Food & Agriculture

Seed Fund Grantee Highlight: Veterans to Farmers

January 13, 2015

by Ellie Lanphier

imagine 1 “We are in a time of extraordinary opportunity. After a decade of seismic shocks to our country, from global terrorism to deep recessions and major national disasters, each of the three legs of sustainability-the environment, the economy, and the social equity of our communities-is in crisis. Yet throughout this time a movement has grown which brings great hope for a more healthy, sustainable and prosperous future. It is the movement to produce, access, secure and consume good and healthy food. People are re-awakening to the fact that food is not only the basis for our health but it is also at the basis of traditions, customs and culture that bind us together as family and community.”                – Jim Cochran and Larry Yee, Food Commons 2.0

image 2Veterans to Farmers is moving their Denver, Colorado community towards a local food future with a mission to provide American veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts with pride, education and fulfillment through a permanent source of sustainable income, community and contribution: The family farm. Started in 2011, VTF provides veterans the training necessary to establish new careers in greenhouse farming, while engaging the residential community in creating a healthier, local food system. US Marine Corps Veteran Buck Adams, founder of Veterans to Farmers (VTF), became a leader in organic greenhouse operations when he started Circle Fresh Farms in 2009. Three years later, Adams had grown the business into the largest of its kind in Colorado. In 2011, he made it a company initiative to train and hire fellow Veterans. As interest in the Veterans training program exceeded capacity, Adams realized he would need a much larger space. Veterans to Farmers is currently fundraising for the continuing construction of the Training Center Greenhouse. Learn more about the project in this fundraising video.

The organic produce grown at the Training Center Greenhouse will be sold directly to the community within a three-mile radius, currently considered a food desert. VTF will accept SNAP benefits and sell a percentage of the food on a sliding scale to ensure access, regardless of income. The $1,500 Seed Fund grant RSF made to VTF in early 2014 supports outreach to the surrounding community, advertising SNAP benefit use to purchase VTF’s homegrown food and educating consumers on the environmental and nutritional benefits of buying local.

The produce in the greenhouses is grown using aeroponic, vertical growing towers, which use 90% less water and land than traditional agriculture, while growing 10 times the yield. Each 10,000 sq. ft. greenhouse will grow roughly 150,000 pounds of produce each year that will be accessible year-round.

image 3From Adams’ initial training program, Veteran graduate Evan Premer now owns his own greenhouse and sells the food directly to residents and to restaurant owners, and Veteran graduate Dan Robinson is the manager of the Sushi Den greenhouse.

VTF helps Veterans assimilate effectively, productively and permanently into private citizenry by training them in Controlled Environment Agriculture. The VTF training program is free of charge, a stipend is provided for each Veteran during the 12 week training.

To stay up to date on the great work VTF is doing, subscribe to their newsletter here.

 

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

Clients in Conversation: Building Community Through Shared Gifting – Part II

December 26, 2014

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

Interview with Ellie Lanphier, Program Associate, Philanthropic Services

Shared Gifting is a collaborative funding model that gives ownership, distribution, and allocation authority for gift money to grantees. Here, Ethan Schaffer of Viva Farms and Rita Ordóñez of Community Action of Skagit County discuss their experience as participants of the Shared Gifting circle held by RSF in Skagit County, Washington and how their organizations are building a sustainable, local food system.

Click here for Part I

Ellie: As two groups working together, and having met with your peers, what does a perfectly coordinated, sustainable food system in Skagit look like for each of you? And, what would be involved in creating that system?

Ethan: I don’t necessarily think of sustainability as an end point. If there’s anything we learn from natural systems, it’s that they’re always in flux and changing, and that’s part of what we’re doing.

It’s also creating those connections, the connections between different people and different organizations that really create resilience. I think it starts from the community, really. It starts from process, like even the shared gifting process, where we’re coming together and figuring out, what are the high priority needs in our community, and how can we address them? And those will change over time. So, having those processes of connecting with each other in place is how you get yourself prepared to address the different food systems issues.

