A Speech at the Rhode Island GrowSmart Conference

For the past ten years I have eaten well (by that I mean responsibly and consciously). I was eating, of course, from the geography of Rhode Island…a place that mainstream commodity agriculture finds an ‘eccentric farmer’.

A number of things were evident about Little Rhody. It could only feed itself for three days without food coming from ‘outside/in’. It had beautiful landscapes in the middle of the largest wealth centers in America – land prices were CRAZY high (In 2007 the highest per acre ag land price in the country). Even well financed land conservation entities were able to secure only small pieces of environmental protection. Farmers could not convey properties to their heirs without paying large tax bills – tax bills their descendents could not afford without selling their land. The State was also in a profound economic recession – leaving social service agencies stretched beyond their capabilities to provide both food and shelter.

All of these things – and a number of cultural changes – had left the State with a bad case of economic and food insecurity.

At the same time middle America (and Rhode Island’s middle income neighborhoods) had discovered the idea of better nutrition and the local food movement. Whole Foods Market had recently opened its third store in the State – and crowds were willing to pay significantly more for better quality food. A small and energetic group of young farmers were trying to make their way back to the farm. Others were using those locally grown goods to produce baked items, cheeses, cured meats, jams and jellies, honey…the list goes on.

In spite of its utility and ability to get media attention, the food movement was not economically seductive. Industrial agriculture was the money grinder…what does the local vegetable farm know about financial risk management and options trading? The State of Rhode Island (and Providence Plantations) was heavily investing in computer gaming, not farm growth. Local banks had little knowledge of agricultural business models and were hesitant to lend.

I think it helps to think beyond the borders of the farm. Better food (meaning locally grown, nutritious food that is a pleasure to eat) means better health and less dis-ease. Sustainable farming means less energy inputs and negative environmental outputs. Growing more food in a State that consumes more than $1B in food and beverage each year (of which less than 1% is locally provided) would mean more jobs.

With a little arithmetic, I determined to increase from 1% locally provided food to 10% locally provided food is economic growth of $90,000,000 per year – not to mention the reduced health care costs and increased productivity that good nutrition provides.

After a number of discussions we decided to devote a good portion of Company time to Rhode Island food system economic development.

The more I thought about that decision, the happier I was… it would be small in scale (I’ve grown to realize an individual can’t think globally…or at least to do so is a conceit), it would very much depend on working cooperatively (a good thing in my concept of getting Rhode Island out of its funk), and it would work as well for low income neighborhoods as the wealthy suburb (easy to manage issues of equity).

Now for the mechanics (…and the mystery…for growing plants and animals is mysterious).

Let me be boring for a couple of minutes because I think performance measures and accountability are important to Rhode Island in its current situation.

Our work needs to manage two streams – the farm/environment/food production stream and the finance/market stream. We need to be realistic about the capacity of current farm and agriculture folks to either expand their farms or train new, young individuals/families to farm well. We need opportunities to buy underutilized farmland and restorable urban parcels for specialty crop production (…and conservation minded investors to partner with our land fund). We need a farmer financial support system to operate an incentive and lending facility. We need the existing USDA NRCS conservation incentive program to rethink its practice payments for urban and small farmers…and we need an active promotion, marketing, and logistics system for local food producers (Farm Fresh RI is already working on those tasks).

We thought a feasible, energetic goal was to provide opportunities for twenty five farmers over ten years to; 1) expand their operations (or start new operations), 2) have adequate financial support and affordable leases for those twenty five, and 3) have staff assistance from us for business and farm management planning.

In order to accomplish that goal, we must create:

1) A revolving farmland fund organized with a ‘lease-to-own’ model holding minimally five properties (both rural farms and urban parcels) and capitalized at $2.5M.
2) A limited development venture integrating affordable residential development on an urban edge farm with multiple farm sites.
3) A micro-fund capitalized at $250,000 to make small incentive payments/loans to new, socially disadvantaged farms with payback periods of five to seven years.
4) Restructured USDA NRCS Program Payments to create more equity for new, limited resource, and urban growers.
5) Improved risk management tools for new, limited resource, and urban growers.
6) Brownfield redevelopment policy that integrates urban market growers needs without sacrificing safety and health considerations.
7) An urban growers’ alliance to advocate and promote urban market growing.

Is their any capacity to increase those numbers? Twenty-five new farm operations will add $1.25M of local production. Remember … to supply 10% of the State’s food required $90M of production each year… that is 72 times 25 farmers… or 1800 new or expanded farm operations!

In order to reach that 10% goal, we would need more than 10,000 acres of new farmland in Rhode Island. Rhode Island has over 60,000 acres of farmland currently, with about 10 percent in permanent protection.

In the bigger picture, can New England provide its own food? I bring this up because a well-respected cultural historian, Brian Donahue, has recently worked on that question and arrived at a qualified ‘YES’. We’d need to add 6,000,000 acres of farmland – most of it pasture – and import quite a bit of grain (even feeding livestock grass and having hogs and chickens free-range in woodlands and fields). Remarkably, it is a feasible task….and Brian Donahue did his study based upon a goal of growing above 80% of our food (we’ll still want coffee, citrus, chocolate, etc.) by 2060. Another New England agricultural thinker, John Piotti (Maine), believes New England has a lot to offer – adequate land, plentiful water resources, and accommodating weather (yes, in spite of us thinking ourselves in harsh ‘winterland’, northern New England is in the same latitude as the growing regions of France – and southern New England is parallel to the growing regions of Italy).

Interestingly, Donahue also assumed we would eat smarter. So our healthcare costs would change for the better and our productivity would increase. He also assumed any growth (he estimates New England will grow only modestly) will be smarter.

That is good for perspective… but let’s get back to May 11, 2012. What can we do today?…and by ‘we’ I mean everyone.

Wendell Berry in his essay “The Pleasures of Eating” answers that question simply. Eat Responsibly….eating is an agricultural act. Eating ends the annual drama of the food economy that begins with planting and birth. He suggests:

Participate in food production to the extent that you can.

Prepare your own food. (I would add to this, select your restaurants carefully)

Learn the origins of the food you buy, and buy the food that is produced closest to home.

Whenever you can, deal with a local farmer, gardener, or orchardist.

Learn, in self-defense, as much as you can of the economy and technology of industrial food production.

Learn what is involved in the best farming and gardening.

Learn as much as you can, by direct observation and experience if possible, of the life histories of the food species.

Wendell says he likes to eat vegetables and fruits that lived happy and healthy lives in good soil.

By eating responsibly we create the demand that lets us save farmland and grow more food. By eating responsibly we fix environmental problems. By eating responsibly we fix healthcare problems. By eating responsibly we can approach our economic dilemma with a happy and healthy body.