“A Community that rebuilds its topsoil builds its long term wealth”

Slow Money Conference, Shelburne, VT, June 10, 2010

Franklin Roosevelt said it best: “A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.” 

In my experience we can localize FDR’s idea: “a community that destroys its soils destroys itself”.  Equally, a community that rebuilds its topsoil builds its long term wealth.  So, my priority now is helping communities rebuild top soil as part of building stronger economies and resilient ecosystems.

In Slow Money, Investing as if Food, Farms and Fertility Mattered Woody Tasch reminds us of several hugely important ideas.  If “Planet Finance” continues to dominate “Planet Earth” human society is doomed as we know it, including our ability to feed nearly 7 billion people.  The financial, ecological and human costs of a petrochemical-based economy and food system are simply not sustainable.  We need to create a post-Peak Oil economy and we need to create a post-Peak Soil food system. 

Peak Oil “is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline”…and oil gets increasingly costly to find and produce.  Like oil, soil is almost a non-renewable resource.  Peak Soil then may be defined as the point in time when we have depleted half our productive topsoil, and erosion and depletion has exceeded soil creation so topsoil supply is in increasing decline and it will be increasingly expensive to produce more. 

And beyond jeopardizing our ability to feed ourselves, soil loss contributes directly to climate change, the largest environmental problem we face.  There is about 4 times more carbon locked in the world’s soils than there is currently spoiling the atmosphere as CO2.  As reported recently in Renewable Energy World:
“Poor farming practices have degraded the world’s soils causing them to release carbon that should have stayed in the soil. In the past 150 years soils have released twice as much carbon as fuel burning. Improved farming methods could quickly rebuild degraded land and store enough carbon to offset the damage already done by fuel burning. Ohio State University estimates that the potential of economical carbon sequestration in world soils may be .65 billion to 1.1 billion tons per year for the next 50 years.” This is enough to draw down atmospheric CO2 by 50 ppm by 2100.  If we are able to stop increasing GHG emissions, then restoring degraded lands could reduce atmospheric CO2e to the 350ppm targeted by 350.org.

That’s the global view of soil’s importance to food systems and climate change.  What about locally?

The Intervale, a 700 acre floodplain in the middle of Burlington, is a mirror image, at the local level, of the natural abundance and productive capacity lost over the past through the rise of industrial agriculture.  But it also is a model of the opportunity for soil restoration and reinvigoration of local food systems.  Food production in the Intervale goes back to native American settlements in the Intervale growing corn and other crops 1,000 years ago.

In the past 100 years local farmers operated dairy farms, vegetable farms and even a world-renown flower bulb hybridizing nursery in the Intervale.

Then after WWII the food system changed from local production serving local needs to industrial production serving global needs.  The value of the Intervale to the local economy diminished.  The City opened a municipal dump and sewage sludge storage pit in the Intervale and local farming struggled to stay alive.  Illegal dumping and crime became common.  Remaining farming was largely done by absentee farmers who used chemical fertilizers and herbicides and did not renew the sandy loam soil with needed organic matter.  The Intervale is a scale model of how prime agricultural land serving local markets was treated all over America, except it did not get developed because it is in a river flood plain.

We started Gardener’s Supply in 1983 and I moved our young company to the Intervale in 1986.  We began clean-up including removing tons of roadside garbage and over 300 illegal junk cars and 1,000 tires where the Intervale Compost Products and the “greenhouse village” are now located. Then in 1987 I went to Mayor Bernie Sanders and offered him 3 ways our business could help restore the Intervale to its farming glory days when it was Burlington’s Breadbasket and the foundation of the local food system.  Bernie chose composting the City’s leaves and yard waste.  So we started Intervale Compost Products that fall.  Smart move!  The Intervale soils had been depleted of organic matter, down to .5% content over 40 years of chemical inputs, and soil life and health was negligible.

