Publications / Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture

E. F. Schumacher: He Taught Us To Build Bridges and Plant Trees

Introduction by Nancy Jack Todd

Will Raap is an extraordinarily accomplished and effective individual, and I don’t think Vermont would be the advanced state it is without his presence and his influence. My research into his story begins in Burlington, Vermont, where he founded the Gardener’s Supply family of companies, and he is still chairman of the board. This year Gardener’s Supply will have sales of over $60 million. It employs more than 250 people and is one of the largest on-line and catalog gardening companies in this country.

In its spring 1989 catalog Gardener’s Supply became the first national company to speak out against genetic engineering. Will helped to initiate the Genetic Engineering Action Network in Vermont, a nonprofit dedicated to creating a dialog about genetic engineering, which recently presented a resolution calling for the regulation of genetically engineered food and genetically modified organisms in Vermont agriculture.

Will also founded the Intervale Foundation, later renamed the Intervale Center, which is largely funded by Gardener’s Supply. The Center’s mission is to develop enterprises that generate economic and social opportunity while protecting natural resources. The Intervale, which had long been a landfill for old cars, tires, used appliances, and other trash, is now a wonderful pastoral area of small farms close to downtown Burlington. Will saw the Intervale as a lost farming resource for the Burlington area and sought to return it to its agricultural heritage, which he has done. He began by restoring soil; to do so he established Intervale Compost Products and worked with the city to turn yard and food waste, spent grain from local breweries, and milk curds from Ben and Jerry’s into compost. The Intervale Center annually supplies more than $500,000 worth of food to Burlington and distributes 20,000 pounds to low-income families. It also helps teachers develop curricula around sustainability in local school programs.

Will is now in the process of creating what he calls Intervale South, working with a devastated area of Costa Rica that is being restored and will thrive again.

Let me begin by confessing that it’s Fritz Schumacher’s fault that I am here. Much of what I have done in my professional life and much of what I will talk about today are direct results of my discovery of his ideas in 1974 and meeting with him three times over the next three years. He was a gift from above for me as I struggled in graduate school to understand what I was being told about how the world worked and should work, but none of it made any sense at all. It seemed to me to be a world that simply was on the wrong path.

I have read a number of the Schumacher Center lectures, and I didn’t find much focus on Schumacher himself. What I want to do today is talk about this brilliant man who was ahead of his time. Schumacher was a practical futurist and quiet revolutionary. His vision of a human-scale world, his common-sense understanding of the need for people to remain close to the land in their work and their values, his articulation of the importance of “natural capital” and the consequences of our squandering it (even before the first energy crisis in the 1970s introduced the public to the threat of “peak oil”) were prophetic. I believe we must integrate his idea of an alternative economic system into our conventional economic thinking.

For the first time I had encountered an economist who was concerned about something that is normally “externalized” from economic thought. Schumacher brought me a view of the world that no one else had. He was a professional economist working for the industrial world, and this made it even more remarkable that he regarded traditional economics as bankrupt for failing to recognize the value of “the commons”—the social commons as well as the natural commons. He was a revolutionary who operated within the establishment, giving voice nearly forty years ago to the personal, social, and environmental costs of materialism and overconsumption. Others had perhaps skirted around these issues, but he was addressing them in a way that hit the nerve of mainstream understanding, presenting them to a society that was beginning to quake with the question of how industrialization was going to allow us to survive for the long term.

As a result of his assessment of where industrialization was heading, what did this noted economist and policy thinker do, entrenched as he was in the heart of the European industrial system as Chief Economist to the British Coal Board—and do in a way that exuded common sense, exuded the hope that we could change course? He built bridges. He built bridges of understanding and of alternative paths forward through his writing and speaking, through his Intermediate Technology Development Group and his position as President of the British Soil Association, through his ideas about decentralized economics, through recognizing the crucial role of meaningful work and of a healthy partnership between capital and labor, and through his work in the developing countries to help them consider how best to industrialize. Unlike most economists and transformational thinkers Schumacher actually crossed his conceptual bridges and took action in the world. This appealed to me. Stacy Mitchell spoke earlier today about the community action she sees taking place all over the country. Conceptualizing is not enough; it’s action that is needed. On my gravestone I’d like to have carved, “He tested and proved common-sense ideas for a more sustainable world that works.”

The biggest bridge Schumacher envisioned and designed may have been the one intended to take us from the industrial age to the post-industrial age, to an era that others have called the sustainable or ecological age. We who have been part of the nano-second in time that comprises the industrial age, this infinitesimal piece of human and natural history, have viewed our role on Earth with the hubris of domination. Schumacher offered another view: we are a small part of a living system, and our fouling of the planet’s nest will have dangerous consequences. He made his arguments not as a tree hugger but as a coal hugger! He understood the extent of our reliance on nonrenewable energy resources and the danger of not acknowledging the fact that these resources are nonrenewable.

These are the reasons why Schumacher was one of the most influential people in my life. I withdrew from the Ph.D. program in economics partly because of his eleven-page essay, “Buddhist Economics. When I read it, I suddenly realized that economists had no clue about the role that natural systems play in economic systems. The basic principles of economic thought had failed to recognize the reality of the interrelationship between the world’s economic and natural systems.

Master Bridge Builder

Fritz Schumacher was a master bridge builder in a world in which answers to mega-challenges are provided for the most part by captains of small, rudderless boats. He designed more bridges than he actually built, and now I know why: it takes a great deal of time and perseverance, as the Schumacher Center for a New Economics and other such organizations on the threshold know, to build a good bridge that can take us from one reality to the next. He imagined bridges to a future that can serve material well-being in our lives but also serve the needs of healthy societies and restored ecological systems. Once you understand the speed of the river and the depth of the chasms that we’re confronting now, once you understand the danger of failing to make the transition from a costly and failing paradigm to a new and healthier one, the need for good bridges becomes obvious. It became my life ambition to be 1/100th the bridge builder that Schumacher was.

Schumacher even left a blueprint to help me target where and how I might focus my bridge-building efforts. The blueprint for my life’s work came from the first chapter of Small Is Beautiful, where he makes the case for reinventing the modern industrial system because it fails to value correctly three kinds of capital, which Schumacher designated as 1) “fossil fuels” (although it is obvious that embedded natural capital extends beyond fossil fuels, in the early 1970s this was still a revolutionary idea); 2) “the tolerance margins of nature” (meaning that nature has a certain capacity to absorb what we throw at it, but beyond that amount the tolerance begins to erode); and 3) “the human substance.” By the way, this was the first place I ever came across the idea that economic analysis and enterprise accounting should focus on a triple bottom line, not only return on financial capital invested but also return on social capital and environmental capital invested. Such enterprises are now called “profit, people, and planet” businesses or social enterprises.