And then I think really trying to make a space at the table for all of the different interests involved, and understanding the interdependence between them. For example, we’re an agricultural community with just a lot of big farm businesses, family-owned businesses and corporate farm businesses as well, but we also have a huge farm worker population as well. We’re in the second year of a labor strike and a boycott that’s been going on with one of the big berry producers up here.

I think if we were able to find a way to get everybody at the table and talking about what the different needs are, we’d see that interdependence. The big farms really need a stable, good, reliable, well-skilled workforce. The workers really need businesses to be profitable, and they need the business model and the overall business environment to work for the businesses, so that they can make money. And we need a public policy infrastructure that makes that possible as well.

I think right now, immigration is the biggest thing that’s causing problems in labor. Without a sane immigration system, both the big farms and the workers are having trouble. Somehow, bringing all of those entities to understand their interests, I think would be crucial for the sustainable food systems.

Rita: From our perspective, the distribution factor is huge—making sure that all folks have access at different places within the county or the community. How do we get food to the people, and how do we create a more coordinated system for doing that? Part of my vision of a more ideal, robust, sustainable agriculture system would involve more of the food that we grow within the county staying in the county.

The other piece that I think that we’re trying to figure out is how to bring to the table the voice of the low-income consumer, and gleaning from them what they feel that they need, and what they would like to see. Having that voice represented when we’re having these conversations could radically change the way things look.

The youth voice is also increasingly important. We’re seeing that the youth voice is very powerful, with solutions and ideas that, again, those of us that have been sitting around the table are not bringing. These are new and exciting ideas.

I’m excited by the prospect of continuing this work and trying things out, and seeing how we can make things better little by little. Viva is a strong partner for us in doing that, and I look forward to continuing these conversations and this work, to move the dial for our low-income community members.

I’m thankful that RSF was there to move us forward, from talking about it to actually doing something—doing something small, and trying it out.

Ethan: Rita, just getting to work more with Community Action and all of your work is going to be really valuable for me—understanding more in meetings and with clients, and the people within the low-income communities in Skagit. Realizing really how pervasive issues of hunger, malnutrition, or different health issues like diabetes are, and we’ve seen it in even our farm worker family community. That’s been very eye-opening to me, and it just makes me realize how the connections between our different missions are so important.

Because being in such a rich agricultural valley, nobody should go hungry or be malnourished. It seems like that’s a problem that can be solved.

Rita: Yes. And, I think it’s just the marrying between providing the access, along with providing the conversation, the education, and the sharing of ideas. Because I think that’s where small changes that make big impacts on people’s health, happen. Making those opportunities available for that kind of exchange to go on is super powerful.

Ethan: Yeah, it’s so much more than just handing out food.

Rita: It’s great that we have the RSF process. It helped us move this into action. I’m just hopeful that we can figure out ways to continue to have action, without a dedicated funding source to prompt it or to move it forward. I hope that we can continue to have these conversations with the folks that were around the table and others. Because for me, that’s what I think makes the most difference. That some opportunity for change or improvement happens.

Ethan: Absolutely.

Ellie: Thank you both for your participation and insights.

Rita Ordóñez lives in the Skagit Valley with her husband, landscape painter, Ron Farrell, and their two children, Roland and Olivia.  She has been a local food activist since 2004, working on healthy food access for low income families at food banks, farmers markets, and schools across the State of Washington.  Rita is currently the Community Food Access Manager for Community Action of Skagit County.  She has a BA in Geography from Western Washington University and a MA in Geography from the University of Washington.

Ethan Schaffer is the co-founder of Viva Farms, a 33-acre bilingual farm incubator program in the Skagit Valley. The program helps beginning and Latino farmers transition to farm ownership. Viva Farms won the Green Washington Award, placed first at the Seattle Social Innovation Fast Pitch, and has received coverage in national press, including in the New York Times and Christian Science Monitor. Ethan holds an MBA from the Bainbridge Graduate Institute.

