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Remembering a visionary, Judy Gillan

The agricultural community recently lost a pioneer, mentor, and champion for New England farmers and sustainable agriculture. From farmer training, to raising awareness about the challenges faced by beginning farmers, to advocating on several farm bills, Judy Gillan’s influence lives on. 

Judy Gillan

Judy Gillan was one of the founders and leaders of the organic and sustainable food systems movement in the U.S., and internationally. She passed away in May on her 82nd birthday following heart surgery. I was fortunate to have had Judy as a mentor for the seventeen years I worked at the New England Small Farm Institute (NESFI) in Belchertown, Massachusetts.

Judy’s passion for land stewardship, agriculture and social action was actualized in 1978 when a local citizens’ action group called Women in Agriculture, Food Policy and Land Use Reform founded NESFI. The group, including Judy, petitioned the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to obtain long-term secure tenure on 400 acres of state-owned land. NESFI’s goal was to establish a small farm demonstration and training center on the former Belchertown State School Farmstead.

Judy was a visionary. She was brilliant, forceful, charming and relentless. It was her dream to walk the talk of “alternative land tenure options” along with training farmers in sustainable farming practices. I arrived at NESFI in 1987, joining the effort to secure a long-term lease on public land while we improved the site, delivered farmer training and education, managed one of the most extensive sustainable agriculture libraries in the country, and offered “sustainable” sub-leases to beginning farmers.

As executive director from NESFI’s founding to her death over 40 years later, Judy oversaw everything from lease negotiations to rehabilitation of deteriorating farm structures to designing a curriculum for farmer training. She understood how secure tenure tied to agricultural land stewardship. She tackled thorny details such as how to value soil improvements and assign rights to leasehold improvements. Her intuitions about farmers’ needs were always spot-on.

But Judy’s influence is felt way beyond NESFI. She was a pioneer in the international organic agriculture movement, and a leader in the fight for organic standards in the U.S. She founded an organic compost company, and co-founded the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group which today, nearly thirty years later, is vibrant advocacy network. She oversaw a Northeast farm apprenticeship program, and produced guides for on-farm mentors and trainers. She was a champion for beginning farmers. In 1994, NESFI started one of the first farm link programs in the U.S.

Judy was widely respected for her vision, dedication, intellect and big-picture thinking. Her influence spread from community groups like CISA and NOFA to USDA agencies and policymakers. She could make points and connections that made listeners gasp. I learned a lot from her, including the possibilities of farm access, tenure security, land stewardship and food systems justice. Today, organizations like Land For Good, where I have worked since 2004, build upon the visions that Judy championed and fought for. She will be missed, but her legacy lives on.

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