The organic farming community in the Carolinas would not be where it is today without the work of Tony Kleese.

His career of accomplishment was especially important to CFSA. Recognized in 1995 as one of our first Activists of the Year, he led our organic certification program, and served on our Board of Directors and then as Executive Director. Tony has been a sought-after instructor at events like the Sustainable Agriculture Conference.

In recognition of Tony’s service to this community, CFSA’s Board of Directors awarded Tony a Lifetime Achievement Award at its winter meeting on Feb. 25, 2018. Tony courageously battled cancer and passed on Mar. 17, 2018.

In honor of the tremendous legacy he has created, we wanted to share a few thoughts about Tony. If you would like to join, please email us your comments and we’ll post your thoughts below.

From Roland McReynolds, CFSA Executive Director:

Tony has been an unwavering champion for local, organic food and farming and leader of our movement for 30 years.

CFSA would not be here today, and our movement in the Carolinas would not have achieved all it has, without him.

He has personally taught and inspired thousands of farmers and gardeners about organic practices through his career, and he has helped build enduring networks, including the Sustainable Agriculture program at Central Carolina Community College and the Organic Growers School, that have successfully amplified organic farming knowledge to tens of thousands more. He has been a relentless activist for just food systems that serve the best interests of people and communities instead of corporations and shareholders. And he has played a direct role in building the infrastructure that today makes more local, organic food available in the Carolinas and around the world, from his work with the Organic Trade Association and the Organic Seed Alliance, to the launch of Eastern Carolina Organics, to his work with farmers in Dominica and Jamaica, and more. The staff at CFSA are honored to be standing on his giant shoulders.

From Cheryl Ripperton Rettie, CFSA Finance and Administration Director:

I first met Tony when I answered an ad for a part-time bookkeeping job while I was finishing up college. I was pretty nervous going into the interview, but as soon as I saw Tony, I knew I was in the right place: A big-smiling friendly guy, wearing a checkered flannel shirt, worn denim jeans, and big ol’ pair of yellow work boots with the mud still caked on ‘em. “These are my people!” I thought, and it was so true. I grew up and still live on the family farm, and after talking to Tony I knew that I would be using my accounting degree to support a vision of agriculture that I believe in.

And working at CFSA, I noticed how Tony surrounds himself with other passionate people who care deeply about what they are doing, and about each other. I wasn’t hired to go out and work directly with farmers or advocate for organic agriculture, I was just “office help,” but Tony let me know that my contribution, small as it was then, was an important part of the overall mission of the organization and that I was a valuable part of the team.

Tony is serious and passionate when talking about what he believes in, but also full of welcoming cheerfulness, booming laughter, and generous hugs.

I have been with CFSA for twelve years because Tony showed me that the work a person does can be more fulfilling than just a “job.” He is an inspiring leader, a strong advocate, and a good friend.

In recent years Tony has continued to impact the food system with his work. He led a technical support program in partnership with the Source Farm Project in Jamaica to help the island nation develop a local and organic food system, and last year founded a non-profit called The People’s Seed

We can all be grateful for the dedication he has provided to fuel the movement for a food system that is good for farmers and farmworkers, good for our planet, and good for our communities.


Your Comments:

From Frank J. Louws, Director NC State-NSF Center for IPM, Professor of Plant Pathology:

Congratulations Tony:

Through these years I have enjoyed your energy and leadership in the sustainable ag communities. You have been in so many roles and it is always enjoyable to see you lead well, provoke people to think outside the box and link food systems to healthy living. Congratulations on this award, and may people in NC and many others continue to be blessed by who you are and what you do.


From Alice Rolls, President & CEO, Georgia Organics:

Tony was one of the first people I met with when I accepted my job as Director at Georgia Organics. He was gracious, supportive, knowledgeable, and a strong advocate for our farmers. He recommended I get a copy of David Mas Matsumoto’s Epitaph for a Peach, which outlined the beauty and trials of family farming. I followed his advice and have always appreciated Tony’s early guidance in my deeper education and understanding of the life of a farmer.


From Rony & Nancy Bryant:

Tony came to our farm, 3 Eagles Sanctuary, some six years ago to help us create a vision of sustainable farming. It was Tony who told us to “listen” to the land, and after a year of “listening”, we finally learned what that meant. As a result, not only are we leasing part of our farm to Holt Ackers-Campbell for his Lazy Heron Farm but are the first in our county to install the hardwoods bottomlands CRP. Blessings to Tony!


