Michael Sligh Papers, 1972-2019 (bulk 1984-2016)


James Michael Sligh was born in Lubbock, Texas, on March 31, 1950, and grew up spending summers on his family's farm and ranch. While attending university, he served as a purchasing agent and organizer for an Athens, Georgia food cooperative. He graduated from the University of Georgia in 1972 with a B.A. in cultural anthropology and archeology and was involved in field work focused on southeastern Native American culture and history. Influenced by his grandmother's embrace of the approach to farming popularized in J.I. Rodale's publication, Organic Farming and Gardening, he operated Spring Hollow Farms, an organic crop and vegetable farm, in Lafayette, Tennessee (1973-1976) as well as working on two commercial farming operations in Summertown, Tennessee (Farm Foods) and Florida, 1977-1982. He also became involved with a number of grassroots farmers' organizations, such as the Tennessee Alternative Growers Association (founding board member, Board of Directors), circa 1977-1982.

He then took a stint from farming to direct a sustainable agriculture program, funded by the Canadian International development Agency (CIDA), aimed at increasing crop diversification, providing technical assistance to farmers, conducting variety trials, and implementing sustainable agricultural practices in the Windward Islands of the West Indies (1983-1984). There he witnessed up close drastic impacts from intensive conventional mono-crop production for export under predatory contracts that left small farmers and workers in poverty with health impacts from aerial and unprotected pesticide spraying. This motivated him to return to the U.S. to focus on policy change that encourages and rewards more sustainable, organic, and fair farming practices.

Sligh returned to the U.S. in September 1984 to accept a position working for the Rural Advancement Fund as a rural educator, organizer, and policy analyst during the height of the U.S. "farm crisis." He helped organize the United Farmers Organization, a multi-racial two-state farmer-led organization focused on providing help to farmers facing foreclosure. This included establishing "hot-lines" which helped lead to a national moratorium on farm foreclosures, federal credit reforms adopted in the 1985 Farm Bill, and lawsuits that addressed discrimination in farm lending practices.

During this period, as a member of the Agricultural Crisis Task Force of the South Carolina Christian Action Council and the South Carolina Christian Action Task Force on Agriculture and Environment, he helped to encourage faith communities to support actions to prevent farm foreclosures, and organized outreach activities for farmers and consumers related to the farm crisis. In the late 1980s, Sligh also served as a consultant to the Dairy Committee and the Agricultural Policy Committee of the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC) to develop national dairy reforms. He was a regional organizer for the United Farmers and Ranchers Congress, sponsored by Farm-Aid in 1986, convening over three thousand farmers to call for federal agriculture policy reforms. Moving beyond merely saving farms, Sligh then turned to focus on farming practices that would win consumer support and better prices.

After working for several years with RAFI's Farm Survival Project, he served as the organization's Director of Sustainable Agriculture (circa 1990-2000), which included work on the local and regional level, such as serving on the board of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA) and as chair of the South Carolina Sustainable Agriculture Network. From 1997 to 1998, he worked with southeast U.S. tobacco farmers, as well as government and community representatives, in a series of discussions ensuring that the tobacco settlement included funding for economic development alternatives for communities impacted by the tobacco settlement agreement of 1998. He also served on the Board of Directors of Weaver Street Market, a retail grocery cooperative. At the federal level, he was involved with development of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) legislation and program, Organic Research and Education Initiative, (OREI), the Organic Certification Cost-Share Program, as well as other conservation and plant breeding initiatives at USDA. He worked on every Farm Bill from 1985 to the present.

This work led to launching the RAFI-USA Just Foods Program, which he directed until his retirement in 2018. The five major areas addressed by the Just Foods Program are:

1) Organic integrity (defense and promotion of organic standards and policies), which included work on the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), and serving as founding chairman of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which was responsible for development of U.S. organic regulations and the National Organic Program (NOP). He helped establish the National Organic Coalition and the Organic Farmers Association to ensure farmers and consumer voices could be clearly heard on Capitol Hill. Also, he served on UN/FAO/Codex Food Labeling Commission to develop international organic guidelines for its 120-country members, and consulted with FAO on organics and the Sustainability Assessment of Food and Agriculture (SAFA) program.

