Ecological Stewardship

The Next 25 Social Enterprise Stars: Ecological Stewardship

May 18, 2015

RSF_SocentStarsLOGO-300dpi (2)As part of our campaign to add 25 social enterprise stars to our loan portfolio over the next year, we’re looking for new borrowers in all three of our focus areas: Food & Agriculture, Education & the Arts, and Ecological Stewardship. Because it’s not always obvious whether an enterprise is a fit for us, we’re delving into what we look for in each area. In past months we covered Food & Agriculture and Education & the Arts. Up this month: Ecological Stewardship.

In this category, we’re seeking social enterprises that practice integrated, systems-based, and culturally sensitive approaches to regenerating and preserving the earth’s ecosystems. In general, borrowers in this area help mitigate climate change, reverse the depletion of natural resources, and support biodiversity. We’re particularly interested in enterprises focused on ecosystem preservation; resource recovery, reuse and recycling; and water and energy efficiency in buildings. These examples from our current portfolio illustrate what we’re looking for:

  • facebookPACT Apparel makes its Fair Trade-certified line of super soft cotton underwear from 100 percent organic, non-GMO cotton and ensures its farms and factories treat workers ethically and pay living wages in addition to engaging in sustainable farming practices. RSF provided PACT with an asset-based line of credit for a bridge loan.
  • IceStone, which came to RSF for working capital, makes a gorgeous, durable, hard surfaces for countertops and the like using recycled glass, portland cement, and pigment. The material is Cradle to Cradle certified and free of plasticizers and resins that emit harmful fumes; it reduces dependence on imported mined natural stone and keeps millions of pounds of glass from the waste stream.
  • Recycleforce - john_hill_demanufactureRecycleForce deconstructs electronic waste and other recyclables, separates the reusable materials, and disposes of the waste safely and cleanly using a workforce of recently released ex-felons. Financing from RSF enabled RecycleForce to equip its facility to divert millions of pounds of electronic waste from landfills while training and supporting a marginalized workforce.

If you know of enterprises in any of our focus areas that could expand their impact with greater access to capital, send them to Wanted: Social Enterprise Stars.

And please pass our quest for borrowers on to your network! The more #SocentStars posts there are on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, the more social enterprises we can reach and assist. Many thanks to all those who’ve been tweeting and posting so far.

Here are a few post ideas:

  1. Are you an eco enterprise looking for #funding? @RSFSocFinance has loans for #socents: #SocentStars
  2. Does your #socent need capital to grow? See if you qualify for an @RSFSocFinance loan: #SocentStars
  3. Pass it on: @RSFSocFinance has loans up to $5M for the next 25 #SocentStars: #socent

Save Organic Citrus!

April 28, 2015

We are in the peak of citrus season here in California and while we’re all blissfully enjoying juicy doses of Vitamin C, you may not realize that the organic orange you’re biting into is on the verge of dying off from a disease called Citrus Greening. Jessica Shade, the Director of Science Programs at The Organic Center, has played an integral role researching the disease and is guest blogging this week to help explain what is happening to citrus and what people are doing about it. RSF got involved in the citrus world through our borrower, Uncle Matt’s Organic, an organic orange juice company. Uncle Matt’s is collaborating with The Organic Center on this research project. Check out a previous blog post about their work here:

JessicaShade (1024x768)by Jessica Shade

Right now citrus trees are dying all around the country. Citrus greening disease has been killing off thousands of acres of citrus groves, and threatens to destroy domestic citrus production all together.

Citrus fruits are some of the most popular fruit in the United States. Orange juice can be found in almost 7 out of 10 American refrigerators, and Americans drink more than 550 million gallons of orange juice every year with more than 60 million gallons of that juice being organic.

Moms and dads are increasingly choosing organic fruit for their kids, assured that the fruit has not been sprayed with harmful toxic pesticides or has been genetically modified. Unfortunately, organic citrus production is in danger of disappearing from the United States because of the deadly citrus greening disease. Citrus greening has been devastating the citrus industry on a massive scale and is now threatening the very existence of the organic citrus sector.

The deadly citrus greening disease moves quickly, spread by the invasive Asian citrus psyllid, a small plant-feeding insect. Once a tree is infected, it cannot be cured. In the past ten years, citrus greening has wiped out 90,000 acres of citrus. As of yet there are no cures for citrus greening, and the tools we’ve been using have only had limited efficacy.


Photo courtesy of Uncle Matt’s Organic

One of the most commonly used tools is treating the trees with high doses of a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids. These pesticides are being used to treat the disease on conventionally grown citrus. Unfortunately, the pesticide sprays are not very effective and are creating more harm in their wake. Immediately after a spray, the psyllid population will decrease, but they could rebound to levels above what they were before because the sprays are killing the psyllids natural predators like lady beetles (“ladybugs”). In addition, the sprays are causing large-scale bee die-offs. Bees pollinate 70% of our food, so fewer bees means lower availability of fruit and vegetables. To top it off, the psyllids are quickly developing resistance to the sprays. We’re losing what little control these chemicals provided for the disease.