From Organic Seed Alliance:

We’re so happy to see our friend and former board member, Tony Kleese, receiving this well-deserved honor from the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. For decades, Tony has helped to foster a Southeast organic seed movement, leading regional strategies, discussion, fundraising, and on-the-ground research and education. The organic seed community is one of the biggest benefactors of his vision and heart. We are forever grateful for his passion, partnership, and pursuits.


From Lynne Loots, Piernas d’ Loots Vineyards:

Committed to an organization with obvious purpose (the good health of humans) and dauntless energy to achieve the goal from multiple directions, Tony has been a beacon for many of us farming and gardening. Thank you, Tony, for your endless effort and inspiration. I grow grapes organically in my vineyard. My most valuable resource has always been CFSA conferences, seminars, and publications.


From Lea Clayton:

Thank you, Tony, for all of your insight passion and dedication for all these years. I feel so blessed to be surrounded by such an amazing farming community. Year round I am able to provide luscious and nutritious meals for my family – mostly from what I am able to buy locally. We are so blessed here in Central NC, and it is in no small part to your vision and work. As I watch my 6-year-old daughter grow up strong and nourished by produce from our local farms, I am deeply grateful for your legacy. And we all dedicate ourselves to continue your good work. Thank you thank you thank Tony. You’ve given us all so much.


From Lyle Estill:

Tony was an inspiration to me. When biofuels sparked controversy in the sustainable agriculture community, many activists were happy to jump on the bandwagon. Not Tony. He wanted to learn more about it. He understood nuance.

When I was writing a book that addressed “food vs fuel”, I went to Tony for a thorough explanation of our sustainable food system. I quoted him then, and I still quote him.

When we launched Slow Money NC, Tony wanted to learn all about it. Once he had a full understanding, he invited us to join him in the Caribbean to discuss alternative finance methods.

When Tony considered embarking on his own book project, he sat me down to learn everything I knew about the book trade.

I found him tireless. It seemed like Tony would always show up. I learned he was in hospice from the CFSA newsletter, and it left me shocked and deeply saddened. I turned away from my screen and stared into space. Immediately my mind filled with images of Tony lunching at the Pittsboro General Store, carousing at the CFSA conference, stopping by the Plant to consult with Eastern Carolina Organics.

It seemed like Tony was forever carrying a boulder up the hill–even when it appeared certain that it would roll back down again. It didn’t stop him. The fact that he continued to work, and continued to apply his force against foes that were inconceivably larger than him inspired my generation of activists.

If Tony Kleese’s name was associated with a project or idea, it automatically had credibility. Whether it was the Sustainable Agriculture Program at Central Carolina Community College or converting the entire island of Dominica to organic agriculture, his seal of approval connoted genuine possibility. He was serious. And dedicated.

If you are able to read this, Tony, thank you. While I am confident you know of the deep and abiding respect I have for you and your work, it is unlikely that I told you in person. When we can no longer benefit from your formidable physical presence, you will live on in our hearts, our memories, and in our continued actions. We will pick up that boulder, Tony, and we will hope to carry it with the determination, dignity and respect that you taught us.

Go in peace, Tony. Know that our worlds were inexorably changed by your endeavors….


From Jim Riddle, Blue Fruit Farm, Organic Independents LLP:

I’m so pleased to see that the CFSA Board recently honored Tony Kleese with a Lifetime Achievement Award. I can think of no one more deserving of such recognition than Tony!

Tony is one of my personal heroes and a dear friend. We first met at the national level, in the 1990’s during the great organic uprising, after the USDA issued their first proposed organic rule, which would have allowed genetic engineering, sewage sludge, irradiation, antibiotics, feeding slaughter by-products, and all sorts of inputs and practices that had been historically prohibited for organic. Over 275,000 people rose up and said, “No Way!”

Tony helped organize voices from the South and carried those voices to Washington DC, where he volunteered to chair a new group, the Organic Certifiers Council, which was part of the Organic Trade Association. Organic certifiers had a deep history of mistrust and competition, but Tony brought his “can-do” spirit to the table, and continually tried to keep people focused on common goals and achievable outcomes. That’s Tony’s way – recognize and honor differences, then work together to find common ground. We’re all in this together, and we may as well enjoy the ride, and each other, along the way.

During the 1990’s, I was founding chair of the International Organic Inspectors Association, and we started holding organic inspector training around the country, and then around the world. CFSA was an organic certification agency, so Tony invited IOIA to hold inspector trainings courses in the region. Tony and I hit it off, and we formed a relationship that has included numerous joint projects, adventures, a few misadventures, and tremendous joy.