Clients in Conversation: Building Community Through Shared Gifting – Part I

December 23, 2014

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

Interview with Ellie Lanphier, Program Associate, Philanthropic Services

Shared Gifting is a collaborative funding model that gives ownership, distribution, and allocation authority for gift money to grantees. Here, Ethan Schaffer of Viva Farms and Rita Ordóñez of Community Action of Skagit County discuss their experience as participants of the Shared Gifting circle held by RSF in Skagit County, Washington and how their organizations are building a sustainable, local food system.

Ellie: What were your key takeaways from the Shared Gifting experience? How did your participation change how you’re working with related organizations in your region?

Rita: One thing that was really powerful for me was just the sharing aspect—who we are as people and how we came to this event. I don’t think about that often in any meeting or experience. It was great to get the chance to actually know who we were sitting with. It was also interesting to be at the table with folks that we had not worked with previously. We were able to create some relationships that weren’t present before.

Ethan: For me, the community aspect was really powerful—having the opportunity to see all of these programs within our region, and to think about how we can spread the resources that we have amongst our peers. It was a very different way of thinking about our organizations, how they relate to each other, and how we are all funded. It made us think more about what our priorities are as a community.

Rita: Yes, suddenly we had these new people to be able to reach out to, and from that we have been able to explore new opportunities together. The experience made a different sort of work available, one that is shared among several organizations.

Ethan: We’ve been partnering with Rita and Community Action on a number of things like Fresh Fridays Farm Stand. The purpose of that collaboration was to prototype something in which we could help local low-income residents understand where they can get access to healthy, fresh local food, and learn about resources to pay for it. And then also, to learn how to prepare some of these foods, some of the odd varieties and different things that people haven’t tried before, and pull that all into this event –basically kind of a mini-farmers market, hosted right at Skagit Community Action.

Community Action is really the main provider of social services in Skagit County. They do services from A to Z. They issue WIC checks, and provide mobile food bank services. Really, they have the deepest access and reach into communities of need in the county.

It’s a great collaboration with Viva and other farmers markets to be able to go right where people are already used to going. So, on the days when WIC checks are being issued we set up a Fresh Friday resource fair, to connect with people who had maybe never been to a farmers market and didn’t realize they could get a bundle of checks to use exclusively for local products.

Rita: One of the interesting things I heard at the end of last week was from a farmer who was there. He thought the event was great and really important to get word about it out to the Latino community. Even as a farmer, he had never eaten kale before. He learned three ways to prepare it at the fair and was really excited to take that home to his family.

Some of the positive things that happened were things that we didn’t even expect. These lessons just come from bringing people together in this way around healthy, locally-grown food—there’s just so much information that passes between people.

Ethan: At Viva, we’re in an exciting place. We have a few years under our belt now. We’ve had four growing seasons, and we’re starting to see some of our farmers get more established. I think they are ready to expand, and so we’re starting to try to figure out what will it take to help them grow to mid-sized businesses that can be sustainable on their own.

It’s especially great right now, because there have been a lot of issues within the farm worker community up here. To have a few success stories, of farm workers who’ve made the transition to farm ownership, is particularly inspiring for other farm workers right now.

Rita: That’s great, Ethan. We just did a purchase yesterday from Sal [Viva Farms farmer], and he had almost 300 pounds of these beautiful green beans that he harvested. He and I talked about his own personal health journey and his own eating habits changing. Again, I think it’s these things that you don’t expect to come from some of the work that you’ve done or the information you’ve provided that changes their lives. He’s a great success story.

Ellie: After the Shared Gifting experience, did you have any thoughts about how more direct, transparent funding could help your organization and your region be more successful?

Ethan: I would love for the USDA to start doing a transparent shared gifting process.