What we need are solutions to citrus greening that are holistic and take multiple factors into account so they can continue to be effective in the long run without harming beneficial insects or causing other damage to the growing systems.

To address this RSF is helping fund a project with The Organic Center, who has teamed up with citrus growers, university researchers, and other non-profits to launch a large-scale project examining organic methods for preventing citrus greening.

Specifically, this research will look at:

  • Organic methods for controlling the Asian citrus psyllid without the use of toxic chemicals
  • Natural ways to breed organic citrus varieties that are resistant to the disease without the use of genetic engineering
  • Methods for ensuring natural predator health, like the lady beetles, while preventing Asian citrus psyllid spread

This information will be critical for providing growers around the country with the information they need to protect their citrus groves from collapse due to citrus greening. It will also be useful for policymakers in incorporating organic alternatives to Asian citrus psyllid control into area-wide treatment protocols. If it is not stopped, citrus greening may remove organic citrus from our diets, destroy countless farms, and significantly disrupt regional economies. Without further research on organic methods for controlling the disease, the entire domestic organic citrus sector may be wiped out.

Click here to learn more about this project, and check back in a few months for an update on the research study.


Photo courtesy of Uncle Matt’s Organic


Jessica Shade started her involvement in the organic movement as an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she was a co-owner of the Kresge Natural Foods Cooperative. During her time there she developed a deep interest in the science supporting the environmental, public health, and cultural benefits of organic practices, and that passion followed her through her graduate career at the University of California, Berkeley, where she received a PhD in Integrative Biology.

In addition to scientific research, Dr. Shade is dedicated to food system science communication, collaboration, environmental education, and social equity and inclusion in the sciences. She has worked with several organizations to mentor under-represented students in the sciences and increase environmental science collaborations, such as Building Diversity in Science; Puente; the Biology Scholars Program; and Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity and Sustainability. She also founded and directed the Diversity Mentorship Program, which trains and mentors graduate students on inclusive teaching practices.

Dr. Shade is also interested in creative approaches to conducting and communicating environmental research. She has led panels on using artistic approaches to disseminating scientific research, as well as curating, designing, and participating in many environmentally themed art exhibits.


RSF Extends Additional Financing to GREEN CREATIVE

April 22, 2015

logo11RSF is pleased to announce a new loan to GREEN CREATIVE, a San Francisco Bay Area-based developer and manufacturer of commercial and specification grade LED lighting solutions. RSF financing, in participation with New Resource Bank, will be used to fund working capital needs and build inventory for this ever rapidly growing company.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, lighting accounts for 23% of the commercial sector’s total electricity consumption. As energy demands increase, the energy production required to power buildings will expand the US carbon footprint and weigh heavily on the planet.

Traditional lighting sources such as incandescent and halogen lights contribute to high energy usage and high monthly electric bills. GREEN CREATIVE provides state of the art lighting solutions that reduce carbon footprint and lower electricity, maintenance, and cooling bills. These products generally use 80% less energy than traditional lighting sources. In addition, GREEN CREATIVE lights do not contain Mercury or any other harmful substance.

“RSF is pleased to extend a loan to GREEN CREATIVE and work with a values aligned partner like New Resource Bank,” says Mike Gabriel, RSF Lending Manager. “Together we are helping businesses and building owners save money on electricity bills and accelerating a path to a low carbon future.”

“Securing additional financing allows GREEN CREATIVE to continue innovating and answering the fast growing demand for its products,” says GREEN CREATIVE Principal and Co-Founder, Cole Zucker. “Having financial partners whose long-term social and environmental goals are in line with GREEN CREATIVE’s core beliefs and values means a lot to us.”

LED technology is changing the lighting industry, and producing top products requires ongoing investment in technology development and innovation. GREEN CREATIVE has received significant industry recognition, including several product selections for the prestigious 2013 and 2014 Illuminating Engineering Society Progress Report and the company was a finalist in the 2015 LED’s Magazine Sapphire Award.

“New Resource Bank is thrilled to partner with RSF in supporting the growth of the energy efficiency sector,” affirms Gary Groff, Senior Vice President at New Resource Bank. “GREEN CREATIVE has grown at an unprecedented rate and together we are helping reduce the carbon footprint of households and businesses.”

