Not only is Mick Luber a successful organic farmer and a self-described gypsy carpenter and poet, he has been a part of OEFFA from the very beginning.
In the early 1970s, OEFFA was first formed in association with the now defunct Federation of Ohio River Co-ops (FORC), a farm-to-fork program serving the Midwest and Appalachia. Mick worked for FORC in an administrative capacity and was interested in helping farmers develop viable economically-sound farms.
Mick was well prepared to work with OEFFA and develop a more sustainable food system.
His father, a miner, always kept a garden and his mother canned food so that they would have a stable food supply when the next strike broke out. Mick also remembers gathering berries and hunting.
In the 1960’s and 70’s, Mick and his peers became involved in the back-to-the-land and sustainable food movements. While Mick was teaching school in Chicago he formed a buyers’ co-op that sourced fresh food from California. Later he helped run a co-op in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, for ten years.
Mick was also ideologically poised to join OEFFA’s early efforts. He recalls that OEFFA was created to develop the back-to-the-land movement into a viable food future: Everybody thought [the new farmers] were sitting around smoking dope and not doing anything, but the vision was that we were setting up a new economy, one that would be based on bartering and cooperation. Everybody was talking about revolution and the revolution was going to be this new economy. And people were trying to find ways to plug into that new economy. People were creating cloth and food and anything you can think of.
Mick also recognized that traditional farming practices were polluting our soil, water, and air. Mick witnessed the “dire consequences” of conventional farming and strip mining. For example, he saw farmers being treated for cancer that he believes was caused by toxic farm chemicals. Mick wanted OEFFA to encourage farming that was both economically-viable and good for the environment.
He says that, “OEFFA has proved you can farm 700 acres organically, make money at it, and improve the quality of life for the farmer and the communities around that farm.”
Mick served on OEFFA’s first Board of Directors for several years and as President for two years. His goals were to establish a stable financial structure for the organization and to connect the education, certification, and marketing components by computer. Mick purchased OEFFA’s first computer. He also published OEFFA’s first newsletter, featuring one of his poems.
Mick was deeply involved in certification. He researched organic certification in other parts of the country, like California, and helped define OEFFA’s first set of organic standards, years before Governor Celeste and his wife passed state-level organic standards. Mick was part of OEFFA’s certification committee and was a farm inspector.
Even while a few OEFFA members were put off by Mick’s long hair, OEFFA has been bringing together farmers and consumers of all stripes from the very beginning. “That’s the only reason OEFFA has lasted as long as it has,” Mick says, “because it’s a multi-perspective group. There were the ‘ball caps’ and the ‘longhairs,’ but they sat in the same room together, and if you can get people to sit in the same room together you can get them to work together.”
Mick says OEFFA is “even more relevant now,” than when it first started, because, “it can have a bigger effect now. More people are listening.” He says they are listening because global warming and high gas prices threaten agriculture everywhere.
Entrepreneur, advocate, reformer, and Renaissance man, Mick is also a farmer. Mick purchased his 61-acre farm about 25 years ago. He continued working as a carpenter and took a postal carrier job for six years before quitting to farm full-time.
Mick paid cash for his farm and bought used equipment to minimize debt. Dairy farmers, who had used the land to grow conventional corn feed, had left chemical residues behind. Mick planted a hay crop to take up some of the residues before transitioning to organic vegetables.
Mick says these early years were difficult, but he was up to the challenge. “The idea that most people have is that they’re going to move to the country and it’s going to be smiles all the time. But it quickly goes from cute to challenging, when the deer eat all your vegetables,” he cautions. If you can make it through the first three years of farming then your odds of survival increase tenfold, Mick calculates, from his own sense of early hardship and later returns.
Mick got much of his farming know-how from other farmers. One perk of being an organic inspector was that he got to ask farmers about their operations and borrow their good ideas.
A unique farming expertise is necessary for Mick’s farm because one field overlooks the other by a hundred feet. Mick enjoys the hilly terrain and the challenges it brings. The soil is sandy and rocky in some places and he adds compost for organic matter. Low soil moisture is an issue around here and Mick uses keyline plowing, a method from New Zealand, to manage it. This type of plowing lays cultivation over the contours of the land. Gravity acts on the contours and directs water (in the form of rain) across the beds.
Another advantage of the two-tier fields is that the upper, sunnier field starts growing almost two weeks ahead of the lower field, allowing Mick to get farming earlier and to stagger harvests.
“Diversity is the key to this type of agriculture,” Mick says. He raises chicken eggs, flowers, herbs, squash, beans, fruit, cabbage, peppers, onions, potatoes, and garlic.
Mick, a few black dogs, and a pair of cats (one with white boots, named after Nancy Sinatra) are the farm residents. Teenagers from the neighborhood find work on the farm, usually for three to four years at a time.
Four times a week Mick sells his produce at farmers’ markets in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Mick has a knack for marketing that he picked up while working co-ops. He learned that the fundamentals of presentation are key. “Most people don’t realize how pretty a table has to look to attract people,” Mick explains. He has given OEFFA workshops on the topic and shows photos of his colorful, rustic produce stand. To keep it looking beautiful all day, Mick has customers form a line (usually for his highly demanded lettuce) and bags the food himself with the help of another worker. This strategy keeps the produce and the crowd orderly.
Mick is also known for his expertise planting with the lunar cycle. He has noticed germination suffers when he neglects to consult his lunar calendar, which effects the gravitational pull of soil moisture. Mick occasionally gives workshops on the subject.
Mick seems to have garnered happiness from his diverse, thoughtful pursuits. He can roughly estimate all the thousands of dollars he has saved by making and growing things for himself, an idea outlined by an extension educator who once spoke at an OEFFA conference. He also enjoys living at “the source of good food” and feels that “giving people quality food is spiritual.”
“Be patient, find a mentor, listen to other farmers, and go to the OEFFA conferences,” Mick advises new farmers. Talking to other farmers will help new farmers avoid common mistakes. Mick continues to help local farmers and share advice.
About the writer: Danielle Deemer is working on her master's degree in Rural Sociology at the Ohio State University. Danielle, through her OEFFA internship, profiled some of the organization's most accomplished members and their successes, creating OEFFA’s Profiles of Success series. Lauren Ketcham has updated and edited content. This series is being unveiled throughout OEFFA's 30th anniversary celebration year.