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The Future of Food: A Nation of Tenant Farmers?

America’s farmland is up for grabs. With two-thirds of the nation’s farmers retiring in the next 20 years, 400 million acres will change hands. Who will control what happens to that land?

tractor in a fieldLand is in huge demand. Highly sought-after by developers, pension funds and rich refugees from Silicon Valley seeking country estates, yet another buyer has arrived on the scene: the investor.

According to the Wall Street Journal, institutional investment into U.S. farmland topped $2 billion from 2013 to 2015. These investments are being purchased through brokers called REITs — Real Estate Investment Trusts — touted as a stable long-term investment in a shaky market full of flimsy financial instruments. In the long run, land is bound to go up because it is limited, and food consumption worldwide is going up. Plus, it speaks to a long-held cherished belief that property is the safest place to put your money. Continue Reading →

Community Land Trusts: Gateway to Farmland

The Oakland Institute, a policy think tank in Oakland, California, reports that huge pension funds, university endowments, banks, sovereign wealth funds, hedge funds and new exchange-traded companies have invested an estimated $25 billion in U.S. farmland, with no guarantee that the land will stay in agriculture. At the same time, farmland near cities is under pressure of development for housing and related services.

Troy Gardens is a 5-acre community farm in Madison, Wisconsin.

“No Farms No Food,” shouts the webpage of the American Farmland Trust. Every day we are losing almost 40 acres of good farm and ranch land in the United States. Once covered with cement, good soil is gone forever.

A crisis is on the horizon of which most consumers are unaware. We are also losing farmers. Fifty-seven percent of farmers are over 60 and getting ready to retire; but who will farm their land? Many young people would like to take up farming and have, but finding affordable land is another matter. Due to escalating prices from development and real estate speculation, land remains out of reach for most young farmers. The fate of our farmland is the fate of our food. It is also to some extent the fate of the planet.

Even organic food, with its premiums, the fastest growing sector in agriculture, does not always produce enough income to pay the mortgage. Could community land trusts offer a solution?

Originally created to preserve open space, land trusts have begun to stretch their reach to include and support agriculture. But farming requires more intensive management than wild, open spaces, and not all trusts are able to provide that oversight. Continue Reading →

Successful Crowdfunding for Agricultural Pursuits

With bank loans hard to come by, many farmers are looking for alterna­tives, and one of the new models is online crowdfunding, a form of Inter­net-based donations, loans and invest­ments. Many of the online platforms, such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo, attract large numbers of entrepreneurs looking for funding.

Barnraiser founder Eileen Gordon with Rob Keller of the Napa Bee Company.

According to Eileen Gordon, founder of Barnraiser, hers is the only crowdfunding platform devoted spe­cifically to funding the sustainable food movement “one farm or healthy food business at a time.”

Speaking at a recent EcoFarm con­ference, Gordon told attendees, “We’re trying to connect with the 40 or more million Americans who care about sustainability, health and wellness, yet they don’t often know how to affect change. There are still many parts of the country where consumers don’t have the opportunity to vote with their forks at the grocery stores by choosing sustainable foods.”

Gordon asserts that crowdfunding is rapidly changing the way we drive innovation, personal aspirations, new products and social change.

“No group is more deserving than those on the front lines of the food movement, leading us toward health and sustainability,” she said. “Barn­raiser is a place to meet and back the thousands of food and farming innovators and put better food on our collective table. When one farmer gets a new barn, the whole community gets better food.”

Gordon is also co-owner with her husband, Michael Chiarello, of Chiarello Family Vineyards in Napa Valley. About 12 years ago, she and Chiarello acquired a 100-year-old vine­yard in the Napa Valley and converted the land into a sustainable farm. It was an old historic farm that had been planted before prohibition and hadn’t been farmed in over a decade.