About Green Creative

GREEN CREATIVE is a 5-year-old solid state lighting development and manufacturing company based in the San Francisco Bay Area, CA. The company specializes in providing cutting edge LED lighting solutions for the commercial and specification markets. GREEN CREATIVE is fully integrated with strong R&D capabilities to constantly offer the latest technology available. For more information on GREEN CREATIVE please visit

About New Resource Bank

New Resource Bank is the premier bank for people who are leading the way to a more sustainable world. We match an entrepreneurial spirit with a dedication to achieving environmental and social as well as financial returns. Our mission is to advance sustainability with everything we do—the loans we make, the way we operate and our commitment to putting deposits to work for good. To learn more visit

Seed Fund Grantee Highlight: Tanka Fund

March 24, 2015

by Ellie Lanphier

Tanka 1“The four leggeds came before the two leggeds. They are our older brother, we came from them. Before them, we were the root people. We came from them. We are the same thing. That is why we are spiritually related to them. We call them in our language “Tatanka,” which means “He Who Owns Us.” We cannot say that we own the buffalo because he owns us.1

 – Birgil Kills Straight, Lakota elder

Buffalo, hunted to near extinction in the 19th century, were once critical to supporting Native American communities, economies, and way of life. Now, with the market demand for buffalo on the rise, organizations like Indian Land Tenure Foundation and Native American Natural Foods are working tirelessly to ensure Native Americans are a part of the buffalos’ comeback.

In 2014, the Indian Land Tenure Foundation and Native American Natural Foods (NANF) received a RSF Seed Fund grant to support their shared efforts to return buffalo to the lands, diets, and economies of American Indian people. Together they established the Tanka Fund in 2012, with a ten year goal to convert one million acres of land to buffalo production.

“The buffalo and the Great Plains were made for each other,” says Mark Tilson, President and Co-founder of NANF. “No species is more suited to the huge prairie ecosystems than the buffalo.” Compared to cattle, which currently dominate the Great Plain region, buffalo can tolerate more extreme temperatures, calve without supervision, produce more meat on less grass, and reproduce longer. Buffalo eat different grasses at different times of the year; this rotation helps restore grass root systems and plays a significant role in prairie restoration.

Beyond the environmental benefits, the Tanka Fund supports the reintroduction of buffalo meat into the diets of Native American communities as means to a healthier people. According to the American Center for Disease Control, Native American people have a 2.3 times higher chance of being diagnosed with diabetes than non-Hispanic whites, and the likelihood is even higher among youth. Many Native American communities suffer from a lack of healthy, accessible food options, either due to poor economic conditions or geographic isolation. In response, the Tanka Fund will provide educational programs on healthy eating and lifestyles as well as incorporate buffalo meat, praised for its nutritional value, into school lunches, take home meal initiatives, and elder meals.

The Tanka Fund also plans to provide technical assistance programming to American Indian ranchers to aid in the conversion from cattle to buffalo, and alongside these efforts, public education programs on the health and environmental benefits of buffalo ranching. Other proposed services include aiding in the development of buffalo ranching, processing and marketing cooperatives, and market demand/feasibility research. For a more complete list of all the activities the Tanka Fund will support, visit this page.

Tanka 2

Photo by Positive Exposures

  1. LaDuke, Winona (1998). Pte oyate: Buffalo nations, buffalo people. St. Paul, MN: Honor the Earth.

Ellie Lanphier is Program Associate, Philanthropic Services at RSF Social Finance

Between Land and Money: An Economic Consideration

December 10, 2014

This article was originally published in the Fall 2014 RSF Quarterly

John BloomBy John Bloom

At the newly created Paterson Great Falls National Historic Park on the Passaic River in northern New Jersey, there stands a sign inscribed: “Alexander Hamilton envisioned the great potential power of these scenic falls for industrial development.” This is nature at the service of money and the economy.

Looking around brought with it a chilling reminder of fallen industry in a town that the poetry of William Carlos Williams celebrated and economic history left behind.

Hamilton was an economic visionary. He saw nature as an underutilized economic resource and perceived the opportunities of young untapped markets. For Hamilton, fixing the major structural debt problem in post-revolutionary America’s finances by stimulating industrial manufacturing was both motivator and strategy. In 1791, Paterson became the first industrial park.

The history of Paterson’s Great Falls was about new industries including textiles (especially silk), handguns, rope, continuous sheet paper, submarines, locomotives and, later, airplane engines. With the application of capital and ingenuity, energy was extracted from the water and transformed into power, power into manufacture, manufacture into markets, markets into capital, capital into wealth, and wealth into power.

In the story of how natural resources are used for profit, between land [representing all natural resources] and money, is an economic paradigm in need of reassessment and intervention. In Paterson, what all that industry returned to the water by way of manufacturing and toxic waste was an insult to the living water and eco-system.

The polluted de-natured Passaic flows on as a man-made emblem of what happens when capital or money is extracted from nature without regard for nature’s regeneration; in essence, nature is left to die. Capital moves freely about the world, across space and time; land and natural resources are rooted in place and geologic time. In a materialistic economy, time is money, and money used in this way sadly has no patience for the evolutionary pace of nature.

Hamilton knew the need for natural resources of all kinds would increase continually to support economic and national development. He could see no limits to economic growth, and along the way contributed to what would become the industrialization and commodification of everything, including agriculture. With the emergence of property rights granted to individuals and corporations by the government, the mutuality of “ownership” in common gave way to the self-interest characterized so ably by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, first published in 1776, the same year as the Declaration of Independence was signed. The drive of self-interest is deeply connected to accumulations of wealth.