Here is the paragraph from Small Is Beautiful that provided my blueprint and also gave me a sense of the principles that should guide the development of enterprise in my life and contribute to my primary bridge-building goal:

[O]ur most important task is to get off our collision course. And who is there to tackle such a task? I think every one of us, whether old or young, powerful or powerless, rich or poor, influential or uninfluential. To talk about the future is useful only if it leads to action now. And what can we do now, while we are still in a position of “never having had it so good”? To say the least—which already is very much—we must thoroughly understand the problem and begin to see the possibility of evolving a new life-style, with new methods of production and new patterns of consumption, a life-style designed for permanence. To give only three preliminary examples: (1) In agriculture and horticulture we can interest ourselves in the perfection of production methods which are biologically sound, build up soil fertility, and produce health, beauty, and permanence. Productivity will then look after itself. (2) In industry we can interest ourselves in the evolution of small-scale technology, relatively nonviolent technology, “technology with a human face”, so that people have a chance to enjoy themselves while they are working. (3) In industry again—and surely industry is the pace-setter of modern life—we can interest ourselves in forms of partnership between management and [employees], and even in forms of common ownership.

In this one paragraph, which I first read in 1974, Schumacher references key strategies for building good bridges to the future. I’ve synthesized these into five strategies that have guided me and that I’ve employed throughout my working life:

  1. Envision objectively where we are headed and determine overall whether this direction is taking us on a “collision course.” (Even though we can understand where we’re headed, businesses typically think only one year or one-quarter ahead; governments think two years or four years ahead, depending on election cycles. We need to think generations ahead, we need to think centuries ahead. I think Schumacher recognized this idea of a collision course before anyone else, at least in regard to articulating it in economic terms and to the mainstream.)
  2. Take action, energized by personal passion and potential impact on real problems.
  3. Develop initiatives in specific market niches that can increase “permanence,” including in agriculture and horticulture.
  4. Build your team and collaborate, which includes offering meaningful work and new forms of employee ownership. (Collaboration is core to the concept of a capitalist or market system that will succeed for the long term, because if we’re only competing, we end up losing the opportunity to come together and find higher common ground apart from the short-term “win-lose” world that typifies market economies.)
  5. Leverage the coming revolution in ecological economics. (Schumacher didn’t exactly say this. What he said was that we must find new methods of production and consumption that fit within the limitations of the natural world. In the past two decades the emerging field of ecological economics has helped us build new bridges between insatiable greed and desire on one side and a finite supply of resources on the other.)

I’ve used these five bridge-building strategies to support and help develop the following “social enterprises”: In 1983 I started Gardener’s Supply Company; out of that grew a company called Seventh Generation in 1988 and in 1992 Living Technologies (which I worked on with John Todd), Stewardship Farms in 1995, Royall River Roses in 1999, and Know Your Source in 2006. These are for-profit businesses in Vermont that have embraced a triple-bottom-line view of the world.

I also developed nonprofit businesses, the most central of which is the Intervale Center with its Intervale Compost Products, Intervale Conservation Nursery, Intervale Agricultural Development Consulting Services, and Intervale Food Enterprise Center, plus dozens of organic farms and related food enterprises the Intervale Center helped to incubate. These are all “networked enterprises” that aim to succeed through collaboration in serving the common goal of achieving a more robust local food system. This idea of building an interactive organic network of local businesses that are synergistic and cross-fertilizing is what I want to talk about today.

The First Ecological Economist

Schumacher was one of the first economic thinkers to reflect on our obligation to understand the global picture and then do what’s right for local needs. I think there is little that is more important at this time of global political and economic turmoil than to consider how we can sustain the best parts of our local culture and economy. My singular purpose since leaving California can be summed up as “to think globally while acting locally” to restore our world. I know that’s a bit of a cliché by now, but it is an amazing pillar of power. Schumacher did this work internationally through the Intermediate Technology Development Group. It was brilliant on his part to look at this idea of intermediate (later called “appropriate”), human-faced, community-based technology and realize that we need to employ it in the developing world. The Intermediate Technology Development Group was inspirational to me in the 1970s, and I’ve been trying ever since to incorporate its ideas into my work.

Schumacher was also one of the first Western economists to call for fundamental reform in the market economy for environmental reasons. His advice to us thirty-three years ago was: “Study the essential nature of the private enterprise system and the possibilities of evolving an alternative system that might help answer the problem with modern economics: that greed and envy demand continuous and limitless economic growth of a material kind, without proper regard for conservation, and this type of growth cannot possibly fit into a finite environment.” And he was one of the first economists to say we should look ahead ten, twenty, a hundred years, and then we’ll see we’re in trouble. This was not the predominant way of thinking about economic development at that time, or even today. But in fact that is what I did. I worked in Scotland and then Vermont and now also in Costa Rica to first study and then build market-based alternative enterprises—we now call them triple-bottom-line or social enterprises.

I think we have to focus our energies on local issues, but even more important for the sustainability of social enterprises we need to work on what we get excited about. There are two primary areas I have focused on. The first, building more sustainable local food systems, grew out of personal experience. My father was a high-school agriculture teacher, and I grew up in an agricultural community called Centerville, California, which later became Fremont, which became Silicon Valley, which became nonagricultural. I saw that transformation happen, and I thought it was just plain stupid that farming was considered expendable and we couldn’t find a way to accommodate agriculture as part of economic development. The second area of my focus has been restoring natural capital, although I didn’t call it that twenty years ago when I determined that nature makes such a crucial core contribution to our economic system that we simply must figure out how to honor and restore it. Both of these areas, local agriculture and restoring natural capital, are well-suited to advancing the precept of thinking globally and acting locally because sixty years of a globalizing food system, fueled by the waste and inefficiencies of the petroleum economy, have gutted the local food systems and ravaged the natural capital so essential to our agricultural systems.

Building bridges to restore depleted natural capital on a global scale—including topsoil, waterways, and biodiversity—is an enormous challenge. Changing the direction of our global food system may seem impossible, but if we consider changes needed locally or bioregionally, then the food-system challenge is not so overwhelming. We can use the “invisible” power of markets to unlock the latent potential of locally owned businesses and farms. We can initiate smart local policies like “green” taxes, community agriculture, local currency systems, energy conservation incentives, and incentives for businesses to replace imports with local goods. After all, globalization is often driven by artificial policy mechanisms supported nationally or internationally. We are not at the mercy of globalization, but it’s only through local action that most of us come to realize this. And I’ve found that marshalling the capacity of alternative and conservation-minded private enterprise systems offers a sturdy bridge for moving forward.

