an article he included about the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua which some people didn’t like. By 1988 Holly Harmon Fackler is our editor and had a fabulous run of issues as we began to grow even faster!
My oldest newsletter from our undated 1983 Fall Newsletter reports on OEFFA’s “First” Farm Tour featuring, of course, (Rex) Spray Brothers Farm, Charles Seibel Farm, Heckman Farm and Ernest Bergman Farm. We have many early saints in OEFFA, but Rex Spray surely was our most esteemed one! One of the surprising long-term stories found looking through these newsletters is our very early effort to collaborate with Malabar Farm! So many interesting articles! One example of an outstanding article is found in that Winter 1993 newsletter by Debbie and Ben Stinner titled “In Search of Community – An Ecological Perspective.”
A newsletter is the central organ of a social movement. Periodical print publications offer, literally, a virtual social body where voices, concerns and rallying cries can come together. From the early 1980’s, OEFFA’s annual conference drew members and supporters together in body; and farm tours gathered members in the field(s). But how did members connect, exchange ideas, advocate and push for legislation, and build strength together when they weren’t all in one space? OEFFA’s newsletters took on that role for the rest of the year.
Squint hard. These newsletters were the internet before there was the internet. With a rotating cast of dedicated editors, early OEFFA newsletters curated and synthesized important content from a host of other national food movement resources and publications; and provided updates, calls-to-arms and even entertainment to folks on the ground.
These newsletters also showcase the evolution of OEFFA’s visual culture over the years.
PRINT EPHEMERA: BROCHURES
This collection of marketing brochures starts with our VERY FIRST 1979 membership marketing brochure that prominently displays OEFFA’s FIRST LOGO which features that strange American-like flag in the northwest Ohio. This flag was a widely used image by America’s environmental movement in the 1970s –visualize green stripes on tan background. With just a glance, here, one can see the evolution of OEFFA’s logos.
I pushed for consumer point-of-sale marketing materials and helped draft content. Barbara Alexander’s design work on “Certified Organic, What It Means To You” is too darn beautiful! I was always playing with “key words” that described our movement and doing related research for publications. This is seen in that 1990 membership brochure that was enlarged to 8×14 to handle our ever expanding list of services and all those quotes I gathered from famous people!
My favorite discovery doing that research is this “Buckeye” quote by Ohio Democratic Governor John W. Bricker in Conservation for Tomorrow’s America, published in 1942: “It is a patriotic duty to stop wasting our resources and to find the best means of restoring those which are renewable, especially those so vital to life as soil and water.”
Moreso than newsletters or conference programs, brochures are the public face of an organization or movement. They solicit. They are tasked with, in a few short folds of an 8.5 x 11” sheet, explaining what a movement is, what future it is seeking, how folks can get involved. They are the print equivalent of knuckles rapping on a door. They say: here’s who we are. Are you with us?
OEFFA’s brochures, over the years, offer a window into a changing organization — but one that was diverse from the get-go. While some organizations may serve just farmers, or just consumers concerned about health, or just environmentalists, OEFFA, from the beginning, was formed from a wide consensus of concerned Ohioans. These brochures highlight the changing face of OEFFA’s self-presentation over the decades.
Do you remember your first OEFFA brochure? How do these changing designs reflect — or resist — our changing times?
PRINT EPHEMERA: MISCELLANEOUS & OVERSIZED MATERIALS
PUBLICATIONS, HANDOUTS, + CRAZINESS*
* “I added craziness for including Kamyar’s certification; but it was [also] crazy trying to keep everything happening!” — Scott Williams
This is a fun collection of OEFFA print materials. The oldest is likely that undated report on OEFFA’s lobbying at a USDA Structural Hearing in Indiana by Jon Shafer, another OEFFA founder! Another very early publication is our 1982 Conference Poster! I laughed at seeing my 1990 Environmental Ethics workshop handout whose last pages are pulled from the Ohio Humanities Council (now Ohio Humanities) who is today helping to fund this History of OEFFA Project. Enjoy!
Just as OEFFA newsletters provided late-breaking updates and carried the movement forward, OEFFA’s stand-alone print directories (from membership directories to the Good Earth Guide) provided a snapshot of the membership at any given time; and literally mapped the presence of ecological farmers on the land. These oversize print publications said: We’re here. And here’s where we are.
Directories did more than just index membership, though. They did the hard work of curating together resources and suppliers who could serve the work of brave ecological farmers in Ohio seeking to grow food without chemicals, in harmony with nature. These guides literally codified those resources, and made “growing right” possible for farmers — without all of the work of tracking down resources from a million catalogues independently. Moreover, they were vital tools for consumers seeking healthful, ecologically-grown products.
Although, as Scott Williams will attest, the archival labor of collating, organizing and indexing these resources may not seem like the work of farming, these volumes are monuments to the tremendous and too often invisible labor that helped to make our robust ecological food and farm system possible.