Paterson Great Falls. Photo courtesy of John Bloom.

Paterson Great Falls. Photo courtesy of John Bloom.

Numerous economists have observed the cyclical patterns of boom and bust, the disparity of wealth and poverty that seem an endemic part of the industrialized and global economy. But, none has addressed it as directly as Henry George with the publication of Progress and Poverty in 1880. George argued that land and natural resources should be owned in the commons, and that private ownership and the control of rents was one of the major contributing causes of impoverishment of the many at the hands of the few. As a remedy, he proposed a single tax on the value of land. This tax would return to the public the monetary resources that in some senses were sequestered in the land and in private hands. What George was trying to do was find a monetary equivalent for decommoditizing the land, to make it in the community’s interest to make sure that the land was rightfully used and stewarded for future generations. George’s was a land-based economy in which the community benefited from the wealth generated by the increasing value of land.

Henry George’s approach to economics represents a view that land and all natural resources are not economic unto themselves. That is, they do not enter the economic stream until someone works on that resource; the product of that work is economic. Rudolf Steiner in his lectures on Economics given in 1922 put forth a similar concept and elaborated further that this work on the land generates one kind of value. He also identified a second kind of value stream: that which emerges when intelligence is applied to labor. These dynamically related principles lie at the heart of economic life. However, the land-based stream has been devalued as it tends toward place, and stands against the imperative of capital and global markets.

Jane Jacobs, in her study of economics in an urban environment in the late 20th century, developed a vision of self-sustaining regional economies based upon what she called import replacement. Hers was a vision of small-to-medium-scale entrepreneurs and manufacturers who would find ways to make things based upon regional natural resources. She indicated that this approach would also reduce the environmental degradation that results from extensive transportation of goods. Her vision also includes that which Hamilton missed—a mindfulness of organic systems that finds innovative ways to transform waste into new value.

Each of these visionary economic thinkers saw the economy as a whole system, and brought a new perspective based upon the reality of their respective times. The purpose of narrating these various views of land and money is to tease out of them some sense of how we can actually live in a dynamic tension between the two, and to resurrect the shared reality and importance of land and natural resources, not as economic in and of themselves, but as part of a livable economic future—and before it is too late to do so.

The money economy is global. It allows for trade and the movement of manufactured goods across political boundaries, and money can move around the world at electronic speed. It supports scale and efficiency and has made the accumulation of wealth a bedfellow of unparalleled poverty. It has, unfortunately, pervaded all aspects of economic life to the exclusion of other ways of being economic.

The scale and consequences of recent events indicate an unhealthy disconnect between money and land to the extent that land itself has become a treasury measured in ever-rising prices, which, in turn, have presented barriers to access, especially for farmers. In the land economy, people are connected to what is made from it, and to the soil and to stewarding the resources themselves.

We need both facets of the economy, but with a renewed awareness of land. By and large the land economy has been adumbrated by the money economy. Everything, it seems, has been monetized. What numerous contemporary movements are doing is trying to reawaken the local-regional land-based economy consciousness. In essence they are encouraging communities and individuals to take back authority for the development of economic life out of a sense of interdependence.

We need an economy that raises the land-based on equal ground with the global, recognizes the value and role each play, and manages capital in a way that supports the interplay between them. To change our economic being will require a radical reconsideration of ownership—how we own, why we own—and a major disruption of the myth of self-interest. The reality of our interdependence in economic life will celebrate the importance of community-interest, both local and global. But nothing will happen in this direction unless each of us steps out of self-interested consumer-owner consciousness—one endgame of the money economy—and finds a way to really reconnect with land, not as real estate, but as the source of life.

John Bloom is Senior Director of Organizational Culture at RSF Social Finance

RSF Makes a Loan to PACT

October 30, 2014

PACT black logo-01RSF is pleased to announce a new loan to PACT, a sustainable fashion brand which makes organic cotton underwear, socks, and t-shirts. RSF provided a line of credit that allows PACT to purchase inventory to meet the growing demand for its products.

PACT was founded by Jeff Denby and Jason Kibbey in 2009. The pair, who met in business school at UC Berkeley, shared a strong desire to create a socially responsible basic apparel business by focusing on building a sustainable supply-chain. Jeff had a background in supply chain management (Gap) and witnessed first-hand the negative impacts of the fast fashion model that so many apparel companies employ today. Jeff and Jason set out to change this dynamic by creating PACT, a business that exercises full supply chain transparency and a commitment to the highest standards in ethical trade and environmental sustainability.

facebook“PACT is more than just a sustainable brand,” says Mike Gabriel, RSF Lending Manager. “They are really fostering a community—suppliers, producers, intermediaries, and consumers—to accelerate change in the fashion industry. We are excited to support them in this time of growth.”

