Bob Scowcroft: Executive Director, Organic Farming Research Foundation

Cultivating a Movement

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Read the full text transcript (PDF) of the oral history with Bob Scowcroft.

329 Bob Scowcroft. Photo by Tana Butler.

If we had to choose one individual who most inspired us to undertake this historical project about sustainable agriculture, it would be Bob Scowcroft, currently the executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation. In 2005, as we were beginning to explore the roots of this movement, we came across the transcript of a speech that Scowcroft had recently made at the Ecological Farming Conference (Eco-Farm). Scowcroft challenged the audience:

One can’t focus on the future until one has a solid grasp of the past. One of our collective failures has been the lack of attention paid to our written and oral history. Only two or three of the participants in the “Asilomar Declaration” [a statement in support of sustainable agriculture that was drafted at a three-day congress immediately before the 1990 Eco-Farm Conference and ratified by the 800 individuals who attended that conference] discussion are here today. Several have passed away. Others have left the sustainable-agriculture universe. Who has collected their papers? Where is the Center for Organic [Farming] History Research? Who is collecting the oral histories of these and many other important attendees?

Who is Bob Scowcroft? we wondered, and the rest is history, or rather the documentation of history.

An activist, Bob Scowcroft first joined the environmental movement to work on the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in the early 1970s, and later became a national organizer on pesticide issues for Friends of the Earth (FOE). As organizer for FOE, he set up a table at the Natural Foods Merchandiser Trade Show, advocating a ban on Agent Orange because of the drift of that herbicide onto nearby farms. Barney Bricmont (also the subject of an oral history in this series) and two other organizers from the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) paid a visit to his table, and introduced Scowcroft to the organic farming movement. Scowcroft soon became the first professional environmentalist to attend and present at the Ecological Farming conference, then held at a muddy church camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Scowcroft moved from the Bay Area to Santa Cruz, and in 1987 was hired as executive director for CCOF. He led that organization through tremendous expansion during the exponential growth of the organic industry over the next few years. In 1992, Scowcroft left CCOF to found and direct a spin-off organization, the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF), whose goals are to “sponsor research related to organic farming practices, to disseminate research results to organic farmers and to growers interested in adopting organic production systems, and to educate the public and decision-makers about organic farming issues.” He has served as executive director of OFRF for the past seventeen years.

In 2006, the Ecological Farming Association awarded Scowcroft the prestigious “Sustie” award for lifetime achievements in sustainable agriculture. He has been engaged in nearly every political development in the national organic and sustainable agriculture movement in the past twenty years—from the controversy over the contamination of apples with the pesticide Alar in the late 1980s, to the fight to pass the California Organic Foods Act of 1990, to battles over federal standards for organic certification in the 1990s, to recent lobbying efforts to secure more funding for organic farming research in the Farm Bill. This in-depth oral history with Scowcroft, conducted by Irene Reti on December 18, 2007, and January 11, 2008, at her house in Capitola, California, provides a vivid, “in-the-trenches” perspective on the history of this social movement that is transforming the agricultural and cultural landscape of the United States.

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