Obituaries

Gus Schumacher, 77, local and global farm-to-table advocate

Mr. Schumacher cofounded Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit that helps underserved consumers and communities gain access to affordable fresh food.
Mr. Schumacher cofounded Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit that helps underserved consumers and communities gain access to affordable fresh food.

In an oft-told story about the local farm-to-table movement, Gus Schumacher went to Hamersley’s Bistro one August evening in the late-1980s while he was Massachusetts agriculture commissioner. Taking a rich, vine-ripened tomato from a bag he carried, Mr. Schumacher asked for a knife, a plate, and some olive oil, and proceeded to make a salad.

Gordon Hamersley, the bistro’s chef and owner, was buying produce from California at the time, and asked Mr. Schumacher where the tomato had been grown. “Twenty minutes from your door,” Mr. Schumacher said with a grin. It was an inspirational encounter for Hamersley, and one of scores of teachable moments that Mr. Schumacher used to spread the word in Greater Boston, nationally, and around the world about the advantages of fresh, local farm products.

“Gus was instrumental in bringing two seemingly obvious groups together who never talked to each other: chefs and farmers,” Hamersley told the Globe in 2013. “He’s basically the architect of chefs featuring locally grown produce.”

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Mr. Schumacher, who also had formerly served as a US Department of Agriculture undersecretary and as a development officer for the World Bank, died of an apparent heart attack Sept. 24 in his Washington, D.C., home. He was 77 and divided his time between Washington and Orleans.

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When he was the state’s agriculture commissioner, no restaurant meal was off the clock. Mr. Schumacher might examine the fresh berries on his plate to gauge if they were grown on Massachusetts farms, and he would send a message to the manager if that wasn’t the case.

He was an evangelist for getting locally grown apples, cranberries, dairy products, and vegetables onto the tables of the state’s restaurants, and on his watch the state Agriculture Department launched “The Fresh Connection,” a newsletter and free service that listed the sources and seasonal availability of foods. He also advocated for creating more farmers’ markets across the state. Under his guidance, an Agriculture Department program distributed free coupons to the elderly and low-income families that could be used to purchase fruits and produce at farmers’ markets.

On weekends, meanwhile, Mr. Schumacher might hop in his car and drive more than 450 miles from Allston to Northampton, Great Barrington, and back to Greater Boston while visiting fairs, farms, and farmers’ markets to promote local agriculture.

“There was an amazing person behind all of those activities,” said his wife, Susan Holaday Schumacher. “He lived for what he did. He was a farm boy. He woke up before the sun, if the sun didn’t come up early enough, because he had so many ideas every day.”

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In 2008, Mr. Schumacher cofounded and was the founding board chairman of Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit that helps underserved consumers and communities gain access to affordable fresh food. On its website, Wholesome Wave called him “one of the most magnificent advocates” the good food movement has ever known, and added: “Gus leaves an immeasurable legacy: His vision and work improved the lives of untold numbers of farmers and farms of all sizes, and eaters of all incomes. The world is a far better place because of him.”

August Schumacher Jr. grew up on his family’s farm in Lexington. His mother was the former Mary McGrail. His father, August Sr., was a third-generation farmer.

Mr. Schumacher’s great-grandfather farmed at the corner of 72nd Street and Broadway in New York City. His grandfather farmed in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., and the family farm moved east onto Long Island as Queens became too crowded for agriculture. At the urging of Mr. Schumacher’s mother, his father moved the operation to Lexington, where he became one of the largest parsnip growers in Massachusetts.

The oldest of four children, Mr. Schumacher graduated from Lexington High School and received a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College in 1961. Among his siblings, Mr. Schumacher was “very much the standard bearer, marching into life,” his wife said. “He would help them help harvest, lacquer, and sell gourds, which he sold to help put himself through college.”

After Harvard, he attended the London School of Economics, worked as a livestock economist, then took a job in the mid-1960s with the World Bank, where he spent the next two decades concentrating on technical appraisals for agricultural-related loans in countries including China, Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.

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Mr. Schumacher developed livestock operations in western Brazil, lent assistance to herders in Kenya, and risked his life on projects in the Kosovo Province of what was then Yugoslavia. Separatist groups “occasionally made life interesting in Kosovo – with the odd bomb keeping one alert in the local capital of Pristina,” he wrote in 1985 for an anniversary report of his Harvard class.

He married Barbara Kerstetter in 1968. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1981.

A few years later, he became Massachusetts agriculture commissioner in the administration of Governor Michael S. Dukakis. Bringing a global perspective to his focus on local farms, Mr. Schumacher roamed the barn and boardroom with equal ease. Over the years, he wrote books and journal articles, and taught agribusiness as a visiting scholar at Harvard Business School. His geographic range was such that he served as a faculty associate at the Arnold Arboretum and as an honorary fellow of the former Chinese Society for Optimization and Planning.

After more than five years as agriculture commissioner, he returned to the World Bank to help restructure the farm sector in Central Europe after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Then he served in the late-1990s as undersecretary in the US Department of Agriculture during the Clinton administration, as administrator of the farm and foreign agricultural service.

In 2013, the James Beard Foundation presented Mr. Schumacher with a leadership award for his “lifelong efforts to improve access to fresh local food in underserved communities.”

Mr. Schumacher married Susan Holaday in 1992, a few years after they met when she was working at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and he was a new trustee. “In our 30 years together he never had a grumpy moment, he never had a moment of impatience,” she said. “He was never not ‘up’ and working on his passions, which were taking care of the world.”

A service has been held in Orleans for Mr. Schumacher, who in addition to his wife leaves his stepdaughter, Valerie Karasz of Brooklyn, N.Y.; two sisters, Ellen Schadegg of Hancock, N.H., and Mary Megson of Arlington; and two grandchildren. A service in Washington will be announced.

For fun, Mr. Schumacher restored cider mills, including a couple he had found in Vermont and New Hampshire – one of them a 1922 steam-driven cider press. During his world travels he also collected religious icons, and his fascination with railroads ranged from toy trains to the historic train routes he rode through foreign countries.

He also might have been the only Harvard graduate to use the anniversary reports of his class to round up a few cattle ranchers. A decade after graduating, he wrote that he was spending “about five months per year appraising beef cattle ranches in South America and Eastern Africa for the World Bank. Would like to visit any classmates with cattle ranches in the United States.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.