2) The Agricultural Justice Project (AJP), a domestic fair-trade initiative that established Food Justice Certification standards, as an "add-on" claim for organic operations that meet high standards for farm worker and farmer fairness. This was to demonstrate the critical missing component of fairness, which is lacking in the U.S. National Organic Program. Under his leadership RAFI-USA (along with Organic Valley, Equal Exchange, Farmer Direct, and others) created the Domestic Fair Trade Working Group to stimulate greater awareness and interest in agricultural justice.

3) Biotechnology monitoring to ensure adequate testing and labeling of genetically engineered foods, and accountability for the owners of this technology. Sligh served on the USDA Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21), which made recommendations for USDA regarding "terminator technology" and attempted to develop co-existence protocols.

4) Agricultural biodiversity, including Seeds and Breeds for the 21st Century, an initiative to promote and increase funding for regional public plant and animal breeding to meet the challenges of climate change and increased biodiversity for greater farm-level resilience, and to strengthen farmers' and breeders' rights. He also developed Breeding for Organic Production Systems (BOPS), a plant breeding program in partnership with North Carolina farmers and North Carolina State University (NCSU), that established the Southern Farmers Seed Cooperative.

5) General sustainable agriculture support, including work with the Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG).

Rural Advancement Fund (RAF), Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA (RAFI-USA):
RAFI-USA originated as the Rural Advancement Fund of the National Sharecroppers Fund, an organization that began in the 1930s and advocated for small farms and farm laborers. The organization known as Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) was founded in 1977 and worked to raise awareness of life patenting and pending plant patenting legislation. RAFI continued to work during the 1980s and 1990s on conducting research and promoting agricultural biodiversity, as well as educating consumers and farmers on the use of biotechnology in agriculture, including intellectual property issues and corporate concentration. RAFI-USA was incorporated in 1990, to distinguish it from the international organization, Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), which maintained an office in Canada. RAFI-USA worked on similar issues and concerns. In 2001, RAFI (the Canadian organization) was renamed the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group), in order to clarify its focus on those three areas, while also maintaining its work on biodiversity, biotechnology, and intellectual property. Meanwhile RAFI-USA continued to use its original name (also known as simply RAFI) and focused on direct planning aid to farmers, on-farm research to improve the financial viability of family farms, contract agriculture reform, labeling programs, and plant and animal biodiversity. The two organizations continue to partner on common concerns.

For further information, see the RAFI-USA website.

In addition to his work at RAFI-USA, Sligh also co-led of a tour of North American farmers to six European countries to study marketing of sustainable agriculture and eco-labeling in 1998, and was a delegate to the Seattle round of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Additionally, he was a founding member of both the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC, also known as National Save the Family Farm Coalition) and the Citizens Network of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), where he was part of three working groups: 1) sustainable agriculture, developing a national position paper for UNCED; 2) internal group gathering and distributing information from various preparatory committees and agencies meeting for the June 1992 conference; and 3) Consumers Policy Institute/Consumers Union (CPI/CU) international sustainable agriculture initiative, to "develop international position, and hold workshop in Brazil on sustainable ag." He was also a member of the U.S. Delegation to Codex Alimentarius (1992-2002), the Biotechnology Working Group (1990-1998), and served on the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) accreditation committee. He also served on the Board of Directors of the Domestic Fair-Trade Association (DFTA, founded in 2008), including serving as President.

Toward the end of his work at RAFI, he also participated in the development of Regenerative Organic certification, to create market reward for greater carbon sequestration, improved animal welfare, and a modicum of social criteria. He also joined the Real Organic Standards board, to support organic farmers facing unfair market competition due to NOP allowance of hydroponics (soil-less greenhouse production), that are not required to meet all of the same standards as farmers who grow organic in the soil.

After his retirement from an active role at RAFI-USA, he continues to serve as a senior advisor to many of the programs and organizations he initiated, including the National Organic Coalition and the Agricultural Justice Project, and as a policy advisor to the Organic Farmers Association (U.S.). He also serves as Board president of International Organic Accreditation Services (IOAS) and is a founding board member of the Alliance for Organic Integrity, an international organization aimed at encouraging the next generation of organic inspectors, urgent needs for greater consistency across global organic platforms, and innovative partnerships to combat fraud. He lives and works from a small exempt organic farm in western North Carolina.