PACT’s mission is to sell clothes that make the world a better place. Consumers are more aware of the negative impacts of the “fast fashion” model that brands like H&M and Nike have popularized—very low-cost fashion forward clothing produced (mainly in the developing world) at the expense of poor laborers and the environment. PACT is changing the conventional fast fashion model through a concept it developed called Seed-to-Shelf, essentially a fair and sustainable trade model for sourcing, producing and marketing fashionable basic apparel.

“Our commitment to transparency often requires PACT to invest more deeply and at different stages with our supply-chain partners,” says Jeff. “PACT and our consumers see tremendous value in these investments and we are thrilled to partner with a lender that is aligned with our efforts to bring everyday apparel to market through more sustainable means.”

PACT currently sells its line of basic apparel for men, women, and children online and in retailers, such as Whole Foods, Nordstrom, and Sprouts. Use the code “RSF25” by 12/31/14 to get a 25% off discount on your next PACT purchase.


About PACT

PACT is a company obsessed with a big idea: super soft organic cotton essentials that are ethically made and go easy on the environment. We’re out to change the apparel industry and that change starts with your underwear. At PACT we care about our clothes so much that from seed to shelf, we pretty much follow them everywhere they go. From Non-GMO organic cotton grown at farmer cooperatives, to sustainable manufacturing in Fair Trade factories, our fully transparent supply chain allows customers to not only feel good in PACT, but also feel good about where PACT came from. PACT is based in Boulder, designed in San Francisco, and manufactured in India and Turkey but you can come by and visit us anytime

Seed Fund Grantee Highlight: Malama Kaua’i’s Roots of Kauai Green Careers Training Program

October 16, 2014

by Ellie Lanphier

In May, the first Roots of Kauai Green Careers Training program was launched at Malama Kaua’i, a community-based organization that focuses on advocating, educating, and driving action towards a sustainable Kaua’i. Funded in part by an RSF Seed Fund grant, the program provides free job literacy training for Kauai’s young adults interested in green careers. Malama Kaua’i hopes to serve their community by creating economic opportunity for graduates, promoting environmental stewardship within the community, and enhancing the growth and success of Kauai’s green organizations and businesses.

Malama Kaua'i

The 10-week Green Careers Training program includes 60 classroom hours focusing on environmental and career development education, combined with a 100-hour internship with one of Kauai’s green or sustainability-focused organizations and businesses. Students gain environmental literacy, academic skills, leadership abilities, career development knowledge, and practical hands-on training. The course covers environmental topics such as water, waste, transportation, energy, green building, health, and food and agriculture, as well as community organizing and social entrepreneurship. Career development topics include self-assessment and career planning, resume writing, interview preparation, networking, and portfolio development. The 2014 class enjoyed guest speakers such as Dr. Carl Berg from the Surfrider Foundation and M?lama Hul?‘ia, and Ben Sullivan, Energy Coordinator for the County of Kauai Office of Economic Development.

Malama Kauai’s Director of Operations, Megan Fox, reported gladly that in their launch year they actually had more internship site invitations than students to fill the internships! Fox sees this as a promising sign for the demand for entry level talent in green industries. This year, students completed 100 hour internships at Anuenue Farms, Eddie Jo Organics, National Tropical Botanical Garden, Waipa Foundation, Kauai Community Recycling, Nani Moon Meadery, Kauai Nature School, ReStore Kauai, Kauai Juice Co., Malama Hule‘ia, and D.A. Solar.

An additional requirement of the program is completion of a business or community project which students are required to pitch to a panel of community leaders. Fox reports that some students took it a step further and actually launched their businesses:

H2O PonoH20 Pono

Nadia Kaley, 28, of Kapaa launched H20 Pono, a water conservation and water catchment business that provides both education and installation services. During the program, Nadia and fellow classmate Stormy Soza received WET Teachers Certificates from the Department of Water for water conservation education. They also gained hands-on conservation experience interning at National Tropical Botanical Garden. They will be launching their first community workshop soon.

Ho'okahe WailanaHo’okahe Wailana

Kaui Fu, 28, of Kilauea, and Shawna Blackford, 20, of Lihue, won the Green Pitch Night competition with their river stewardship community project, a partnership with Hawaiian Civic Club and Hanalei Canoe Club. Their project focuses on trimming and clearing the Hanalei River of excessive hau overgrowth, planting native gardens, and educating young canoe club members about native plants and ecology. They are currently fundraising for this nonprofit.

Kauai GardensKauai Gardens

Carey Tinsley, 24, of Kilauea began Kauai Gardens, a permaculture and pono landscaping company, with the ambitious goal of expanding into a full nonprofit venture focused on sustainable agriculture and healthy living. You can see Carey’s promotional video on You Tube.

RootlessYardcare & Small Engine Repair

Kanoa Nabeshima-Costa, 25, of Waimea, has launched his business that provides sustainable landscaping services focused on native plants, integrated pest management strategies, and small engine repair services.