I experienced success as a social entrepreneur in Vermont and Costa Rica by employing the Schumacher-inspired five-step bridge-building process to improve local food systems and to help restore natural capital. The five steps do work: envisioning your desired long-term future and choosing a smart course forward; discovering your personal passion and a way to express it; defining and planning for a good market niche; creating collaborative relationships internally and externally; and taking advantage of the new economic understanding that we live in a finite world where nature has inherent value that we must ultimately internalize into our economic world.

Vermont is a Good Incubator for Social Enterprises

I left California thirty years ago, abandoning a career in community development and rural economic planning because of “globalization,” although it wasn’t called that then. Family farms were giving way to large industrialized farms. The Proposition 13 property-tax revolt in California did reduce property taxes for individual homeowners, but it also reduced the capacity for local communities to plan for the long term and forced poorly planned development and sprawl on many agricultural communities so that they could balance their budgets. Their immediate need was to bring in other kinds of property-tax revenue through commercial development, and very rapidly the best agricultural land in the world became more valuable when used for malls and parking lots than for farming. New malls away from downtowns made economic (property tax) sense but undermined the vitality of communities. Local actions were dictated by and at the mercy of external forces, causing poor long-term choices. Strong global attacks on weak local defense seemed to be the predominant local planning environment. I decided I didn’t want to fight this situation; I wanted to live and work where people were receptive to what I thought were common-sense, long-term solutions.

I am fortunate to have landed in Vermont to do my work of evolving an alternative private-enterprise system. Working and expressing our values in a place that believes “small is beautiful” and fosters collaborative opportunities, that understands what you’re talking about or is at least willing to listen, is a huge advantage, especially if you are fighting the prevailing “Wal-Martization” of our country. I think the same is true of this area of western Massachusetts.

I came to Vermont in 1980 to work for a good company that was among the first triple-bottom-line businesses, a relatively large company with about fourteen hundred employees. Two years later it was gutted in a hostile, greed-inspired take-over resulting in the termination of all Vermont managers, including me. In 1983 I started Gardener’s Supply Company with a dozen employees in an old carpet-factory building in Winooski. One rainy Sunday afternoon in 1985 I was working in the office—entrepreneurs tend to work seven days a week in the early days of a business—and when I headed for the parking lot to go home for dinner, I discovered that my car had been stolen. The next day the police called and said they had found my car being stripped just across the Winooski River in Burlington’s Intervale area.

I drove down Intervale Road to fetch my car. As I crossed the railroad tracks, I knew I was crossing onto the wrong side of the tracks. The first thing I passed was an abandoned pig slaughterhouse and then the crumbling Calkins Farm, the last dairy in Burlington, run by a ninety-year-old woman who was barely holding on. I drove by the wood-fueled McNeil electrical generating plant, and then I came to the floodplain where the town dump had been eighty years ago. People still remembered this road as the town-dump road. Piled six or seven feet high on both sides of the dirt road were mattresses and TVs and deer carcasses and every kind of household trash that people didn’t want to drive to the new town dump to dispose of. There was also an abandoned piggery, which had provided the slaughterhouse with pigs. Farther along there were three hundred or so junked cars, hundreds of acres of chemical corn farms with absentee owners, followed by the city’s sludge pit, where all the stuff from the wastewater treatment plants that didn’t get digested was put, in the hope that someday the sludge fairy would come and magically make it all go away.

Finally I came to Devil’s Tower, a four-story cinderblock building where the fire department practiced putting out three- and four-story fires. It was so named by local youth because of various nefarious activities that went on there. That’s where drug deals were made, that’s where a corpse was found, that’s where a lot of bad things in Burlington were happening. And that’s where my car was. Actually, it wasn’t totally there because various parts were missing.

Having my car stolen was in fact a blessing. The experience introduced me to the Intervale and helped me envision how our fledgling business could embrace the task of helping restore a discarded part of our community. The Intervale, a 700-acre abandoned floodplain and junkyard in the middle of Burlington, offered our business a venue for deepening the passion that led us to start Gardener’s Supply and help our customers grow healthy food in home and market gardens through our products and services. Indeed,  the area has been transformed into a valuable community resource through the work of many enterprises, beginning in the late 1980s.

The Intervale opened the door to pursuing our growing vision of the power of collaboration. We had to collaborate because we owned none of those 700 acres. Every piece of it was owned by either private farmers, Burlington Electric Department, the City of Burlington, or Winooski Valley Park District. Every time we wanted to do something, we had to convince the owners that our ideas for this land were better than the current practices. So we partnered with the City, Burlington Electric Department, University of Vermont, dairy farmers and other businesses, nonprofits, and individuals who cared about this special community land resource. Collaborating with people, offering them a vision of how this land could be used, opened the door for things to come. It not only gave me the opportunity to “(s)tudy the essential nature of the private enterprise system and the possibilities of evolving an alternative system which fits the new situation,” as Schumacher challenged, but to actually start building that system.

The first thing I did after moving Gardener’s Supply to the Intervale was to go to Burlington’s then mayor, Bernie Sanders, with three ideas for the Intervale: capture the waste heat from the McNeil plant and grow tomatoes in greenhouses; start organic vegetable farming to help feed Burlington; or start a compost project from yard waste. He said, “Why don’t you take our leaves and compost them?” And that was the first restorative enterprise in the Intervale. It enabled me to pursue the two things I wanted to focus on: building a stronger local food system and restoring natural capital. The latter was made somewhat easy because we were taking in hundreds and then thousands and then tens of thousands of tons of organic waste each year and composting it. That compost helped us rebuild soil with 0.5 percent organic matter and increase it to 3 and 4 and then 5 percent. It was our goal to compost 10 percent of Chittenden County’s solid waste; we’re at about 12 percent now, having added food waste, and we think we can raise it to 20 percent over time.

Restoring this historically valuable agricultural resource in the middle of Burlington allowed us to consider going on to build a stronger local food system. What is a local food system? One definition, based on the economic point of view, is that to the extent possible a local food system circulates dollars regionally among locally owned and operated food producers, manufacturers, retailers, and restaurants on the one hand and consumers and all other supporting businesses on the other. My definition is closer to what we have been doing: building a local-food Fort Apache to fend off the multinational industrial food juggernaut that supports and subsidizes all the wrong things in terms of what we’re talking about here today. I wanted to support local business, healthy food, and local sustainable agriculture that can serve local needs.