For some strange reason, Tony kept bringing me back to the Carolinas. I spoke at 12 consecutive Sustainable Ag Conferences! Tony invited me to conduct pre-conference workshops to help farmers get ready for organic certification. I did a number of conference workshops, and even a keynote. Tony always made me feel welcome, with his open arms and passion for organic farming and farmers.

But I learned one thing – don’t share a room with Tony! He was much too popular!

One thing I valued from my attendance at CFSA events was an opportunity to visit the very different regions of North and South Carolina, as the conference changed location from year to year, from Black Mountain to Asheville, Anderson to Rock Hill, Greenville to Durham. Yet, no matter where we were, people were there for Tony, and he was there for them. Even though his job as Executive Director, he operated as a mentor, friend, problem-solver, confidant and counselor. He listened intently and was focused on solutions, instead of dwelling on problems and divisions.

More recently, Tony and Chuck Marsh (another hero) invited Joyce (my wife and cohort) and I to be involved in volunteer organic development projects in Dominica and Jamaica. Tony brought the same infectious energy and determined focus to those projects that he brought to CFSA for so many years. The challenges are different, with little organic infrastructure on the islands, either in the governments or in the private sector. Tangible outcomes thus far include the establishment of a successful organic farmer training program, One One Coco, and a natural farmers market in Kingston, which provides an outlet for small farmers and helps provide fresh, healthy food to Jamaicans.

Tony saw the potential – that’s his way. Help create a vision; find reliable partners; pursue the positive; enjoy each other and the work you’re doing; empower and trust; stay focused, and have fun!


From Nicole Connelly, Durham Farm & Food Network Chair, Toad Hill Farm Co-owner:

Thank you for the opportunity to share my gratitude for Tony in my sustainable agriculture journey.

I first met Tony at a workshop at the 2015 CFSA Conference where he was leading a new farmer all day intensive. I still reference the sheaf of notes I took that day! And I still access the excitement and sense of wonder and possibility he instilled as he helped lay out how we could start farming. He gave us tangible, realistic information and encouragement. We had a chance to get a refresher with him in the course of the PLANT training last year, and picked up a whole additional layer of information.

These experiences and the huge body of work and set of influencing he’s done in our community has helped to lay the groundwork for me to get involved in a set of community food policy organizing and initiatives and my husband and I to launch into a small farming adventure of our own. On the shoulders of giants like Tony we get to be part of some of the most meaningful workaround!


From Ron Juftes, Seven Springs Farm:

I have known Tony for a long time and have always appreciated his enthusiasm for sustainable agriculture. Tony is a mover/shaker in this industry and we at Seven Springs Farm appreciate all the support he has shown us over the years. I enjoyed helping out with the Jamaica trip he asked me to be involved with. It saddens me that he is now in hospice care. All our love and prayers for him. Deep appreciation.


From Michelle Nowlin, Clinical Professor of Law & Supervising Attorney at Duke Environmental Law & Policy Clinic

I got to know Tony through my work on the brief-lived Small Family Farm Preservation Commission that the NC General Assembly convened in 1999. I had no real background in these matters and was appointed only because I had spent the preceding 5 years advocating for environmental regulations on CAFOs. I wasn’t popular with the Farm Bureau or the Grange, but someone thought a voice from the environmental community might be needed (or thought I needed a good lesson. I’ll leave that speculation alone here…). I quickly learned that I had a hard row to hoe on that Commission: at the first meeting, one of the Commission chairs chided me as a “city girl” and questioned whether I’d ever even milked a cow. (He was quiet after I assured him I had. I was smart enough not to admit that it was at the state fair!). Several members thought the very nature of the Commission was an obstacle to progress and out-of-touch with the global economics of modern agriculture.

Tony was one of the first experts to present to the Commission. He spoke passionately about the resilience of a diversified agricultural economy, one populated by smaller-scale farmers invested in their communities. He provided detailed information about market opportunities for organic producers in communities far from the state’s urbanizing core, and the dangers presented by a contracting supply chain. He presented logical, economical and practical ideas that would help relieve the pressures facing the state’s small farms. He spoke about the need for equity in the administration of programs administered by the federal and state agriculture agencies. His testimony changed the attitudes of the Commission’s chairs. And he treated my questions, naïve though they were, with respect and thoughtful replies.