1950 Born in Lubbock, Texas
1972 B.A. in cultural anthropology and archeology, University of Georgia-Athens
1972-1982 Managed commercial organic and conventional farm operations, Tennessee and Florida
1977-1982 Founding Board of Directors member, Tennessee Alternative Growers Association (TAGA)
1982-1984 Director, Sustainable Agriculture Program, Windward Islands, Caribbean
1985 Founding member, South Carolina Christian Action Task Force on Agriculture and the Environment
1984-1989 South Carolina Field Director, Policy Analyst and Rural Organizer, Farm Survival Project, Rural Advancement Fund/National Sharecroppers Fund
1986 Founding member, National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC)
1989-1991 Board member, Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA)
1990-2000 Director, Sustainable Agriculture Program, Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA (RAFI-USA)
2000-2018 Director, Sustainable Agriculture Program, Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA (RAFI-USA)
1991-1993 Founding coordinator, Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG)
1990-1998 Member, National Biotechnology Working Group
1991-1992 Member, United States Citizens Network, United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED)
1992-1997 Founding chair, member, National Organic Standards Board (NOSB)
1992-2002 NGO member, U.S. Delegation to the CODEX International Food Labeling Committee of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), United Nations, helping to develop international guidelines for organics and agro-biotechnology
2009-present Board member, International Organic Accreditation Services (IOAS), Board president (2017-present)
2017-2020 Founding member and Policy Council representative, Organic Farmers Association
2018-present Board member, Real Organic Standards
2018-present Founding Board member, Alliance for Organic Integrity (AOI)
Selected Publications:
  • Sligh, M. Toward Organic Integrity: A Guide to the Development of U.S. Organic Standards, RAFI-USA, 1997
  • Kane, D., Lydon, B., Richards, K., Sligh, M. Greener Fields: Signposts for Successful Eco-labels, RAFI-USA, 2000
  • Sligh, M. "Organics at the Crossroads: The Past and the Future of the Organic Movement," in The Fatal Harvest Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture, The Foundation for Deep Ecology, 2002
  • Sligh, M. and C. Christman. Who Owns Organic: The Global Status, Prospects, and Challenges of a Changing Organic Market, Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, 2003
  • Sligh, Michael and Laura Lauffer, editors. Summit Proceedings: Seeds and Breeds for 21st Century Agriculture, Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, 2003
  • Henderson, E., R. Mandelbaum, O. Mendieta, M. Sligh. Toward Social Justice and Economic Equity in the Food System; A Call for Social Stewardship Standards in Sustainable and Organic Agriculture, October 2003
  • Sligh, M., Moeller, D.R. Farmer's Guide to GMOs, ed. Krub, K.R. Farmers' Legal Action Group Inc., Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, 2004
  • Hamilton, H., Sligh, M., The Changing Structure of Agriculture in the Southern United States, (LS95-85), Southern SARE, 2004
  • Sligh, M., Christman, C. Issues Paper: "Organic Agriculture and Access to Food." International Conference on Organic Agriculture and Food Security. UN/FAO, Rome, Italy, May 2007
  • Sligh, M., Cierpka, T., chapter 3, "Organic Values," in Organic Farming; An International History, Lockeretz, W., Editor, CABI, UK, 2007
  • Dumas, C.F., Schmitz, T.G., Giese, C.R., Sligh, M. Economic Implications of Plant-made Pharmaceutical Production in North Carolina, Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, 2008
  • Sligh M., Hoodes, L. et al. National Organic Action Plan: From the Margins to the Mainstream, Advancing Organic Agriculture in the U.S. Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, 2010
  • Sligh, Michael and William Tracy, editors. Summit Proceedings: Seeds and Breeds for the 21st Century Agriculture - Meeting the Challenges of Food Security, Rural Advancement Foundation International, (RAFI-USA), 2014
  • Sligh, Michael. A Call to Action: Addressing the "Bigger Picture" of GMO Contamination and Other Challenges in Organic Food, Feed and Fiber Supply Chain, Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, 2017
  • Sligh, M. The New Deal's Agricultural Adjustment Act and its Impacts on Sharecropping and Tenant Farming in the U.S. South, for Disparity to Parity Project, 2021