Kauai Music ServicesKauai Music Services

Ryo Shintani, 26, of Lihue, won the “Judge’s Choice” award for his sustainable music therapy service aimed at providing services to developmentally disabled youth and seniors with cognitive disorders. This has been a long-time dream of Ryo’s since returning from Berklee College of Music after studying music therapy for two years and working as a behavioral paraprofessional on Kaua’i. Ryo performed at the groups’ graduation celebration.

Graduates will receive ongoing career services support as they create their future and shape the future of Kaua`i. The Roots of Kauai Green Careers Training program is offered free of charge to participating students by organizations and individuals who have invested in the future of Kaua`i’s economic and environmental sustainability. If you are interested in participating, you may contact for more information.

2014 Roots of Kauai Green Careers Training Program participants

2014 Roots of Kauai Green Careers Training Program participants


Ellie Lanphier is Program Associate, Philanthropic Services at RSF Social Finance

This Land is Whose Land? A Call for Agrarian Reform in the United States

October 9, 2014

This essay was originally published by Food First.

Eric-Holt-Gimenez_headshot_credit Leonor Hurtado_cropby Eric Holt-Giménez

Introduction: Land, Race, and the Agrarian Crisis

The effects of widespread land grabbing and land concentration sweeping the globe do not affect all farmers equally. The degree of vulnerability to these threats is highest for smallholders, women, and people of color—the ones who grow, harvest, process, and prepare most of the world’s food.

International market forces have invaded every aspect of economic and social life, and have introduced new layers of inequality into our food systems. The destruction of smallholder agriculture in the Global South has sent millions of rural people on perilous migrations in search of work where they often enter low-paying jobs in the food system. They are pushed to underserved neighborhoods of color where labor abuse, diet-related disease, and food insecurity are the norm.

At the same time, despite record agricultural profits, farming communities in the US heartland are steadily emptying out, reeling from unemployment and the environmental consequences of 70 years of industrial agriculture. Though surrounded by former peasant farmers (now turned farmworkers), many older farmers wonder who will farm the land when they are gone, and young, beginning and immigrant farmers find it too costly to access land.

Big farms in the US are getting bigger. Small farms are getting smaller. The same structural adjustment polices and free trade agreements that devastate the livelihoods of farmers in the Global South are steadily reshaping the agrarian landscape of the United States.

The New Agrarian Transition

The land grabs occurring in the Third World are the tip of the iceberg of a long process of capitalist reconfiguration of land and resources known as the agrarian transition. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, this meant mobilizing resources from the countryside to the city to subsidize industry with cheap food and cheap labor—largely accomplished by destroying the commons and dispossessing peasant farmers. The agrarian transition has gone through many permutations since then, but has generally kept its anti-commons and anti-smallholder thrust.

Today’s agrarian transition is about the countryside’s role in the rise of agri-food monopolies, the intensification of extractive industries, and the emerging dominance of international finance capital. A commodities boom within the industrial grain-livestock/agro-food complex coupled with a global crisis of capital accumulation (too many goods and too few buyers) have made land a hot investment offering global investors an opportunity to treat it “like gold with yield.” One result is that land is concentrating in fewer and fewer hands, dispossessing millions as it swells corporate portfolios. At the very time that the equitable and sustainable use of land is imperative, we find that it has also become more scarce.

Land Dispossession in Historical Perspective

Historically, by the time land is lost, a process of political and economic restructuring has already destroyed much of the public sphere. Farmers’ room to maneuver is greatly reduced, thus giving free reign to those with market power to bring land under their control. Land is lost after civic and human rights have already been systematically trampled upon. Dispossession then takes place through a combination of coercion, power of capital, and the market.

The Green Revolution is a classic case of market-based dispossession affecting Third World and US farmers alike. This publicly-funded campaign to “feed the world” took the genetic material from traditional varieties developed over thousands of years to produce commercial hybrids. Farmers in the Global South took out credit to buy back their repackaged genetic material, as well as the fertilizers and pesticides needed to grow these crops as monocultures. The Green Revolution gained momentum in the 1970s just as US farmers were encouraged to plant “fencerow to fencerow” to save the world from hunger. The result was global overproduction, the fall of commodity prices and staggering debt in the Third World as well as in the US farm sector. As a result, millions of farmers were forced out of farming.

Land Justice Approaches: From Access to Reform

Today, family farmers are fighting to hang on to their farms and aspiring farmers are struggling to access land. Their prospects could not be worse. Unregulated market forces—in commodities and land—are both a means for dispossession and a barrier to entry. Because of the structural and historical racism in our food system, immigrants and people of color are at a particular disadvantage.

New rural and urban initiatives for farmland access, farm protection and sustainable, equitable food systems are springing up across the US. They provide hope that another food system is possible. But do they have the potential to confront the modern agrarian transition?