Rita: I think it would be amazing for anybody to offer it. Most of the time, we send these grant proposals to the “Great Oz”. We have no real idea about what shakes out or what comes after. The thought of being together in a group and having that conversation – like Ethan said earlier, about setting priorities and looking at our community – would be such a powerful model that would really help. If we had a process in place across these different grants that we apply for, it really could help us to realize success and come up with some other ways of looking at how to fund what we’re doing.

Just having space where you can have those conversations is a huge step forward, and then having it tied to a funder being open to looking at what the community values adds an empowering dimension. How are we going to decide how they want to split this money? It’s really transformative for the work that we’re trying to do, and for the hope and the help that we’re trying to give to people.

Ethan: You know, it was interesting – I felt kind of nervous going into the meeting a little bit. I just didn’t know what the process would be like, and what the results would be – if everybody would play nicely, or even worse, if they weren’t honest and open with each other. And even right after the process, it took time to sink in before I started realizing really what was happening there. It was a very powerful experience, to feel accountable to our peers.

I realized that there are so many cool benefits that came out of this as sort of a one-time deal. But what would happen if we did this every year? What if we started delivering grant reports in different ways, and check-ins to our peer network and the other organizations that we’re working with? How would that change how we work with each other?

I really think it could transform the social sector and community. I’d love to test it out – that if you really went for it and said, we’re going to do this every year for ten years, you’d have a completely different result that could be totally transformative.

Click here for Part II

Rita Ordóñez lives in the Skagit Valley with her husband, landscape painter, Ron Farrell, and their two children, Roland and Olivia.  She has been a local food activist since 2004, working on healthy food access for low income families at food banks, farmers markets, and schools across the State of Washington.  Rita is currently the Community Food Access Manager for Community Action of Skagit County.  She has a BA in Geography from Western Washington University and a MA in Geography from the University of Washington.

Ethan Schaffer is the co-founder of Viva Farms, a 33-acre bilingual farm incubator program in the Skagit Valley. The program helps beginning and Latino farmers transition to farm ownership. Viva Farms won the Green Washington Award, placed first at the Seattle Social Innovation Fast Pitch, and has received coverage in national press, including in the New York Times and Christian Science Monitor. Ethan holds an MBA from the Bainbridge Graduate Institute.

Refugee and Immigrant Fund: Growing New Roots in a Safer Land

November 14, 2014

RIF 1

by Ellie Lanphier

On two of the world’s largest rooftops the Refugee and Immigrant Fund, in collaboration with Brooklyn Grange, runs the Urban Farm Recovery Project. Their Urban Agriculture Training program for refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants to New York City teaches job readiness skills for the US job market through individualized weekly workshops on the farm and at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Employment Center. In May, RSF provided a Seed Fund grant to help the Refugee and Immigrant Fund (RIF) grow the Urban Farm Recovery Project from a therapeutic intervention tool to a comprehensive immigrant integration program.

RIF 2The Urban Farm Recovery Project provides professional and social network development through collaboration with a diverse group of staff, volunteers, interns, and visitors from the U.S. and throughout the world. Participants get hands-on training applicable to green job opportunities within the emerging green economy through workshops facilitated by experts in the field. English-language immersion experiences emerge through weekly on-the-farm English conversations while participants experience psychological healing from working in a soothing, productive and collaborative outdoor environment. RIF staff help participants complete and/or update resumes with individualized support from a recruitment expert and provide ongoing support after completion of training, including invitation to events and access to resources. Additionally, the Urban Farm Recovery Project provides a weekly stipend.

The farms are located in the Brooklyn Navy Yard (Brooklyn) and Long Island City (Queens). Rooftop-farming provides many benefits to the community it inhabits, such as shortening the supply chain, reducing carbon footprints, and providing natural cooling during the summer months by absorbing solar energy. The two rooftops combined absorb millions of gallons of storm water per season, and the NYC Department of Environmental Protection acknowledged this service to the city by awarding the Brooklyn Grange a $592,000 grant.

