When I first began working on food issues, it was the early 1980s. At that time our worries were primarily environmental (loss of top soil, contaminated aquifers from agricultural chemicals, monoculture desertification of the Great American prairie) and economic (a growing reliance on industrial agriculture and the loss of family farms to a USDA policy of “get big or get dead”).
Today we have even more worries. How will we feed the 7 billion people already on the planet today, much less the projected 9 billion who will be here in 2050? How will our oil-based food system adapt to rising energy costs? How will we curb industrial agriculture’s climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions?
The challenges we face are greater, but the balance may be tipping.
In New England, Vermont’s Intervale Center has been a pioneer in food system transformation. When the Intervale Center was founded 30 years ago, Vermont was producing about .1% of the calories we consumed. We are now approaching 5%, a 50 times increase, and there’s a statewide plan to reach 10% by 2022.
How did this happen? Our plan was simple (though not easy!). We identified three key steps to stimulating more local food production and then we worked on those steps for three decades.
Could the same strategy help transform local food systems in Costa Rica? The answer appears to be yes. We are just 5 years into that effort and already see changes.
How to Launch a Local Food System Transformation
1. Access, improve and gain long-term, cost-effective control over productive land so local farms can sprout.
The Intervale Center accomplished this on several hundred acres of essentially abandoned floodplain in the middle of Burlington. As a non-profit organization, it was able to gain long-term access to the land and make it available to farmers at very reasonable rates. One of the Intervale Center’s first initiatives was to improve the fertility of the soil by establishing a community composting facility nearby.
In Guanacaste Costa Rica, our demonstration farm, Mi Tierra, operates within an eco-development called Tierra Pacifica. We also operate a Mi Tierra "forest farming" project within another eco-development called Pueblo Verde. Both Mi Tierra farming projects partner with a local non-profit organization (Restoring Our Watershed) in service of its mission to restore a 28,000 acre watershed.
Mi Tierra and Restoring Our Watershed recently established a new no-interest micro-lending program. In its first 6 months, the program has provided loans to a honey producer, egg producer and another vegetable grower to help them employ their land more productively.
2. Grow the market incrementally by boosting supply, then demand, then supply and so forth.
In Burlington, we started with CSAs (the first ones in VT), which were followed by farmers markets, local restaurants, a hospital and university, and most recently the Intervale Food Hub.
In Costa Rica, we are following the same strategy. The first outlets for local produce were Supermarket Junquillal and the Tierra Pacifica Welcome Center. Then came Los Pargos farmers market, and now local restaurants and hotels in our area of Guanacaste. Micro loan producers have secured contracts with local restaurants. E-newsletters are reaching new customers. This year, demand for local food is outstripping supply. Next year, more local farms!
3. Help new and existing farmers access skills and resources to serve the local market.
The Intervale Center attracted new farmers by establishing the first and largest urban farm enterprise incubation program in the US. Over the past 3 decades, more than 100 small farms have been supported with business and farming education and consulting, peer-to-peer exchanges, loan programs and cooperative market access tractors, greenhouses, refrigeration, compost, etc.
In Costa Rica, we are expanding the micro-loan program and are beginning to plan for farm education and consulting, peer-to-peer exchanges, and cooperative infrastructure. Gardener’s Supply Company in Burlington is supporting research to find new seed varieties, improve soil fertility and develop custom container growing mixes.
While the climates of Vermont and Costa Rica are very different, the challenges to strengthening local food systems and creating new farms and farm employment are similar. Lessons are transferable. Local food systems can compete with industrial agriculture. Increasing local economic resilience is happening!