I quickly followed up with Tony, and his openness and willingness to share his knowledge changed the way I approached my work. Through his introductions – to people and to information – I came to understand that “cheap food” is an illusion that hides deep and painful inequities, in addition to causing harm to the environment. He helped me understand that it wasn’t enough to fight what was wrong, but that it was also essential to build and create what was right. Promoting a positive vision of agriculture that cultivates a healthy environment, a healthy economy, and a healthy public – and advocating for policies that support that vision – has proven to be a more satisfying approach, and one that has led to deep friendships and an abundance of excellent meals along the way.

Over the years, I invited Tony to speak to various groups of students, and he always inspired them with his vision and experiences and gave generously of his time and connections. But my interactions with him have been sporadic and brief, and I’ve never thanked him for the immensely positive influence he’s been in my own life. I hope he’s reading this now. As I look around at the growing numbers of farmers’ markets, the transformation of grocery store aisles and restaurant menus, the surge of local government interest in local foodsheds, the success of ECO and Firsthand Foods, funding that’s coming in to help rebuild regional supply chains, and so much more, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for all that you have done and inspired. Go in peace, on a tidal wave of love.


From Hart Pillow:

Tony taught me several classes in Sustainable agriculture at CCCC.
He laughed and told me one time he couldn’t make up his mind whether to be an activist, an educator, a director, or a grower.

I guess he did it all! My best wishes to Tony and his family.


From Karen Hurtubise & John Clarke, Qualla Berry Farm:

We add our deep appreciation and love for Tony and his lifetime of excellent work and are grateful you gave him this honor.

To Tony: you are an agricultural hero in our eyes and we are thinking of you as we work on our turmeric and ginger farm. You are an inspiration. All the more reason to keep up the work and plow forward in land stewardship and organic agriculture.


From Shirley Collins:

Tony, so sorry to hear of your illness. I have many fond memories of your tireless work with CFSA. Thanks for it all, we really appreciate it!


From Matt Collogan, Antion Acre:

Huzzah for you Tony! Congratulations on your award; it is well deserved. Thank you for planting seeds that continue to improve food and farming across the Southeast. You’ve helped farmers at every scale realize their dream to grow healthy food well, all while empowering growers to plan successful businesses. No work is more essential than teaching future growers how to responsibly feed our friends and families. Since taking your classes “Organic Certification I & II” and “Sustainable Agriculture Enterprise” in 2011, at James Sprunt Community College and Cape Fear Community College, my life grows richer every day as I pursue my own small farm dream. Your positive influence is everywhere on my farm, and without your mentorship, I wouldn’t have been equipped or grounded enough to actually consider making farming my ultimate profession. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for making the dream a possibility and now a reality. Of all my teachers, you have prepared me best for the future.


From Robin Kohanowich, Coordinator at Sustainable Agriculture, CCCC:

As I scroll down the list of tributes to you Tony, I see that much of what I have to say has been said many times, and often more eloquently, than I might be able to. Words like champion, hero and tireless are all accurate descriptions of the Tony Kleese who continues to inspire so many in the realm of sustainable, organic living.

Smiling, optimistic, energetic and dedicated all come through on a regular basis as well. Though Tony left CCCC for CFSA in 2000, he never stopped serving on the Sustainable Agriculture Program advisory board. In my role as program coordinator of CCCC Sustainable Agriculture, I have leaned on Tony for support, wisdom, and encouragement, and I have never been let down.

I am so grateful for your dedication and willingness to work hard for what you believe in. You leave a legacy that will continue to grow and bear fruit. Thank you, Tony!


From Richard McDonald, DrMcBug:

Tony is my spiritual brother. We met in July of 1990, and the second or third sentence he said was, “You need to join the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association.” So I did.

Back in the old days, organic was not accepted by the powers that be…and there was actual hostility in certain corners, that has since been washed away by the reality of organics. Conversely, the receptive organic people in governmental positions were looked upon as hostile by the organic folks in the CFSA; I was one of them. There was a huge gap between us. Everyone was in foxholes lobbing philosophical and legal bombs at each other with no give.

Along comes Tony whose influence, along with a good board, begins to bridge the gap between the two sides. Over a period of about 10 years, the two sides became more like one…that was just agriculture heading in a sustainable direction. We changed the name of the annual conference to include the word ‘sustainable’ and added some much-needed awards for the winter soldiers of CFSA that had toiled for decades with no recognition. This included an award called ‘The Cup’… : ). This happened because Tony could motivate and direct large groups of very diverse people into action. And the angels were watching over us.

Look into (and support) Tony’s most recent projects: the Source Farm in Jamaica, the People’s Seed, and of course CFSA – however you can!!! And buy local food in your area from people with dirt under their fingernails and a smile on their face. Tony helped make people aware of real food and fellowship.