Since its founding in 2007, RIF has provided legal and psychosocial assistance to over 600 refugees, including legal consultations and referrals to pro bono attorneys and medical specialists. While their success stories are many, they recently featured an Urban Agricultural Training program graduate on their blog. Here’s an excerpt:

zakyatZakyat left her native Togo in West Africa three years ago to join her father in the United States. Upon her arrival in New York she began attending the English Language Learners International School in the Bronx, excelling particularly in her math and science courses. She graduated in June of 2014 after three years of hard work and hopes to go to college someday to study biology.

Zakyat joined RIF’s Urban Farm Recovery Project in March of 2014, balancing her school work with her internship at the farm. She enjoys learning about all the different vegetables and says that the program has improved her confidence to use English. Her friendships at the farm have also led to a job! Brooklyn Grange farm intern Allie directed Zakyat to Tribeca Pediatrics, where she will begin training as a medical assistant. This wonderful opportunity is the first step towards Zakyat’s dream of becoming a family doctor, and she’s thankful for the friendships and connections that made it possible.

“I wouldn’t have gotten this job if it wasn’t for RIF,” she says. “I’m learning a lot here, and I still have more to learn.”

 

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

The Changing Ground of Social Finance

November 11, 2014

This CEO letter was originally published in the Fall 2014 RSF Quarterly.

Don Shaffer - DefaultDear Friends,

I urge you to check out Kiva Zip, a website facilitating interest-free loans to small businesses that are “doing good” in the U.S. and Kenya. It’s in the initial test phase, but they have already connected 32,000 individual lenders with 4,500 social entrepreneurs, and enabled over $4.3 million in loans.

As a lender, you can provide as little as $5 towards loans that will ultimately be from $2,000 to $20,000 depending on the project. 90% of the loans have been re-paid.

Kiva has been a pioneer in the field of crowdfunding for many years already; this is their most recent innovation. I love it for several reasons:

  1. These loans are as direct as it gets. Kiva, the non-profit parent organization, supports the overhead of Kiva Zip, and PayPal is contributing their payment processing services for free. So, at least in the U.S., every dollar you lend goes to the borrower.
  2. It seems that many of the loans are extraordinarily catalytic, enabling projects that would not happen otherwise.
  3. The community-building features are great, and will continue to develop. Kiva Zip requires U.S. borrowers to invite at least 15 people from their “trust network” to participate in the loan, thereby keeping the borrower more accountable to re-paying it. And the Kiva Zip Conversations option is particularly intriguing: it allows the lenders and borrowers to connect and learn more about each other.

Of course there is also the Maimonides factor. The 12th century Jewish scholar Maimonides (my-MON-i-deez) declared that the highest form of charity is providing an interest-free loan to a person in need, so long as that loan creates more freedom for the person. I feel strongly that we’ll see a lot more pay-it-forward, interest-free lending in the near future. As a staff, we have been studying the spirit of gift this year at RSF – it’s been a very fruitful journey so far, and I am curious to see where it leads us.

Relevant to our topic this quarter, I’ve learned that the fastest-growing category on Kiva Zip is agriculture; particularly loans to young farmers, for equipment and other needs where there is a big gap in the market. I have witnessed for many years that wherever there is emphasis on Place and Community, social entrepreneurs in the Food & Agriculture sector are the first to show up.

Another brilliant crowdfunding site called Community Sourced Capital was launched recently, based on a single question: what if financial systems were designed to strengthen communities?

Then there’s all the good work happening at Cutting Edge Capital, helping community-based businesses conduct Direct Public Offerings.

At RSF, as many of you know, we believe trust is derived from financial transactions that are direct, transparent, and personal, based on long-term relationships; and we want to celebrate all the efforts being made right now “to bring money back down to earth”, as my friend Woody Tasch from Slow Money is fond of saying. The field of social finance, as we imagine it, is growing.

All the best in this harvest season!