David Pimental at Cornell University reports that our current food system requires ten calories of fossil-fuel energy to deliver one calorie of food energy; that negative ten-to-one ratio can’t last forever. Of the ten calories of input, two calories go to growing the food, four calories are needed for processing, and four calories are for refrigeration and cooking. So much processing, distribution, and most cooking, refrigeration, and the other energy costs of the food we eat are required because of the long-distance nature of our food system. At the retail counter, since 1950 we’ve moved from farmers receiving more than 50 cents for every retail dollar of food consumed to only about 15 cents today.

For decades we’ve been moving in the wrong direction: the energy required to fuel our food system per unit of output has been increasing while the percent of the consumer dollar that goes to farmers has been declining. In a talk I gave in 1981 I said this trend must change and we must “relocalize” parts of our food system; otherwise,  when energy costs increase, our petroleum-dependent food system will not be sustainable. I was off by twenty-five years. Now I think we have in fact reached the tipping point for local food systems as a result of economic forces, most importantly the cost of petroleum but also as a result of the market, of what people want. They want healthier food, fresher food; they want food that really comes from farmers in their area and that reflects the tastes in their area. These market forces are creating the first major shift in sixty years toward increasing competitive advantage for local food systems over industrial food production, processing, and distribution.

As we face peak oil and the end of cheap petroleum energy, it is crucial that energy decisions not be made on the basis of conventional economic thinking that assumes cheap oil is permanent and the environmental impact of carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions is neutral. In the future we will be talking more and more about energy returned on energy invested (EROEI), similarly to the way we use return on investments (ROI) to evaluate capital investments.

A Gardening-Inspired Alternative Private-Enterprise System

I started Gardener’s Supply to help people grow more of their own food using organic and environmentally safe tools and methods adapted from commercial agriculture, imported from other countries, and developed in our Intervale test gardens. Our vision and mission from day one was this: “We are in business to spread the joys and rewards of gardening because gardening nourishes the body, elevates the spirit, and makes the world a better place. We are the market leaders in developing and marketing innovative, earth-friendly products and information that help people garden more successfully.”

Now, that’s what we really believe in, that’s what we have been striving to do. We’ve done it with such a degree of success that a year ago a representative from Home Depot came to me and said: “We’ve really studied this garden business, and we have an expanding enterprise. We have a billion-dollar on-line internet enterprise; we want to create a ten-billion dollar one, and we’d like you to join us.” Can’t you just imagine Home Depot embracing the idea that we are a business “to spread the joys and rewards of gardening because gardening . . . “? I don’t think so! The representative said, “And if you don’t join us, we will replace you.” So please think about that when you go to Home Depot and buy gardening tools.

Gardener’s Supply has achieved success because we are guided by our vision and passion for gardening. To quantify our national catalog and internet business: we have 250 employees in Vermont plus five in Des Moines plus one in Holland (we do a fair amount of Dutch bulb business now). In our third year we formed an ESOP to share ownership and encourage a more collaborative work environment. Our employees have helped millions of customers nationwide to produce hundreds of thousands of tons of compost in their own backyards, grow millions of pounds of lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes (often the earliest harvested in the neighborhood, and as gardeners know, that first tomato is important), and save tens of millions of gallons of water by mulching and drip irrigation techniques. We have helped hundreds of thousands of gardeners transition from chemicals to organic fertilizers as well as natural pest and weed control. So we as a business have had the point of view that our success has partly to do with the impact we’ve had on our community and more broadly on our environment. I don’t think Home Depot would have those priorities.

In 1985 our little company was two years old. We had just broken even for the first time, and we wanted to do more for our own neighborhood. Given our commitment to growing food on a small scale, we decided that we wanted to use our resources to build a more sustainable local food system using the power of social enterprise and the local market. So we adopted the Intervale. We moved our young business there, hoping to make a difference in our community over the long term as our business grew. We wanted to “find our place on the planet, dig in and take responsibility from there,” as poet Gary Snyder advised. That’s what the Intervale was for us, “our place on the planet.” We wanted to stop the damage to the Intervale—to its soil, water, flora, and fauna—and then begin to restore those hundreds of acres.

The Intervale floodplain, located approximately one mile from downtown Burlington, contains some of the best agricultural soils in New England, and parts of it have been under cultivation for one thousand years, first by Native Americans, then by pioneers like Ethan Allen, and in the early twentieth century by market gardeners and small dairies serving Burlington. But as happened around most urban areas, farming was gradually pushed out as food production became industrialized on large and distant farms. Gardener’s Supply moved to the Intervale in 1986 with a commitment to restore this once valuable community resource, and twenty years later we figure that goal is about half achieved.

We felt that if we could add value to the Intervale, then value would “karmically” come back to us. That was our first goal. Our second goal was to build a bridge from the Intervale as Burlington’s dump and crime scene to Burlington’s farm and park. As for the farm, we set as our goal to grow, right in the middle of the city, 10 percent of the fresh food consumed in Burlington, an audacious goal for the cold Northeast. We’ve now reached 7 percent. As for the park, every month thousands of people come with their dogs and their bikes and their birdwatcher binoculars to a place where twenty-five years ago you would not go after dark. Not only you would not go there, the Burlington police would not go there. Over time we have returned most of the land of the Intervale to nature trails, nurseries, and organic farms.

The Intervale Farms Program is the most successful local organic-farming catalyst organization in the country, I think. No one else claims that, so I will. It has incubated dozens of farms, including the largest (with five-hundred members feeding two-thousand people) and second largest community-supported-agriculture (CSA) farms in Vermont. We lease land to thirteen farms operating in the Intervale, which  employ around seventy people and produce over 500,000 pounds of fresh produce annually plus cut flowers, grains, soybeans, eggs, berries, herbs, and honey. We not only lease the land but the greenhouses and tractors and irrigation systems as well. The refrigeration and access to market we make available are provided on a cooperative shared-cost basis.

In 1987 Gardener’s Supply started the Intervale Compost Project (to become Intervale Compost Products), Vermont’s first community composting program, which has become the largest composting operation in Vermont, converting 20,000 tons of waste per year, the equivalent of 12 percent of Chittenden County’s solid waste, into premium compost and improving soil fertility on thousands of acres across Vermont. In 1989 we started Intervale Community Farm, the first CSA membership farm in Vermont and now the largest CSA farm in New England, feeding nearly two-thousand family members. We also began building the Intervale Bike and Recreation Path to make this diverse natural area more accessible and inviting.

In 1990 Gardener’s Supply organized Intervale projects under the nonprofit Intervale Center to continue the land restoration and agricultural renaissance of the Intervale. Today the Intervale Center manages 354 acres in a patchwork of organic gardens and farms, nurseries, a community composting facility, community gardens, recreation trails, and wildlife corridors. The Center is recognized nationally and internationally as a successful model of sustainable community agriculture and local food-system transformation. Dozens of local teenagers join the Intervale Center’s Healthy City program every summer to learn about farming, entrepreneurship, and personal accountability.