The movement for sustainable agricultural land trusts is gaining ground. Over 1,700 state, local, and national organizations manage 47 million acres in trusts and easements. Over 60 percent conserve agricultural land. “Farm incubators” provide training and services to help new farmers enter farming. Promising state legislative proposals seek to protect farmland from urban sprawl. Farm cooperative federations and legal services foundations in the southern US are working to protect African American farmers. Stock sharing options and ownership transfer programs are putting farmworkers in control of the land they work. Community land trusts are beginning to address urban agriculture. Many food policy councils work to make idle urban and peri-urban land available for farming. Following the Occupy movement, small land occupations are spreading. Indigenous and rural resistance to fracking and land-grabbing projects like the Keystone pipeline is growing.

Set against the powerful array of international markets, monopolies, and institutions of the agrarian transition, land trusts attempt to carve out “niches” in the global land market. However, very few work with underserved communities. While they serve as important sociopolitical and environmental leaders, ensuring equitable land access and viable rural livelihoods in the United States is beyond the scope and the pocket book of niche markets. Rather, structural changes are needed in order for these important efforts to become the norm rather than the alternative. Their future depends on agrarian reform.

The call for agrarian reform is not new in the United States. In 1973 the National Coalition for Land Reform held the First National Conference on Land Reform. Participants from Appalachia, the South, the Northern Plains, Midwest, New England and indigenous lands, as well as from the organic farming sector, the coops, the land trusts and farmworker organizations, called for land reform. These diverse actors discussed the creation of a National Land Reform Act to address poverty, privilege, and the racial and class inequities determining land distribution. They proposed a progressive land tax structure, public land banks, trusts and funding mechanisms, as well as supporting institutions for new farmers. In short, the Act demanded a set of accountable public policies and mechanisms to support all of the things that today’s land niche initiatives struggle to do privately. It is time to reignite this conversation.

Overcoming the injustices of the agrarian transition will hinge on whether or not today’s disparate efforts can move the land struggle from the global market to the public sphere and redirect capital investment to support this end. It will also depend on whether or not they can collectively address the inequities that hold the present system in place. It requires building a broad-based, national social movement for land justice—a movement that unites actors across racial and economic divides. Successful social movements are formed by integrating activism with livelihoods. This integration creates the sustained social pressure that produces political will—the key to changing the financial, governmental and market structures that presently work against the change that is so critically needed.

Eric Holt-Giménez, Ph.D. is the executive director of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy. Eric is the author of the recent Food First book, Campesino a Campesino: Voices from Latin America’s Farmer to Farmer Movement for Sustainable Agriculture (2006). Previously, Eric served as the Latin America Program Manager for the Bank Information Center in Washington D.C. He earned a Ph.D. in Environmental Studies from the University of California –Santa Cruz. At Food First, Eric’s research and writing has concentrated on the global food crisis, the U.S. Farm Bill, the expansion of agrofuels, Fair trade, and neighborhood food systems.

RSF Makes a Loan to Madécasse

October 2, 2014

RSF is pleased to announce a new loan to Madécasse, a social enterprise that makes chocolate and vanilla products in Africa. RSF provided a line of credit that will allow Madécasse to finance their inventory purchases and assist with cash flow gaps throughout the year.

Sea-SaltMadécasse was founded in 2008 by Tim McCollum and Brett Beach. As Peace Corps volunteers in Madagascar, the pair fell in love with the country and wanted to do more to help its economy after their PCV service. Troubled by the fact that Africa supplies 70% of the world’s cocoa but less than 1% of its chocolate, they crafted a mission to create real change in Madagascar by keeping the entire chocolate production process local. Madécasse buys cocoa from local farmers and provides them with skills training and above-market wages. The company takes advantage of the full production capacities of Madagascar: From grinding and processing the cocoa, to making the chocolate, to wrapping and packaging. This creates additional jobs and helps build industries to drive sustainable economic development in one of the poorest countries in the world. By keeping all manufacturing in Madagascar, local farmers benefit four times more than they would have from the fair trade system.


“Companies like Madécasse take the concept of fair trade to another level,” says Kate Danaher, Senior Lending Associate at RSF. “By turning raw materials into finished products in-country, they provide skilled jobs and economic opportunities to people that have few options.”

man picks cacao_AmbanjaMost of the world’s cocoa comes from Africa, where it is mainly grown on small plantations by farmers living in poverty. By contrast, most of the world’s chocolate is consumed in the wealthy regions of Europe and North America. Despite the high price tags on chocolate at the grocery store, most cocoa farmers only earn a small fraction of the profit. But by producing their products in Africa and sourcing all ingredients locally, Madécasse has created meaningful income for more than 200 people in Madagascar.

