Remembering Gus Schumacher

With great sadness we share that FMC Board Member and tireless force for good, Gus Schumacher, passed away on September 24th. Gus was an incredible inspiration to so many, and played a huge role in the growth and success of farmers markets across the country. He will be enormously missed.

A celebration of Gus’ life will be held on Saturday, December 2, 2017 at 1:00pm at National Presbyterian Church, 4101 Nebraska Ave NW, Washington D.C. The event will include a memorial service with several highlighted speakers, followed by a reception. Click here for more information.

In lieu of flowers, the Schumacher family requests that donations be made to Community Kitchen at Cape Cod Village, Box 2129, Orleans, MA 02653 (www.capecodvillage.org). Click here to read his obituary in the Washington Post, and here to read posts honoring Gus from Wholesome Wave, and Food Corps.  Information on funeral services can be found here. A public memorial honoring Gus will take place in DC in the spring. 

by Alex Canepa, FMC Research & Education Director

Early in my tenure at the Farmers Market Coalition, Gus suggested that we meet for breakfast and go to the farmers market. Somewhat jetlagged from a flight the previous day, I naively suggested that we meet the following morning at 10 am and then head to a market. Gus had bigger plans… “Alex, I’m not sure that’s going to work. We have a lot of ground to cover. Let’s make it 7:30.”

In typical Gus fashion, “going to the market” meant going to six markets in two states to see farmers market nutrition programs in action. At each market, Gus was received—that’s the only word to describe it—half as a state dignitary and half as a member of the Beatles. That morning, as was the case throughout his adult life, everyone knew Gus. There was the Mexican flower vendor who loved Gus’ attempts at Knickerbocker Spanglish, a shtick Gus also enjoyed—Que es la palabra for hydrangea en espanol? The two were taking particular delight in the fact that someone kept stealing the potted plants Gus regularly bought from this vendor from the stoop of his Georgetown home. “Everyone loves your flowers! Some of my neighbors are willing to go to jail for them!”

As we drove from market to market—Gus drove much the way he worked, quickly and with a particular dislike for staying in one lane—he opened up about his life and why he was pursuing a retirement that could only be described as “active.”

August Schumacher, Jr. was born in 1939 to a family that had farmed in Manhattan up until the twentieth century. Gus grew up on a farm outside of Lexington, Massachusetts where his father grew parsnips and sold at local farmers markets. After high school, Gus attended Harvard College where, he joked, he majored in track and field. Shortly before graduation, Gus missed qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team by mere seconds. Olympics aside, his resume can only be described as glittering—London School of Economics, World Bank, Commissioner of Food and Agriculture for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, USDA undersecretary in the Clinton Administration, and Co-Founder of the Wholesome Wave Foundation. My sense, however, was that all of these accomplishments were not what Gus was most proud of. Pride, accolades, and achievement were not what made Gus tick. Gus loved people, and his life’s work—feeding Americans in need while simultaneously supporting America’s small and mid-sized farms—furnished a veritable army of friends, colleagues, strangers and co-conspirators.

While Gus’ love of people suffused his work joy, his tenacity stemmed from a sense of duty. Gus was raised in a place, at a time, and by a family who impressed on him that service was the imperative of privilege. He realized this imperative one August morning in 1980, in a story recently recounted by Wholesome Wave co-founder Michel Nischan.

As Gus was loading up his brother’s truck at the end of the farmers market in Dorchester, a box of Bosc pears fell off the truck and broke apart, scattering the fruit into the gutter. Two young boys and their mother ran over and began picking them up. She explained that she was divorced, on food stamps, and unable to afford fresh fruits and vegetables for her kids.

He became a man on a mission. How, in a land of plenty could the young, new mothers, and the elderly want for basic nourishment? When Gus became the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Commissioner for Food and Agriculture, he set about creating the nation’s first farmers market nutrition program. Today, this model has been replicated across the country and tens (if not hundreds) of millions of low-income Americans have benefited from these programs during the past three decades.

When Gus moved to Washington to serve in the Clinton administration, he began a chapter of his life in which he became one of the founding fathers of what is now just called “the food movement.” In Washington D.C., information and personal contacts are power—jealously guarded and parted with only at the right price. Gus didn’t play by those rules. His ideas were open-source and nonproprietary, and his Rolodex was open to anyone who would use it for good.