In 2003 we started the Intervale Conservation Nursery, which is helping to plant tens of thousands of native plants for riparian and land restoration. If anyone wants to start a really good land-based business, think about riparian plants that can help restore wetlands and the buffer zones around riparian areas. That is going to be a big business because developers will be required to embrace the restoration of those kinds of natural systems in order to pursue development.
We have made good progress with the local food system, but by no means have we completed the effort. One of our next major initiatives is a Food Enterprise Center that will take the output from our thirteen farms and the thirty-five farms we’re working with outside of the Intervale and bring it to a hub where it can be cleaned and refrigerated and processed and distributed efficiently. Then we hope to persuade the University of Vermont and St. Michael’s College as well as the local hospital and large restaurants to buy more local food. We also will then be able to incubate multiple businesses that will take our organic soybeans, for example, and produce organic tofu on a local basis. The Intervale Food Enterprise Center is something we’re going to have to raise money for; we need to get investors excited about taking this idea of local food systems to the next level. Now, in Vermont you can’t raise vegetables all year long, but one of the strategies of the Food Enterprise Center will be to try to extend our selling season from six or seven months to nine or ten months by way of the Food Processing Center, which will refrigerate and freeze produce and prepare it for prepackaged meals.

Our efforts to strengthen the local food system are expanding beyond the Intervale as the Intervale Center’s consulting team helps thirty-five farms in northern Vermont become more profitable and sustainable. It took a few generations for industrial farming policies to destroy local agriculture, and it will take time to rebuild it through new farms serving local demand. We don’t expect Washington to help soon, so the Intervale Center is sharing its experience through collaboration with new farms and farms transitioning to serve local markets.

Today the Intervale Center’s mission “to develop farm- and land-based enterprises that generate economic and social opportunity while protecting natural resources” has expanded to include farms outside the Intervale. Center programs combine to be a catalyst for transforming our local food system. Over fifty enterprises are part of or are supported by these programs. The decision Gardener’s Supply’s made to move to the Intervale and restore this community resource has resulted in an alternative private-enterprise system.

The current issue of Intervale Explorer, our annual newspaper, tells about what we do in the Intervale. The centerfold has a map of the Intervale and all its enterprises.

Employing Schumacher’s Bridge-Building “Blueprints”

How did we specifically employ the five strategies I synthesized from Schumacher’s advice in Small Is Beautiful to help generate this complex of gardening, farming, and land-restoring enterprises? First, we envisioned objectively where we wanted to be heading: we wanted to help “relocalize” the Burlington area food system by means of home gardening, market gardening, and sustainable agriculture. Once we found people who were drawn to our vision, we created the enterprises that could support it.

Second, taking action, we moved Gardener’s Supply to the Intervale, which energized our company in its purpose and passion to turn the place we had made our new home into a valuable community, agricultural, and recreational resource. We convinced the community of Burlington to recognize the 700-acre, wrong-side-of-the-tracks, don’t-go-there-after-dark-because-you’ll-be-mugged area as a community asset.

Third, to develop enterprises that serve specific market niches we committed to produce healthier food on more sustainable farms. After all, everyone eats, so there are plenty of niches in the food business. Then we coordinated the resources and needs of our growing gardening business with the resources and needs of our new neighborhood as we showed an entire city how its solid waste could become compost, which in turn would increase soil fertility for growing food organically and help restore an abandoned community “backyard.” We were simply building a garden but on a grand scale!

The value of the fourth strategy, building a team and collaborating with others, is corroborated by Mark Albion in his new book, True to Yourself: Leading a Values-Based Business. After interviewing dozens of social entrepreneurs Albion concludes: “You can’t do it alone. Successful leaders learned that, paradoxically, to reach your dreams you must help other people reach their dreams.” First we initiated collaboration through the new strategy of a CSA farm. Find a willing farmer and rally a group of people around that farmer, essentially guaranteeing him or her income for the whole year. The farmer becomes successful, the CSA becomes successful.

A more recent example of the power of collaboration is a farmer in the Intervale named Spencer Blackwell. For five years he had a mixed-vegetable direct-marketing operation serving a local farmers market, but he also had an organic bean, soybean, and grain enterprise in the Intervale. The Intervale Center helped him build his market and hone his farming skills. He has just teamed up with Vermont Land Trust to move to a 135-acre farm in Middlebury conserved by the Trust. He has markets to bring with him, he has expertise to bring with him, he has tractors and equipment to bring with him, and he has the confidence that he can be successful on that land. The future productivity of this one farm is assured.

And fifth, in terms of leveraging the coming revolution in market economics, the mega-economic winds have been blowing in our direction. Many environmental leaders are talking about the third wave of the environmental movement. The first wave was conservation; the second wave was regulation. The third wave will be investment in the restoration of natural systems and then measuring and quantifying the resulting ecological ROI. Global warming, water and soil depletion, and the end of cheap oil will force us to recognize the inherent value to human society of environmental services provided by natural processes such as conversion of carbon dioxide to oxygen, sequestering of carbon in biomass, clean-up of polluted waters in wetlands, and the soul-elevating benefit of a walk in the park.

The value of these “free” environmental services has been estimated at between $30 trillion and $50 trillion per year—as large as the Gross Domestic Product of all countries combined! If only we understood the value of these “free” services we would be likely to protect them more. The cover story of the April 23, 2005, issue of The Economist was titled, “Rescuing Environmentalism (and the Planet).” The Economist praised the way moving toward market-based solutions to environmental challenges is working to protect the commons—for example, by setting fishing quotas for depleted fisheries to make them healthier, trading sulfur emissions to control this pollutant, and trading carbon emissions in the European Union (guided by the Kyoto Protocol) to reduce the major cause of global warming. The Economist reported: “What’s really intriguing is [that] the new effort to value previously ignored ‘ecological services,’ both basic ones such as water filtration and flood prevention and luxuries such as preserving wildlife, is working. At the same time, advances in environmental science are making those valuation studies more accurate. Market mechanisms can then be employed to achieve those goals at the lowest cost.”

Some people might object to the idea of putting a value on nature, but in our monetized global economy it might be the only way we can seriously appreciate that value. Our effort to restore a few hundred acres in the middle of Burlington has partly been aimed at restoring natural capital and developing enterprises that can take advantage of related market opportunities. Making compost and farming organically sequester carbon gas from the air and store it in healthy soil. Growing riparian plants and using them to slow and filter storm water is much smarter economically than trying to remove the phosphorus and nitrogen from Lake Champlain. Given that our food system is one of the biggest energy hogs in our economy, growing and distributing food locally means huge energy (and therefore pollution) savings, not to mention healthier diets and lower health-care costs. Gardener’s Supply and the Intervale Center see new business opportunities in helping to restore natural capital.