In addition to providing workforce training and fostering poverty alleviation and sustainable economic development, part of Madécasse’s mission is to help preserve the natural environment. Due to its unique geographic location, 85% of the plants and animals in Madagascar exist nowhere else in the world. But the pressures of extreme poverty force many Malagasy people to cut down trees for firewood and charcoal in order to survive, contributing to the loss of the country’s storied rainforests and indigenous species. Madécasse works with cocoa farmers to regenerate the shade-giving forests that shelter their cocoa trees, restoring biodiversity to the soil, flora and fauna. To date, the company has planted over 5,000 trees to help create the needed shade for cocoa to flourish.


And RSF is helping Madécasse to further its mission. “Working with RSF means we can pursue our two bottom lines with ease and comfort,” says Madécasse co-founder and CEO Tim McCollum. “RSF ‘gets’ what we’re doing, and they embrace it. This loan means we can grow our business, which means we can have a bigger social impact in Madagascar.”

It couldn’t be a better fit.

About Madécasse

Founded in 2008 by former Peace Corps volunteers, Madécasse is the only company producing high quality bean-to-bar, hand-wrapped chocolate and vanilla products on the continent of Africa. Unlike traditional chocolate manufacturing which creates only minimal income for cocoa farmers, every process in the Madécasse chocolate value chain happens within the borders of Madagascar. By providing equipment and training – and producing the entire product locally – Madécasse is able to return 100% of production costs to the people of Madagascar. As a social enterprise, they measure success by the quality of their product and their social impact in Africa.

Clients in Conversation: Protecting our Planet, One “A-ha” Moment at a Time – Part II

September 23, 2014

This article was originally published in the Summer 2014 RSF Quarterly.

Interview with Mike Gabriel, Lending Manager

Tim Brownell is the co-founder of Eureka Recycling, an RSF borrower and one of the largest non-profit recyclers in the US. Ben Gordon, an RSF investor, works with Global Student Embassy to empower youth to become environmental stewards and community leaders. In both cases, social transformation is at the core of the environmental change they seek.

Click here for Part I

Mike: Tim, Eureka is a successful non-profit in a field that’s dominated by one or two large players. Can you give us some idea of how difficult it is to fight the good fight in this situation?

Tim: It’s important to understand that we are not competing against any of the large waste businesses. We’re actually competing against a paradigm of wasting. I think that’s the challenge for us, that we are bringing forward the idea and the reality that waste is a choice.

We run our non-profit as a mission-driven financial organization. We are driving strategies that have to work and compete against a different economic structure, one in which waste is subsidized, one in which health and environmental costs are externalized.

We are within a paradigm that requires making money in order to run a business. We’re a non-profit but we’re also a social venture, and we participate in this business with no subsidies. That’s very intentional. We don’t take grants that anybody else could take. We borrow money at market rates, so that we can demonstrate that zero waste is an economically viable alternative, not just an environmental and social imperative.

Ben: I used to work in community development banking. One of the most important lessons I learned during that time was that budgeting is about more than financials, and that is especially true for mission-driven organizations. The decisions being made in a mission-driven organization are to allow for greater positive outcomes for people and planet.

This economic structure, Tim mentions, requires a change in financial perspective—a new focus on lowering costs of all types, rather than increasing revenue. In our current economic paradigm, a lot of revenue that we look at requires consumption. We really need to constantly question how to do things differently with less financial revenue, but with greater environmental and social outcomes.

Mike: If there’s one thing that speaks most directly to the impact that you’re having, what would it be?

Tim: I grew up in a time when no one spoke about “zero waste,” and recycling was a small idea. Today, recycling is common, and people have an understanding of its benefit. We exist to expand awareness and consciousness so that the next generation feels the same way about zero waste.

Eureka is a zero waste lab—we are learning how to get to zero. We’re determined and committed because we know how urgent it is to get there, and it requires transforming our relationship with our planet. Our work as a social enterprise is focused on demonstrating the steps, actions, economics, and policies necessary to get there, and our vision is to see this movement as a global transformation.

Ben: We call all of our projects “demonstrations” because the most critical part of what we do is getting people involved.

Our small staff, board, and friends can lead a demonstration to set up a school garden in a semi-rural or urban area pretty quickly. But when we think about broad impact that doesn’t really achieve the larger change we’re going for. Sure, we have this small garden, but alone it’s not going to put a dent in our food system. The real value is in having a demonstration that is created by a large number of hands. So that those hands will be inspired and find another site to do it on—to continue the transformation one person at a time.

Tim Brownell is CEO of Eureka Recycling, the only organization in Minnesota that specializes in zero-waste. He was one of the original founders of Eureka, coming to Minnesota in 2000 to assist in its development. Prior to his joining, Mr. Brownell worked for more than ten years in the recycling field in designing, developing and operating the residential recycling programs in San Francisco, CA and Ann Arbor, MI.

Ben Gordon serves a Board Member and volunteer with Global Student Embassy, an environmental and youth empowerment non-profit. Prior to GSE, he worked in community development banking at Charles Schwab Bank and Merrill Lynch. He currently works in Oakland, CA, Chacraseca, Nicaragua, and Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador. Ben graduated with a Bachelors of Arts from Brown University in 2006.

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