PRINT EPHEMERA: OHIO’S CO-OPERATIVE MOVEMENT // FEDERATION OF OHIO RIVER CO-OPS [FORC]
FORC + THE CO-OPERATIVE MOVEMENT
I entered O.E.F.F.A. via F.O.R.C. — pronounced “fork”. The Federation of Ohio River Co-operatives helped to pioneer Ohio’s modern organic movement in the 1970s. For example, it developed its own organic certification criteria. Many of its members became OEFFA founding members in 1979 and provided a portion of OEFFA’s first volunteer leaders. We were part of the “hippie” progressive, counter culture movement, most of who became life-long organic food consumers and – for the back-to-the-landers — organic food producers. We patronized bulk distribution, natural, whole food co-ops in FORC’s five state regional network. But there were also young entrepreneurs opening health food stores like Sally Weaver, an early OEFFA leader. Everybody in FORC knew about OEFFA!
Representing FORC, I gave a workshop at OEFFA’s first statewide conference in March 1980. At that meeting, it was wonderful to see youthful, mostly urban, hippies collaborating so warmly and productively with an older generation of Ohio farm families who had wisely avoided “industrial” agriculture. Acres, U.S.A. was an extremely influential publication in the 1970s that FORC warehouse staff read to keep up on organics and to tap into Ohio-region organic growers to purchase food for our food co-op network.
In 1976, FORC adopted Acres, USA’s use of the term “ecological” in FORC’s Philosophy Statement which had a full paragraph devoted to Ecological Agriculture. OEFFA also readily adopted this term as it embraced a holistic scientific approach to understanding organic, permaculture, Rudolf Steiner, etc., forms of environmentally smart agriculture. Choosing “ecological” was not easy, as we all were greatly influenced by Rodale’s use of the word “organic” as a sometimes generic term for our movement.
In all of my interviews for Growing Right thus far, there’s one thing I always tell people I’ve been the most surprised to learn: how deeply indebted our ecological food and farm movement is to the co-operative movement in Ohio, and across the world. From its origins in early centuries, the co-operative movement held a radical dream: of smashing capitalism by getting people together to share work and housing, and to own the means of production. The co-op movement was also dedicated to fighting alienation: the alienation of a worker from her wages, and of food from its ecologies of production.
The same co-op movement that produced vibrant housing co-operatives at places like the University of Michigan and Oberlin College also produced our landscape of food co-operatives here in Ohio. The co-operative movement — and the Federation of Ohio River Co-Ops (FORC), in particular — also provided the training ground for activists who later came to form OEFFA. FORC and the regional cooperative movement not only lent OEFFA much of its early membership, but provided ethics, principles, resources for collective, non-hierarchical organization that were written into OEFFA’s DNA.
PRINT EPHEMERA: FOOD LABELS OVER THE DECADES
FOOD LABELS OVER THE DECADES
I warned my mother that I would not bail her out of jail if she was arrested for stealing fruit & vegetable labels for my collection! I first noticed little labels on fruits & veggies in the early 1980s and immediately began collecting them – especially the organic ones! Other people did, too. We put them on our refrigerators, for example. Some die hard collectors started trading and selling them, but that never interested me.
As I built this collection, I often walked out of local groceries with a bunch of bananas covered in fruit & veggie labels. Early on, I asked myself–what kind of glue is being used to stick this label onto my organic apple?! I give credit to the natural food co-op movement’s national magazine that printed an article by a Minnesota woman raising this very issue! I still collect labels, but it ain’t the same! Soon came those 4-digit numbers – everybody knows the banana’s 4 digits, right? And then those dang “little” bar codes appeared, ruining sometimes great “little label” design work.
Food labels are the most “ephemeral” — and endangered — of print ephemera. Who collects food labels? (Not that many folks.) Who interact with, engages with, and relies on food labels? (Probably, all of us.)
Food labels are so often overlooked by archivists that they are rarely collected & catalogued. But, labels are hugely important in the history of the food and farm movement — they’re the one place where information about a fruit or vegetables conditions of production are presented to the public. They’re the only thing we have, at the grocery store, summarizing a strawberry or cucumber’s entire ecology and genealogy. Thus, they’re crucial: labels are the point of contact for consumer decision making. They’re where we see — or don’t see — the environmental and labor conditions that bring a food product to its place of purchase.
The evolution of the visual culture of food labeling tells a story: the story of what consumers have demanded of our food’s stories, and how the corporations, cooperatives and in-between have met, missed or misled those demands. We’re incredibly lucky that we have in Scott Williams not only a brilliant archivist but a prescient and capacious historian, who, starting in the 1980s, began collecting food labels as a way to tell the story of how fruits and vegetables were equipped to tell their own story. Roughly arranged in chronological order, see if you can track how labeling for particular foods has changed. How has the visual language of organics shifted over the years?