A Climate-Change-Inspired Alternative Private-Enterprise System—Plus Plant Trees!

A few months ago Wal-Mart announced that it is embracing a new “green” version of reality, first committing to energy conservation in its stores and then expanding significantly its offering of organic foods, including—and this makes me think they miss the point—organic Twinkies. The world’s biggest globalization “Godzilla” is unlikely to change its scales overnight, but this new awakening suggests that there is growing pressure to internalize some of its most damaging social and environmental costs. Wal-Mart’s business model, however, is totally dependent on cheap oil. Increases in the cost of energy resulting from peak oil and the growing awareness of global warming will put even more pressure on Wal-Mart. Healthy, locally produced food will look increasingly better than Twinkies, regardless if they are organic.

There is a growing consensus that with global warming the world will soon be radically different, perhaps in as little as one decade. Pulitzer Prize winning author Ross Gelbspan states the case in Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists and Activists Are Fueling the Climate Crisis—And What We Can Do to Avert Disaster: “There really is no choice. One way or the other, this world we inhabit will not long continue on its historical trajectory. Like it or not, we are facing a massive and inevitable discontinuity.” (A discontinuity occurs when a system suddenly and radically shifts, perhaps never to be the same again.) That’s the bad news. But unlike many environmental doomsayers Gelbspan offers a new vision for restoring our global climate. He outlines a World Energy Mobilization Plan to reduce carbon emissions by 70 percent. The plan involves three interrelated strategies, the first of which ends fossil-fuel subsidies and creates incentives for development of renewable energy. Implementing each strategy will yield millions of new green jobs.

In addition to increasing energy efficiency and shifting to renewables Schumacher surely would have approved of sequestering atmospheric carbon in ways that restore our farmland and forests. There is nothing smarter and more appropriate than solving human problems like climate change through the wisdom of nature. The June 11, 2006 issue of Science reported:

The carbon sink capacity of the world’s agricultural and degraded soils is 50-66% of the historic carbon loss of 42 to 78 gigatons of carbon. Technologies and strategies to increase the soil carbon pool include soil restoration and woodland regeneration, no-till farming, cover crops, nutrient management, manure and sludge application, improved grazing, water conservation and harvesting, efficient irrigation, agroforestry practices, and growing energy crops on spare lands. . . . As well as enhancing food security, carbon sequestration has the potential to offset fossil fuel emissions by 0.4 to 1.2 gigatons of carbon per year, or 5 to 15% of the global fossil-fuel emissions.

Thus, not only the productive but also the degraded soils of the planet could sequester over 50 percent of all the carbon ever emitted into the atmosphere, and the transition from current food production to organic gardening and farming has the potential to absorb 5 to 15 percent of our current annual carbon dioxide emissions while also making local and global food systems more secure and improving the environment. The Earth Day generation was right. Going organic can save the world! Compost! Plant a tree! Treat manure as a resource! Reforest a desert! Restore degraded land!

Since 1983 Gardener’s Supply has been beating this Earth Day drum, and we have helped launch several parallel businesses. We restored the Intervale through social enterprises, and we tried to be a catalyst by supporting the development of other Vermont social enterprises and by co-founding Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility in 1990 because I wanted to change, on a small and local basis, “the essential nature of the private enterprise system” (as Schumacher encouraged). In Vermont there is an acceptance of and even an enthusiasm for the idea that enterprises should recognize community as well as environmental values and obligations and therefore should balance economic goals with the pursuit of community well-being and respect for natural resources. Perhaps this is because Vermont has more employees per capita working in small, locally owned businesses and on family farms than any other state. Thomas Jefferson would approve of the twenty-first-century Vermont economy.

Pursuing social-enterprise development in the First World and in Vermont was relatively easy. But in addition I always had my eye on doing this work in the developing world as well. I was inspired by Schumacher’s Intermediate Technology Development Group and its endeavor to introduce appropriate-scale, human-friendly technologies throughout Africa and Asia. Now I’m using the same bridge-building concepts that I employed in Vermont to help start enterprises in Costa Rica, including Finca Lagunita (the first CSA in Central America) and Proyecto Nandamojo, a community planning and development strategy aimed at restoring a 25,000-acre watershed by using market forces and enterprises, both nonprofit and for profit.

For the past five years I’ve been interested in conservation developments, which are residential developments that improve the land’s ecological health by integrating farms and gardens into the development design, such as Prairie Crossing near Chicago, Neshobe Garden Village in Brandon, Vermont, and South Village in the Burlington area. In 2004 we started a conservation development in Costa Rica called Tierra Pacifica, and we’re now building another one there called Pueblo Verde, both of which include farms to feed residents.

In 1977, when author Kirkpatrick Sale asked Schumacher what strictly political advice he would give to advance his revolutionary economic and social insights, Fritz replied, “I can’t speak for others, but my suggestion would be, to plant a tree.” And tree planting is what I’ve been working on in recent years. In 1983 I set a life goal: to help plant one tree for every minute I spend on this earth. Johnny Appleseed did it, why can’t I? So far, I personally have planted a few thousand trees. Community nurseries that I helped launch in Vermont, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Haiti have planted another million or so. Only another 29 million to go.

The unprecedented challenge of global warming has intensified my tree-planting. My current efforts are focused on Central America. Over the past half-century millions of forest acres have been destroyed and replaced with cattle pastures to produce cheap hamburger for the United States. Restoring degraded pastures through sustainable reforestation is one of the quickest and most efficient ways to absorb excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Storing CO2 for the long term in enduring wood products is an elegant long-term solution.

A friend of mine whom I met in a permaculture program twenty years ago in Guatemala moved to Costa Rica in 1994, and since 1999 I have joined him for a few weeks to a few months each year. Together we started a permaculture agroforestry training center called El Centro Verde (, a small nonprofit organization intended to be an Intervale-Center-like catalyst for local sustainability. In 2004 El Centro Verde began to offer courses with the University of Vermont to help achieve a common understanding among students in business and environmental studies about a path to a more sustainable future. These two connections have led me to shift more of my work to Costa Rica, which is also where my wife’s family is from.

My goals for the work in Costa Rica are: 1) to create an Intervale South there, developing a local food system and restoring the natural capital in the Nandamojo watershed in northwestern Costa Rica; 2) to help build bridges to a sustainable age by developing a bioregional (watershed-based) economic and ecological land-use plan; 3) to show the potential for an alternative private-enterprise system to advance sustainable development—and this in a country and a region that just might have potential as a beacon for other developing countries.