A few years later we held a conference on Community Farming and invited Robin Van End to speak, the “mother” of the Community Supported Farming (CSA) movement in America.  The next year we started Intervale Community Farm, the first CSA in VT and now the largest serving 400 households and several thousand local eaters.

We were off to the races at building soil as the starting point to rebuild local sustainable farming.  But we needed a new organization to steward the Intervale land restoration and be a catalyst for re-localization of the food system.  The non-profit Intervale Center was established in 1988 to continue the clean up and manage composting.  Under Intervale Center’s leadership the junk and crime are gone in the Intervale.  Tens of thousands of walkers, joggers, bike riders, birders, fisherman, and local food eaters enjoy what has been called Burlington’s “Central Park”. 

But from my perspective the Intervale Center’s biggest impact has been, first, to divert 100,000’s tons of organic waste from land fills to become compost to restore the depleted Intervale soil as well as thousand of acres in and around Burlington.  This is rebuilding long term community wealth with what we thought was waste.  Second, the Intervale Center leveraged this new natural wealth to help rebuild the local human economy by focusing on growing farmers, sustainable farm businesses and the local food system.  Today, the Center is building a regional sustainable “food shed” through the Center’s Incubator Farms program, through supporting 13 independent farms within the City, through the Food Hub working with 24 area farms, and through Success on Farms working with 75 farms throughout northern Vermont to develop sustainable business operations. 

The key to all this was rebuilding soil health and thus natural wealth.  This is the same solution we promote to our Gardener’s Supply customers all over the country.  We invite them to appreciate that every handful of healthy soil contains billions of microscopic organisms ready to help you grow better vegetables, fruit and flowers.  Know your soil, compost, add organic matter, use cover crops, feed your soil so it can feed you. 

My life focus now is to use this strategy to find more ways to demonstrate and promote the idea that “a community that rebuilds its topsoil builds its long term wealth”.  Since our predominant economic system does not recognize or support this value creation process, we need to be creative in funding the needed investments needed to restore natural wealth.  We need “Slow Money” solutions.

The Intervale Center funded 20 years of making compost with grants and loans, comport pre-sales, tipping fees and compost sales.  We even worked with Ben & Jerry’s to develop  a product that shipped Burlington’s reconstituted organic waste all over America.

I’m working with the 220 acre South Village development in South Burlington Vermont to transform 20 acres of very degraded pasture land into the home of Farm at South Village with an innovative assessment of .5% of all home and condo sales for ever that goes into a land stewardship fund.   After 3 years of soil building an Intervale Farm Program graduate is operating a 65 household CSA there.

In Costa Rica the 75 lot Tierra Pacifica development that was designed as part of a UVM course I lead with John Todd has supported the development of Finca Mi Tierra.  This farm uses modified Mayan “chinampas” farming systems to produce organic vegetables, fruits and nursery plants as an amenity for the residents.  It is also a demonstration and training center for local comport and biochar production and aims to be a catalyst to help restore river valley soils and reinvigorate local food production in the surrounding 30,000 acre water shed. 

The biggest and boldest idea I’m involved with to rebuild soils relies on “payments for ecosystem services” (PES).  PES are payment programs that monetize “the good things nature does“ by paying farmers or landowners in exchange for managing their land to provide some sort of ecological service, like carbon sequestration, habitat protection, water purification, storm water protection etc.  PES pay land owners to deliver more of “the benefits of nature to households, communities, and economies,” offering solutions to the biggest challenges we face like climate change mitigation, watershed restoration and biodiversity conservation.

We are stuck with the human financial economy dominating the natural economy and trashing nature’s wealth.  Unless we put a value on this natural wealth and include it in our economic calculus we are on a guaranteed path to social and economic breakdown.  Such valuation will recognize the high ROI from building healthy topsoil as a way to store excess atmospheric CO2 more efficiently, create fertility more cheaply than with petrochemical fertilizers, store rain water and recharge aquifers more effectively and build ecosystem resilience more robustly.  This is the most promising path I see toward retreating from “Peak Soil". 

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