In some respects, however, Gus was the consummate politico. He took glee in circumventing bureaucracy, finding creative ways to retrofit old statutes or codes to accomplish something new. In his most famous coup at the USDA, he worked to create the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program under the existing authority of the Commodity Credit Corporation Charter Act of 1935. When USDA lawyers looked askance at his statutory creativity, he recalled “I just asked them to write me a memo so I wouldn’t get indicted.” Gus’ M.O. was to ask forgiveness, not permission—an indulgence that was very often granted. He can be credited not only with the creation of the farmers market nutrition programs, but also the ability of farmers markets to accept federal nutrition benefits through alternative currencies, the founding of the USDA Farmers Market, and SNAP incentives at markets across the country.

Gus was a mentor to two generations of agriculture and food systems reformers and his ideas form the cornerstone of many of the food movement’s most successful policies. In the days since his passing, countless friends and colleagues have wondered aloud how we are going to do it without him. For his part, Gus would have had no time for this self doubt. It was this quality—Gus’ ability to inspire, to make the crazy idea seem “not too heavy a lift” —that I will most remember.

Gus’ Recent Posts on FMC.org:

Farmers Market SNAP Incentive Program Exceeds $1.2 Million in Massachusetts

Crossroads Farmers Market: A Decade of Innovating Healthy Diets and Food Entrepreneurs

DC’s Greenline Real Estate LLC Backs Petworth Farmers Market

Market Incentive Programs – How Puerto Rico Gets it Right

Farmers Markets: Health, Access and Community

Gus was a tireless promoter of people and ideas. He was continually singing the praises of his colleagues and of programs that helped farmers connect with families in need. He recognized passion in others, and worked enthusiastically to generate a network of people to support them. He did this more effectively, consistently, and with more joy than anyone I’ve ever met. He will be greatly missed.

I’ll particularly miss seeing Gus’ name pop up on my phone. Unscheduled calls from Gus were gifts. The calls always began, “Oh, Jen…do you have just a quick minute?” and typically ended in him adding a congressional liaison, local farmer, CEO of a company he just learned about, or inspiring Uber driver on the line to discuss our potentially mutual interests. He was a generous and determined networker. It was a unique privilege to work with Gus, and honor to call him a friend.

– Jen Cheek, FMC Executive Director

When I joined American Farmland Trust in 1991, I met Gus Schumacher who would become a board member of that organization and who would be cheering at the opening day ceremony of the Dupont Circle FRESHFARM Market when it started in July 1997. Gus showed me a photograph of his great grandfather selling carrots to John D. Rockefeller on the streets of New York City. His passion for making fresh healthy food available and affordable to people of all income levels inspired my work with farmers and farmers markets. Gus will be dearly missed.

– Bernadine (Bernie) Prince, FMC Board President, Co-Founder of FRESHFARM Markets

Gus came to New Orleans for a conference and we decided while he was there to use his presence to meet with our Department of Ag folks about expanding FMNP and support for farmers selling through markets. Gus agreed to come to the meeting and as soon as we sat down, I realized I had a front-row seat to a master statesman skillfully presenting our ideas to the originally skeptical pols collected, weaving them into new or updated policies that would truly benefit farmers, while taking Louisiana’s  political climate into consideration. In true Gus fashion, it was chatty, colloquial and earnest and the meeting ended with a better connection between our little market world and the state contacts which continues to this day.

The other memory that springs to mind is a regular occurring one:  happening upon Gus in a hallway of some summit or conference and him quickly connecting you to one of the dozens of ideas he was currently working on, drawing you into a discussion and coming up with a plan for action before you headed back to the meeting. Irreplaceable Gus.

– Darlene Wolnik, FMC Senior Researcher

Knowing Gus was like looking into a window of “what could be” and feeling confident things would happen. He wanted everyone to connect and understand the power of collaboration.  Fortunately for those of us in the Farmers Market world, his passion was farmers and the many ways local foods would benefit a community.  He encouraged, he taught and he opened doors for the world of Farmers Markets to expand.  Yet for Gus, it always came back to the farmer. I still can hear him reading from his grandfather’s daily diary written about the mundane tasks and joys of keeping a New York farm going.  Gus understood the value of stories and the impact they had on our role in expanding opportunities for family farming. We will long hear his voice moving us forward to keep his legacy going.

– Copper Alvarez, FMC Vice President & Executive Director of BREADA