Understanding and looking critically at food labels’ recent pasts is vital for decoding food labels today. We hope the next time you see a food label in the grocery store, you see a war and an opportunity: a place where consumer demand for transparency can press on the logic of alienation, and replace it with a fuller ecology — one that says consumers deserve to know where, how, and by what human and environmental expense this food was grown. Food labels remain a battleground, as ongoing debates surrounding GMO labeling attest.
ABOUT THE CURATORS
SCOTT WILLIAMS, Community Archivist + Co-Curator:
A Columbus, Ohio native, I started a small import business after high school to help pay for my world travels which lasted about five years. Eating a healthy Third World diet for so long, processed American food made me sick. Add to that a healthy case of reverse culture shock. So deciding to give up world travel and sink my roots back home, I became involved with several of our local highly-networked movements of the era made up of young people. We were creating alternative institutions to serve our needs, set examples, and demand change. I gravitated to the local natural foods co-op for several reasons and was hired. I became active in the Federation of Ohio River Co-operatives (FORC) that was just forming in 1976. This led to my early volunteer work for OEFFA. I decided I needed a college degree, but what? Representing FORC on a World Hunger & Food Issues panel I met a co-panelist professor from OSU and ended up getting a degree in Human Ecology with a side certificate in East Asian Studies. My OSU work allowed me to also intern with the Ohio Council of Farmer Cooperatives and work inside OSU’s Health Sciences Library where I learned all I could about library sciences. For most of the next 25 years, I worked for Central Ohio nonprofits specializing in grants — their writing, management, budgets, compliance, and evaluation (impact) reporting. I obtained a professional certification in grants and have served twice as President of our Central Ohio Grant Professionals Association. I am currently semi-retired and turning my attention to a life-long project related to the history of world travel accounts and imagery. Oh yes! I continue to volunteer–now and then–for OEFFA! Please think about doing so, too!
JESS LAMAR REECE HOLLER, Oral Historian/Fieldworker + Co-Curator:
Born and raised with a ton of food and chemical sensitivities in an old brick farmhouse near (Westerville’s) Hoover Dam, Jess Lamar Reece Holler is an oral historian, community-based public folklorist and documentarian living and working between Philadelphia and Columbus, Ohio. After working as an environmental educator on a ship on the Puget Sound, and as a farmer, cook and teacher at a Quaker farm school in the Sierra Nevadas, Jess returned home to Central Ohio to (so she thought) start an organic farm on her grandparents’ property in Marion County— and to help document and share out the stories of the good food and environmental movements. Suffice to say, the farm’s been a long time coming. Trained in public-sector folklore, oral history and community curation, Jess now works in the emerging formation of the “public environmental humanities,” and is interested in how environmental humanities theory and ethics can be informed by and also productively transform technologies of media documentation and public humanities exhibition. Her oral history and ethnographic projects have focused around environmental justice, place, memory, “bad attachments,” embodied ecologies, and environmental health, with special attention to vernacular articulations of experience with site-based environmental toxicity, and “everyday toxicity” — including exposure to pesticides, plastics and food-based toxins. Jess founded Philadelphia’s Eastwick Oral History Project, documenting community response to toxic landscapes in Southwest Philadelphia; and she is currently project director and lead interviewer for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association’s Growing Right: Ecological Farming in Ohio, 1970’s-Now Oral History Project– a documentation, digital environmental humanities and experimental pop-up media installation and exhibit project mobilizing histories of ecological agriculture for our interlinked food, farm and environmental futures. All credit goes to her border collie, Isaly Caledonia: the real brains of this operation.
JEREMY PURSER, Lead Designer
Raised in a small Air Force town in North Carolina, Jeremy Purser consumed visual culture faster than his rural environment and transient milieu could provide. After a couple of missteps in undergraduate declarations, Jeremy settled on a Bachelor of Arts with a focus in printmaking from the University of North Carolina. Followed quickly by an addendum at North Carolina State University, Jeremy earned a professional degree in graphic design where he also directed the design of NC State’s annual arts and literary magazine, Windhover. In the era of “print is dead,” Jeremy moved to New York City to find otherwise. He ran through a few a jobs that opened his eyes to new world views where ideas such as “dream job” or “career” lost their magic. A confluence of these changes and an opportunity in Hudson, New York led to a graphic design position with Modern Farmer magazine. He worked as junior designer on two issues of the quarterly magazine with editor-in-chief Anne Marie Gardner and art director Sarah Gephart. After a few shocks of startup turbulence, Jeremy left the magazine and New York’s Hudson Valley to move to his partner’s home of central Ohio. Here, he uses design as skill set to assist institutions, movements, and campaigns he believes in — like this one: Growing Right!