“In the process of taking this old farm and rejuvenating the land and converting it to sustainable farming, we met some fantastic people in the realms of organic and biodynamic farming. As we saw our property come back to life as a healthy ecosystem started to thrive, this was incredibly exciting to us.” Continue Reading →

Slow Money: Shared Risk Investment

Slow Money Founder, Author Woody Tasch Discusses Community-Based Economics, Soil as Foundation for Societal Health

Almost a decade ago a book was published that seemed perfectly attuned to its time, as an economic crisis created by Wall Street’s excesses churned the emotions of the entire nation. It was called Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing As If Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered. The title was obviously inspired by the Slow Food movement begun in Italy by Carlo Petrini, who wrote the foreword. The book’s author, Woody Tasch, turned out to have an extensive background in the more idealistic byways of finance capital. He pioneered mission-related investing as a foundation chair in the ’90s and went on to chair a nonprofit network of angel investors who put hundreds of millions into early-stage sustainability-oriented businesses. He was also the founding chairman of another socially responsible project, the Community Development Venture Capital Alliance. Clearly no newcomer to the world of money, Tasch knew well all of its hazards and pathologies, the capital flows racing around the world at the speed of light that can upend a nation’s economy almost overnight, the charitable organizations that devote much of their budgets to swanky New York offices and so on. Continue Reading →

Book Excerpt: The Simple Has Been Made Complicated

The following is an excerpt is reprinted from SOIL: Notes Towards the Theory and Practice of Nurture Capital by Slow Money founder Woody Tasch.

We live in a world in which the complicated has been made simple and the simple has been made complicated.

Pushing the power button on your computer, simple. Having an authentic conversation with your neighbor, complicated. Buying a bag of potato chips, simple. Growing potatoes in your front yard, complicated. Owning a diversified portfolio of gold stocks, simple. Making a loan to a farmer down the road, complicated.

So, forget about matters of the Thoreauvian or fiduciary kind and think about the farmer down the road. And about Newman’s Own.

How beautifully simple. Giving away all the profits:

Our “100% of Profits to Charity” commitment is one of two founding values upon which Newman’s Own is built (the other being “Quality Will Always Trump the Bottom Line”). It’s a very important part of our story, it’s in our DNA, it’s why we exist, it motivates all of us, and it’s the true heart of Newman’s Own. We are proud of this commitment, and, especially in these times of so many promotional programs tying business sales to social purpose, want to be clear and unambiguous about what we mean when we say “100% of Profits to Charity.” It’s not something we just thought up to boost sales, it’s not a play on words, and one shouldn’t need an accounting degree to understand it. We have been doing it for close to 35 years, and as of May 2017, have donated over $490 million to thousands of deserving organizations around the world.1

Continue Reading →

Ecological Economics

Herman Daly, Ph.D., is an ecological economist and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. His life’s work is to explore how massive-scale human activities can be ordered in ways that take into account the biosphere — “ecosystem services” in economic parlance — the life support systems on which everything depends. As a professor, he’s encouraged students to look beyond the existing neoclassical economic paradigm — the one that says we can, in essence, have infinite growth on a finite planet. Daly came of intellectual age in the late 1950s and early ’60s while attending Rice University in Houston, Texas, his home state. He believed economics was a good choice for a major because it combined humanities, science and philosophy, and he figured it might help him make a living upon graduation. But he later decided choosing economics was a mistake, “because economics along with social science generally does not really have one foot in the sciences and the other foot in the humanities. I kind of thought it had both feet in the air,” he says. Still, that sophomore-year mistake led to his life’s work — attempting to ground economics in both the physical sciences and in the humanities and ethics. After receiving his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, Daly taught economics for a time, then went to Northeast Brazil to teach as Ford Foundation Visiting Professor at the University of Ceara. Daly worked as a senior economist in the Environment Department of the World Bank from 1988 to 1994.

He also served as a research associate at Yale University, visiting fellow at the Australian National University, and a senior Fulbright lecturer in Brazil. He has more than 100 articles to his name in professional journals and anthologies as well as many books, including Ecological Economics and the Ecology of Economics (1999); Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications (with J. Farley, 2003, 2011); and From Uneconomic Growth to a Steady-State Economy (2014).

Interviewed by Leigh Glenn

ACRES U.S.A. You’ve said you were interested in helping to resolve poverty in Latin America through economic growth and development. How quickly did that change after you entered the field of economics?

HERMAN DALY. That took a while to disappear. In a way, that’s both fortunate and unfortunate. That made it easier for me to get along as an economist, to be promoted and get tenure. From the time I graduated, it took maybe 10 to 12 years before I had some experience teaching in Northeast Brazil. Reading Mathus, Rachel Carson and more recently then, having studied under Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen at Vanderbilt, re-reading John Stuart Mill — all of those things, plus the whole big population question in Northeast Brazil.

ACRES U.S.A. What kinds of real-life examples did you see in Brazil that prompted you to question the emphasis on economic growth as a panacea? Continue Reading →