Organic farmer, educator and activist Tony Kleese passed away on March 17, 2018 of cancer. He passed peacefully at home, surrounded by loved ones, comforted by a live musical rendition of the Beatles’ song “Mother Nature’s Son,” and wearing a shirt hand-dyed by his loving community at The Source Farm on Jamaica. Tony is survived by his beloved wife, Christine Kelly-Kleese, his mother, Suzannah Kleese of Greensboro, sisters, Teressa Cagle and Alexandra Kleese, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews, and many close friends he considers to be chosen family.
Born on April 1, 1964, in Berlin, Germany, Tony was a self-proclaimed “army brat,” where he learned his lifelong sense of adventure. He settled in the North Carolina Piedmont, where he developed the relationships with people, livelihood, and the natural world that would enrich his life and those whose paths he crossed.
Tony’s spirit lives on through an enormous legacy of organic farmers and activists across the globe. He inspired and educated thousands of people to participate in a revolutionary food movement. Since 1989, Tony has worked to develop local and organic food systems in the southeastern US and the Caribbean. He helped develop the USDA’s National Organic Standards in the 1990s, including serving as the first Chair of the national Organic Certifiers’ Council. Locally, Tony was the first coordinator of the Sustainable Farming Program at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro, NC, served as an organizing member and Executive Director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, and is a founding member of Eastern Carolina Organics. Tony served on the Board of Directors of countless local and national organizations including the Organic Seed Alliance and the Center for Food Safety. Tony helped to organize an organic food and farm movement on the island of Dominica, and then more recently worked with Chuck Marsh on a US-AID-funded project at The Source Farm Ecovillage on Jamaica, supporting the development of an organic farmers network, an organic farmers’ market in Kingston, and a permaculture education series. In every role and every day, Tony worked to protect the integrity of the organic label and the ability of farmers and consumers to trust a third-party verified system that had clear standards and transparency. His final work in recent months was to launch The People’s Seed, fostering an alternative to the corporate model of seed ownership committed to building a fair and open seed industry for a sustainable food system.
Tony could speak to a crowd of all political persuasions and amaze you with how diplomatically and directly he addressed our broken food system. Whether he was talking to one person or 100, Tony inspired and stirred his audience to think deeply about taking the plunge and finding their own role in creating a good and just food system. Tony found a balance between being a relentless, radical revolutionary and a humble, kind, accessible and loving person. His family, friends and colleagues know that he maintained a strong conscience without having an abrasive edge. Tony cultivated a broad network of strong friendships in and outside the farming community, and his friends sustained his joy as well as his ability to keep fighting for positive change. He had a gift for bringing together community, whether cooking at the Southeast Permaculture Summer Gathering, hiking the Appalachian Trail, snorkeling in the Caribbean, or drumming in Senegal. His warm presence, fun spirit and big loving hugs will be missed by many around this planet he loved so much.
Although his passion for his work was enormous, Tony’s love for his wife Christine was his greatest joy. Together they took adventurous journeys around the globe, loved hiking, camping and canoeing with friends, and created a beautiful wooded oasis at their home outside Carrboro. His illness only strengthened their deep bond, as they were inseparable partners in sharing treatment, care, and vision for the future. He spent his final days with Christine basking in the afternoon sun of their living room, appreciating the “coffee table” deck that his loving and rowdy friends built in a huge final work weekend, and listening to reggae and Steely Dan.
As the ever-enduring leader and organizer, Tony guided his loved ones through his courageous battle with cancer in the past year, and then his peaceful acceptance of his path in recent weeks, once he knew it was time to go. Tony urged us to stay hopeful and keep pouring our love for him and others into working to make the world a better place. When his treatment kept him from speaking, he passionately wrote that we need to “give a hug to people we love every day and strive to be a solutionary.” When you see a local organic product, visit your local farmers’ market, go on a farm tour, or organize with other farmers or consumers to strengthen connections and resilience, know that Tony is smiling down on you with his pure love.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations can be made to The People’s Seed (www.thepeoplesseed.org), where your funds will back Tony’s vision to support farmers and plant breeders to develop varieties that focus on farmer success, environmental protection and food security in the age of climate change.
Written with love and gratitude by Gerry Cohn, Sandi Kronick and Larry Newlin