Don Shaffer

President & CEO

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 Megan@MalamaKauai.org 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 Fall Quarterly: Can Food Create Community?

October 8, 2014

In the latest issue of the RSF Quarterly we focus on the community building aspect of food and land. Hear from John Bloom as he explores various views of land and money, and the dynamic tension between the two. Catherine Covington gives us an update on RSF’s Local Initiative Fund which supports the growth of regional food systems and resilient local economies. In Clients in Conversation, Ethan Schaffer of Viva Farms and Rita Ordóñez of Community Action of Skagit County reflect on their experience in the Shared Gifting circle held by RSF in Skagit County, Washington and explain how they are building a sustainable, local food system. Learn about what RSF borrower Uncle Matt’s Organic is doing to revolutionize Florida’s citrus groves. And, see how you can help us find the next 25 social enterprise stars.

To download an electronic copy of the Quarterly, click here.

Fall 2014 Newsletter_COVER

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.

Cocafa1

“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.

SONY DSC

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. www.madecasse.com

RSF Makes a Loan to Eastern Carolina Organics

September 29, 2014

RSF is pleased to announce a new loan to Eastern Carolina Organics (ECO), a farmer and employee-owned food hub distributing fresh, seasonal, organic produce to retailers, institutions, distributors, and restaurants across North Carolina. RSF provided a line of credit through its PRI Fund that will be used to help bridge cash flows between timing of payments to farmers and sales receipts from customers.

ECO started in 2004 as a project of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA) and as a recipient of a $48,000 Tobacco Trust Fund Commission grant. The goal of CFSA was to support emerging organic produce and tobacco farmers while improving the supply of local organic food. In 2005, ECO became a private, grower-and-manager-owned LLC with 13 growers and 2 staff.

Stefan Hartman of Black River Organic Farm, an ECO farmer

Stefan Hartman of Black River Organic Farm, an ECO farmer

Today, ECO works with over 60 growers and 100 wholesale, retail, and institutional customers to provide an efficient and sustainable route to market for organic produce. Several of ECO’s initial farm-owners started farming under five acres of land and have grown to over 200 acres as a result of ECO opening the market, paying good prices, and providing technical assistance for organic certification. Farms with histories in conventional farming but aspirations of transitioning to organic also have a place within ECO, during and after the transition.

“It’s important to us that our business partners are mission-driven like we are and align with our core values and vision for building a sustainable food system,” says Sandi Kronick, CEO of ECO. “We’re grateful for the opportunity to partner with RSF, a leader in lending with a commitment to understanding our needs and unique business model. For example, by granting us flexible winter terms they acknowledge the unique challenges of our seasonal produce business which allows us to continue operations even when the fields are under a blanket of snow.”

Inside the ECO cooler

Inside the ECO cooler

Since ECO’s founding, Sandi has been a leader in the sustainable food movement in North Carolina. By recognizing the need for viable production and distribution networks between organic farmers and their existing and potential customers, Sandi and the ECO team have forged new pathways to success for organic food systems.

The purpose of RSF’s PRI Fund is to support the advancement of a more just and sustainable food system. Food hubs are seen as central and catalytic to developing this system.

“ECO has an incredible reputation for its integrity and service to small farmers and are arguably one of the strongest food hubs on our radar,” says Kate Danaher, RSF Senior Lending Associate. “Food hubs like ECO have the ability to connect producers with growing market demand, which holds incredible promise for positive impact on the local economy, social equity, and the environment.”

2014 ECO Owners

About Eastern Carolina Organics

Started in 2004 as a project of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, Eastern Carolina Organics (ECO) is a private, farmer/worker-owned for-profit company with a mission to support established and emerging organic farmers while improving the supply of local organic produce. ECO is a “Food Hub” that markets and distributes wholesale Carolina organic farm produce to retailers, restaurants and buying clubs. They currently work with over 60 growers and 100 customers throughout the state of North Carolina. www.easterncarolinaorganics.com

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