I challenge everyone reading this to do what Tony does:

  1. Get out of your comfort zone
  2. Reject the status quo (we can do better!)
  3. Break rules when necessary
  4. Ask the right questions
  5. Don’t take no for an answer. WWTD?

It’s not just food you are buying, but pieces of people’s lives. As Tony would say: choose wisely the kind of world you are supporting. Making these kinds of changes in something as basic as agriculture is a herculean task and Tony was up to it. I carry on his work through me. When I think of the CFSA, I think of Tony.

It’s a more wonderful life because Tony was here.


From Jackie Hough:

Tony was the Executive Director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association when we purchased our farm in 2005. We looked to him for leadership and solid recommendations on ways to use our land and to reach out to others who wanted to farm. We found his advice and encouragement invaluable.


From Jerome Glassman:

I had the privilege to know Tony at the start of CFSA. Over the many years since, we passed in spaces. Tony has never wavered his commitment to the development of farming/human. Always championing the balance of both creations. It is an honor to have Tony with us.


From Jacob Rutz, The People’s Seed:

I haven’t known Tony all that long, but in the short time we have been working together I have been deeply inspired by his unwavering dedication to sustainable agriculture.

I first approached Tony after I was having some trouble getting a job out of graduate school because his career was one that I wanted to emulate. I could think of no better idea than to simply email him and see if he would sit down with me to talk.

Without hesitation, Tony met with me and openly discussed his challenges and successes (albeit with extreme humility), and invited me to participate in his new non-profit, The People’s Seed. Tony helped me understand the importance of challenging the present status quo of the seed industry, working towards a more democratic, Southeast leaning system. I am deeply grateful for his guidance as a staff member of The People’s Seed and am honored to continue to work with him.


From Marjorie Rayburn:

I worked with Tony when he was Executive Director of CFSA and I served on the board. We enjoyed interacting at the various conferences and in “unofficial” ways as well. I remember walking around the streets of Mobile, Alabama during a Southern SAWG conference in January, looking for a restaurant that was open. We finally found a place (Thai or Asian, I think) and wondered what the other “street people” thought of this strange group wandering through the almost deserted streets of this city after dark.

Tony was always dedicated to advancing the organic movement and served as a role model for farmers and others pursuing a sustainable agriculture. We will miss him.


From Eric Henry, TS Designs:

I found this out yesterday to remind me how long and deep my connections to Tony were. I am so fortunate to have connected with such a beautiful person that has made a tremendous impact on my life along with many others.


From Steve Moore, Professor of AgroEcology, Elon University:

Tony and I interacted for over a decade in various ways. Even though we were business partners in several ventures (and adventures) he was more like a brother. He was a true friend in all respects.

All of us connected with any and all aspects of sustainable food pathways owe him a huge thanks.


From Abby Gage:

I met Tony before I even found my farm. He, Barbara and Martin Webster, and I got the first Mountain Farm Tour started (I think) in 1997. I was tasked to get all the volunteers to sign-up at each of the farms on the tour. Tony gave me a CFSA phone list of members, and I went back to Greenville, SC to sign people up. He trusted me, and I wanted to come through for him. Each person I got a yes out of, I wrote a postcard to with the date and farm as a sort of agreement reminder. Every volunteer showed-up.

Tony and I also got some help from Roberta Greenspan of Magic Gardens (Mountain Area Growers in Community). I remember Tony and I sitting on her wall in Montford while we counted out the cash after the tour. It was such a pleasure to work with Tony; his confidence and strength of purpose were so clear and inspiring to me as a newcomer to the area and farming. I am grateful that our paths crossed and am a better person to have walked with him for awhile.

Thanks, Tony for the inspiration and the long-term commitment to sustainable agriculture.


From Samantha Van Ollefen:

I wanted to share a very positive (and frankly, extremely impactful) memory I have of Tony.

I was a nutrition graduate student at Meredith College in a Food System class with Dr. Bill Landis. He brought Tony in as a guest speaker to address the class on the importance of the organic food movement.

After his presentation, one of my cohorts asked him a very poignant question: “With the food environment shifting towards a more sustainable food movement, which is more important, sustainable/local food or organic food?”

Tony paused and thought for a second before saying something that I’ve carried with me since the day he said it. He said, “In my opinion, organic should be the standard. At the bare minimum, every farmer should shift from conventional farming practices to organic farming practices. Once every farmer has met organic standards, further improvements can be made towards things like increased local availability, sustainable farming, and permaculture.”

And, of course, he was right.