Almost 20 years ago, Barry Flamm moved to Montana. He bought a cherry orchard on Flathead Lake's Finley Point. Then he converted it to organic, making it the first certified organic cherry orchard in Montana.
Nearby cherry growers had come to rely on pesticides to battle the western cherry fruit fly. They assumed Flamm would surrender to pesticides as quickly as the fruit flies.
"'Organic' at that point in time was almost a cuss word," Flamm says. "You couldn't get people to think about organic or reducing pesticides as long as the fruit fly was a menace."
Yet for the 12 years Flamm ran the orchard, he kept it pesticide-free. He never made much of a profit, but he did something more important: He helped demonstrate the viability of organic agriculture.
The federal Organic Foods Production Act had just passed, in 1990, and the organic movement was building momentum. The Alternative Energy Resources Organization, based in Helena, gave Flamm a grant to explore alternatives to pesticides. He co-founded and served as vice chair of the Montana Organic Association. And he saw the gradual acceptance of organic practices, reflected in the fact that he ultimately joined, and later became president of, the Flathead Lake Cherry Growers.
Flamm's impulse to come to the shores of Flathead Lake and experiment with organic agriculture was born years before and thousands of miles away, in Vietnam. He was chief of the U.S. Agency for International Development's forestry program in Vietnam, where he studied the effects of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, defoliants—"that's a polite word for them"—that combined to make Agent Orange.
"I discovered the damage that was being caused to the forest, and that concerned me," he says.
When he returned to the states after his three-year stint in Vietnam, he published a paper on the ecological effects of Agent Orange that gave government officials heartburn, he says. Flamm, a forester, would go on to be the Forest Service's first environmental coordinator, charged with implementing the National Environmental Policy Act, which was signed by President Richard Nixon on Jan. 1, 1970. Flamm dedicated himself to stamping out the then-widespread use of Agent Orange within the Forest Service. He says that in the 1950s, agency staffers used to head into the woods to kill weeds with the herbicide sloshing around in containers on their backs. When they came home, their wives would complain about houseplants dying. "We were totally ignorant of any health hazards, even though we knew it was killing plants. I guess you ought to think of that, but we didn't think that far ahead."
Flamm's mission in Vietnam and his foray into organic agriculture in Montana are just two chapters of a remarkable life as a public servant and environmental pioneer. Flamm, who now lives in Polson, was also a member of the President's Council on Environmental Quality under presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter, developed biodiversity management plans in Mongolia and China, and served as the Wilderness Society's chief forester.
Today, at 78, he's finally resigned from the many positions he's held and the boards he's sat on—except one. He still serves on the National Organic Standards Board, a 15-member federal advisory committee that has sole authority over the substances allowed in organic agriculture.
Tall and thin with a full head of silver hair, Flamm almost looks his age. He talks in a slow, low and nasally voice, and sometimes can't find the word he's looking for.
He doesn't act his age. At his lake-view home within a golf community, which he admits doesn't quite suit him, Flamm, wearing a hooded sweatshirt, khaki cargo pants and a Montana Organic Association cap, shows off a few pairs of skis and a kayak in his garage. He regularly skis Blacktail Mountain, in Lakeside, and launches his kayak from his neighborhood's private beach in Mission Bay. He tells of his upcoming three-week trip to Peru; he leaves in two days. He's going alone. He'll visit Machu Picchu and float the headwaters of the Amazon River.
He walks around his house, telling the stories behind the photos, awards and maps that hang from the walls. "To place me here now you almost have to understand where I came from," he says, "because the reasons were even a mystery to myself."
Flamm was born in Ohio in 1933.
"I had a concern for conservation from my earliest moments [that] I can think of," he says. "Where that came from, I'm not quite sure. Some of my relatives would joke that I was an Indian left on the doorstep."
He was raised in Cincinnati. He always loved the outdoors, he says, "but I didn't live in a very friendly outdoor environment. I was always concerned with conservation and wildlife, but my concerns were fairly simple...I could see air pollution, I could see water pollution and that sort of thing. I could see when fish were dead. But I didn't understand the complexities of it."