Over 90 percent of Costa Rica’s electrical generating needs are met by renewable resources—wind, hydro, biomass, geothermal—so it’s already a country that has the capacity to leapfrog the petroleum age. Whether or not it has the political will is another matter. What I want to do is create a tiny example of possibility there, just as we did in the Intervale. I have been working on these goals for five years in the Rio Nandamojo watershed. What we are doing is described at

In addition, I want to plant more trees. In 2007 I will launch New World Eco Trees, a social enterprise that will grow teak and other trees sustainably and make top-quality beautiful furniture and other long-lived wood products from them under the Reforest Teak brand. This project aims to significantly expand ecological reforestation on depleted cattle pastures in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, where I’ll be working with reforestation experts to plant nearly half a million trees on 1,000 acres next year. Fifteen hundred of these trees will absorb the equivalent of all the CO2 gas produced by an average American over twenty-five years. That’s enough to offset the entire carbon footprint of the Gardener’s Supply business, including all of our 250 employees.

We are moving from an industrial economy where natural systems are assumed to be “external” and irrelevant, crossing a bridge to an ecological economy where human enterprise must fit within and help restore the living earth, from which all wealth and well-being are derived. Fritz Schumacher knew our situation forty years ago, and he left us with a blueprint to follow.

Excerpts From the Question & Answer Period

Q: I teach at a community college, and I’m interested in seeing a program developed so that students could earn an associates degree in permaculture. What would you recommend to get this kind of program off the ground?

A: Steve Gliesman used to teach at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I think he’s the best academic permaculture person in the country. He has developed multiple programs, including at UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz. He’s probably your best resource. Try googling Steve Gliesman.

Q: I run a small research center called Center for Farm and Food Research. We’re interested in extending the growing season for the northeast by means of large commercial solar-heated greenhouses. There are ways to do it using solar collectors, creating your own electricity and heat through that system. Has the Intervale done anything with that?

A: We’re across the street from the second largest biomass electrical generating plant in the country, the McNeil woodchip plant. We have permits and designs to employ the heat created in the plant’s production of steam. That heat is going up in the air right now. We’d like to use it for greenhouses as well as for reducing energy costs for the Food Enterprise Center I spoke about.

Q: Are you aware of any other places on the planet where a group of people is trying to replicate the Intervale concept? The second part of my question is, Do you think there are aspects of your community or your resource space or Vermont itself that made it easier for you to succeed so that others would have to look for those same advantages?

A: The big advantage we had was seven-hundred acres of land that couldn’t be developed because it was a floodplain, yet it was in the middle of everything. And we had a city administration that was receptive to the idea of doing something better with that land than using it as a dumping ground. The city didn’t own all of it, but it owned a big piece of it. I would also say that as the demand for locally grown organic food began to ratchet up twenty-five years ago, we were one of the ten places in the country that was demographically best suited for people to be interested in that trend. In fact, had we not had Robyn Van En come up from the Berkshires in 1989 and tell us about Community Supported Agriculture, we probably would not have gotten the traction that we did by bypassing the normal distribution system for food. We went directly to people with our membership marketing idea.

As for other Intervales, we do get a lot of calls from people asking, How’d you do it? How can we do it? In spite of our unique situation we are consulting in Montana and North Carolina and the Prairie Crossing community north of Chicago and in Rutland, Vermont, with people who see an opportunity to catalyze around local food systems. We’re trying to figure out how their particular situations might be adaptable to some of what we have done.

Q: Was the Intervale a brownfield? Was it designated as polluted?

A: No, it wasn’t.

I love to tell the story of evidence that there was agriculture here thousands of years ago. A 3-inch-long corn cob was found, indicative that it had been hybridized one thousand years ago, which means that Native Americans were already experimenting with making corn better. Ethan Allen’s land in the Intervale had always been farmed; it’s a perfect example of what happened to agriculture after World War II. All the small farms that bordered urban areas were put out of business by cheaper food coming from large industrial farms in better climates. The land in the Intervale was so good, however, that there were still absentee farmers willing to grow corn there, but it was all chemically raised. Except for the sludge pit, the land hadn’t ever been abused by industrial processes.

Burlington’s first town dump was in the Intervale, and people still remember the big flood in 1927 that washed the dump into Lake Champlain. This made it clear that the town dump had better be located on higher ground. But at least bad chemicals hadn’t been deposited in the lake because in those days there weren’t that many in use.

Q: How much of the food grown in the Intervale is going into any of the farm-to-school programs?

A: One of our projects is called Healthy City. Healthy City brings about twenty-five at-risk teens to the Intervale every year, and they essentially have their own little farm. They grow the food, pick the food, process the food, do the marketing, do the business planning, and now they are also growing food for the Burlington school system. Last month one of the Healthy Food graduates was in line at the school cafeteria, where we were providing carrots and cherry tomatoes, and he proudly announced: “Those are my tomatoes and my carrots. You ought to try them. You never tasted anything so sweet.”

Q: To my mind climate change is the most urgent problem of our age. Have you thought about integrating this topic into what you’re doing?

A: I came to this work of trying to make a difference before climate change was really understood to have the impact that it does. Of course, organic agriculture should be encouraged for a variety of reasons. One is that if done right it pulls a huge amount of carbon emissions out of the atmosphere. Good composting sequesters carbon too.

One of the reasons I’m working in Costa Rica is because that whole Pacific coast from Panama through Costa Rica and Nicaragua was essentially decimated of trees to provide McDonald’s with hamburgers. Now McDonald’s hamburgers are no longer profitable to produce in that area, but the trees are gone. I see a great opportunity from a business point of view to stimulate reforestation, which  in combination with organic agriculture could bring a reduction of carbon in the atmosphere. The beauty of a permaculture/agroforestry view of land development is that in addition to productivity, partly from reforestation and partly from tree crops and row crops, carbon is being sequestered at the same time. If an area that has been 80 or 90 percent deforested is reforested by 80 or 90 percent, that sucks up and sequesters a huge amount of carbon. I’m interested in market forces that allow this kind of opportunity and stimulation to occur. What I’m counting on right now is that I can convince people who like outdoor furniture made from tropical trees to buy it from Central America instead of from Indonesia and Burma, where native forests are still being cut down for tree plantations.

Q: Do you see biodiesel as a solution to the coming energy shortage?

A: Recently I saw a picture of Iowa. It had approximately eighty points indicating where biodiesel plants will be built, and there were circles around those points to show the areas that corn or soybeans will have to be drawn from to support biodiesel production. When you consider all those plants that are being built and all the corn and soybeans that are going to be needed, it becomes clear that corn and soybeans will have to be imported into Iowa. Where will Kellogg’s Corn Flakes then get its corn? Putting all of Iowa’s corn into biodiesel is not going to be the silver-bullet solution, even though there is room for that kind of energy production in certain farming systems.

Q: The organization I work for, Remineralize the Earth, is a nonprofit. All of our advisers have told us that we should put our ideas into a form that can be marketed, which agrees with what you said. Do you have any knowledge about the use of carbon credits as a business model?

A: Yes. An interesting business has been developed from an MBA program. It’s called Terrapass, which helps people who drive SUVs assuage their guilt by buying carbon credits. There is also the Chicago Climate Exchange and a carbon credit exchange in Europe, both of them private-sector activities. If you want to buy down your carbon footprint, you can do that now in the marketplace. There are going to be new markets that will be created on a variety of fronts, giving people the opportunity to invest on the basis of their recognition that natural systems have value and that value is gained from repairing and restoring them.

Green Mountain College is a couple of hours north of here. Two days ago the administration announced that 53 percent of electricity on campus will now come from the Blue Spruce dairy farm in Vermont, from methane that’s being captured and used to power generators. Institutions, organizations, and people can make choices that stimulate these kinds of market opportunities.

Q: I lack the correct terminology, but I know there’s a process that adds a certain kind of bacterium to something in a large vat, and methane is created.

A: It’s called anaerobic digestion of organic matter. That’s what’s happening at Blue Spruce Farm in Vermont. Cows are prolific methane producers, and by extending the cow’s stomach to be a 600,000-gallon stomach, the farmers are able to capture more methane. Then the finished product is fairly well neutralized so that it doesn’t smell, you can put it right on the soil, and there’s no leaching of nutrients.

Q: I visited a farmer in Ireland who invested around $100,000 to build a methane digester, and he paid it off in a number of years. He was making money from taking the waste of companies in the area and producing fuel for his community.

A: The beauty of thinking like an ecosystem is that you discover layers of opportunity. A community that says, “Let’s improve our food system,” is going to discover those layers of opportunity, and all of a sudden that community is in control of production, distribution, consumption, and waste management. Typically the industrial model has not allowed us those opportunities.

Concluding Remarks

Richard [Heinberg], I was expecting a broad energy context in your lecture, but focusing on the food system is, I think, exactly what’s necessary. In view of your enthusiasm for the return to a horticultural society, perhaps I should be trying to buy Home Depot instead of it trying to buy me! I’ve been in the horticulture business for almost twenty-five years, and in the early days we were able to concentrate on smart strategies to help our customers grow food at home. People don’t have time for that any more. We’re lucky if we can sell them a planter that’s designed for growing tomatoes on their patio. Our best quarter for sales used to be January, February, March because that’s when people started their seeds. They don’t start seeds anymore, which means there are unpleasant surprises in store if food systems break down. In the world as it is now, it won’t be a matter of jumping right in and having success with growing food.

On the other hand, I want to tell about some hopeful signs. I’ll begin with my visit to Dancing Cow Farm two days ago. The owners are a couple who—right after the destruction of the Twin Towers—said, “We have to change our life.” As a software engineer and a software product manager, they had lost their connection to what they felt to be important. They wanted to create a lifestyle that worked for them, so they spent two years looking for land in Vermont and finally found a farm that was just right. Your point, Richard, about people perhaps finding a richer lifestyle as they turn to farming is what this couple was hoping for as they went about trying to understand how best to fit in to the food system and the marketplace.

The farm they acquired was a dairy. The couple knew they wanted to have cows but had never milked a cow in their life. They had a lot to learn. They didn’t even know what kind of cow to raise but did some research and found a heritage brand—Brown Swiss, I think—that was unlike the cows on surrounding farms. They were looking for happy cows and for small cows that hadn’t been genetically programmed to be milk factories but instead consumed grass and converted grass into milk in an efficient way. Because they didn’t want to have to bale hay, bring the hay into the barn, swab the barn out, and remove the manure, they said: “Let’s put the cows out to pasture. When winter comes, they’ll go out of milk production, and we’ll wait three or four months until the milk comes back. We’ll try to act the way nature does.” Their farm got its name because their cows started to dance. They really were happy cows. They appreciated being able to eat whenever they wanted to.

My point is that the couple chose this kind of farming because it felt right for them. They asked themselves, What can we learn from agriculture from a heritage standpoint, and how can we modify the system so that we work less but have more fun? They accomplished this by introducing a high-quality cheese that is sold for a good price, and now they’re also in the value-added product business. So there are solutions to be discovered.

My work in Costa Rica is providing hopeful signs too. We are developing a chinapas system, a farming system developed a thousand years ago by the Mayans, with dug-out beds and raised berms. It’s a form of agriculture that is perfectly suited to the wet/dry tropics. Perennial tree crops are planted on the raised berms—mangos and bananas and guavas. Then during the wet season the sunken beds fill up with water, providing aquaculture. After the wet season the beds empty of their water, and vegetable crops are planted there. This is a permaculture/agroforestry system that uses the intelligence of a thousand-year-old agriculture.

Also, we found a crop called ojoche, a tree crop the Mayans used to make tortillas. It has a little nut-like fruit that people harvested as a staple food by making a mash out of it, but it had almost gone out of production in Costa Rica. We found one person who was still making tortillas out of ojoche. It’s a perennial crop that bears continuously and is much more productive per square foot than corn in terms of caloric production. So it is possible to return to old forms of agriculture provided that we still have access to them.

We need places where people can learn to farm, and the Intervale is providing a positive model for this. We’ve already graduated thirty or forty farmers, and there are seventy more in training now. We have farmers who have been in the Intervale ten to fifteen years. Part of the reason we allow these experienced farmers to stay is that they agree to train the next generation. We need to create mentorship and devise educational programs about the new form of agriculture that will take the place of Monsanto-funded college courses in agribusiness. The difficulty is that colleges respond to those who give them big grants. What they should be doing is providing leadership for the future Richard described.

I’ll close by referring to one of my five bridge-building strategies, and that is collaboration. We need to collaborate with people who, although old, have valuable experience and important information they can pass on to us, the kind of information we must regain if we are to establish smart land use and succeed in building a strong local food system as well as restoring natural capital.


Publication By

Will Raap

Will Raap serves as chairman of Gardener’s Supply Company in Burlington, Vermont, which he founded in 1983. Under his leadership, the 300-person, employee-owned firm, now among the world’s largest online and catalog gardening retailers, has won national and regional awards for its products and services, as well as for its socially responsible business practices. Gardener’s Supply is the … Continued

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