From left, Nataka Crayton-Walker, Greg Bodine, and Bobby Walker at a City Growers microfarm in Dorchester. | Photo by Leise Jones/City Growers

The Future of Urban Farming

Some sights in the neighborhood were so common that I had stopped noticing them; but then one day they came into view. While driving down Harold Street on the way to my cousin’s house, I noticed a vacant lot on my left and then, just a block down, I saw two large vacant lots on my right. At the end of Harold Street—right before Howland Street—stood a huge half-acre vacant lot. This area had been labeled the “H-block.” It was a tough neighborhood in Boston, Massachusetts, known for the significant number of shootings that occurred—which primarily were gang related. It also was a neighborhood with beautiful housing stock, long-term residents, and strong community leadership. Later that week, intrigued at the amount of vacant space, I walked the streets and tallied approximately 1.5 acres of land sitting vacant among the homes and apartment buildings.

Not long after that day, in the commissary kitchen of my company—City Fresh—the staff was preparing meals for one of the summer camps in session. The team members were cutting heads of lettuce that had been shipped in from across the country, and a question occurred to me: Why couldn’t we be growing this lettuce closer to home?

In answer to that question, I—along with a small group of community residents—founded City Growers. It was the spring of 2007. We set out to convert vacant lots—primarily located in the Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan neighborhoods—into intensive micro farms: to put our community idle hands to work and supply fresh, local, organic produce to the growing and insatiable market for local and sustainably grown food. We desired to apply the idea that human-scale production that is less reliant on large equipment and fossil fuels is a more-efficient production method. We weren’t alone.

Vacant lot

A vacant lot in Dorchester being converted into a microfarm.

Decades prior, I had devoured Eliot Coleman books. I marveled at the amount of high-quality vegetables his Maine farm was producing on just a couple of acres and well into the cold season. I intently listened to Will Allen and the production he proselytized from Growing Power’s greenhouse vertical systems. I was inspired by his emphasis on using practical and functional technologies and his obsession for making amazing soil.

Closer to home and a few years back, Greg Maslowe revealed to me how much revenue he could produce on one acre on his Newton Community Farm; the figure he quoted was $135,000. These people—in their different ways—have proven the ability and efficacy of intense small-scale production.

In 2008, City Growers squatted on land behind Sportsmen’s tennis club in Dorchester. This would prove to be the catalyzing act that changed the zoning laws of Boston. Prior to our land grab, the Tommy’s Rock community in Roxbury had been eying local vacant lots with the idea of converting them into agricultural use. Community members had been stumbling along a complicated and unclear path in trying to work with the city to achieve their goals. Bette Toney, an active resident, had heard about City Growers, and a mutual friend introduced us. The community vision was clear, so we took it directly to Mayor Thomas Menino. In our meeting, he clearly was not happy with the idea of setting aside taxable, buildable vacant lots, but he also wanted to get out in front of this new demand for urban farming land. After we were dismissed from his office, Mayor Menino’s administration quickly moved to form an urban agricultural zoning committee. Over the next year, there were dozens of meetings. Once a month there was a public meeting at city hall. Consistently, at 8:45 a.m. on the day of the meetings, dozens of community members—including agricultural activists, farmers, beekeepers, rooftop growers, and compost specialists—gathered in the overflow section. The community, together with city officials, negotiated the language of what would become Article 89, a citywide zoning article that allows for commercial urban agriculture in Boston.

Mayor Walsh

Mayor Walsh announcing Boston Urban Agriculture Day at the Garrison-Trotter Urban Farm grand-opening celebration.

Just a couple of years after the passage of Article 89, City Growers recruited and trained a group of new urban farmers who sold $45,000 of produce grown on slightly less than one-half acre. The revenue per square foot was encouraging. Most of the produce was sold directly to restaurants, and roughly 20% was sold back to the community at farmers’ markets. Making a go commercially at small-scale farming is not easy work, however, and I came to realize that it is for the extreme few dedicated farmers. Urban farming also has broader potential—as evidenced by its impact in Boston over the past 10 years.

Thousands of volunteers have put their hands in the dirt on urban farms. Thousands of farmers’ market and restaurant customers have been buying and eating hyper-locally-produced fruits and vegetables from urban farms. The City of Boston and the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars and significant resources into urban farming. Over the last five years, thousands of attendees have filled sold-out Massachusetts Urban Farming conferences, and dozens of local food events and workshops have become regular staples of the growing local food movement in Boston and other cities. In 2014, newly elected Mayor Marty Walsh cut the ribbon on the city’s first urban farm: Garrison-Trotter Urban Farm at 227 Harold Street. This was the first vacant lot that came into view during my travels in 2007, and now the land for the farm is being shifted into a newly formed urban farm land trust, thus ensuring its longevity.

Great start, but what’s next? I am convinced that the real challenge and opportunity of the urban farming movement is persuading, encouraging, enticing, and facilitating more urban dwellers to grow their own food. Period.

It gradually is becoming common knowledge that all of us are participants in a dysfunctional and dangerously fragile food system. Our current food system has a design problem. Most of our food comes from large monocrop agribusiness systems that rely on cheap labor and fast-depleting fossil fuels. Fresh water and soil are the two most critical natural resources relied upon by our species, and the rate of depletion of these resources is the most serious threat to the ability of our next generation to comfortably survive. I would argue that it is no longer sustainable or practical to have less than 2% of the U.S. population directly involved in its own food production. Urban and suburban readers: Picture each household on your block growing market-size gardens and fruit trees, and maybe even a few of your neighbors farming chickens or rabbits. Now envision all the in-between spaces—sidewalk medians, vacant lots, and unused parts of parks—overflowing with food production. We need to get there, but how? How do we create and transition to a more practical and resilient food system while we still are dependent on the existing system?


Now, more than ever, I believe this is a bottom-up spiritual and cultural undertaking. The leaders in this movement play important roles as catalysts. This is where organizations such as the Urban Farming Institute (UFI)—with community credibility, farming knowledge, and social and political capital—can fully step in and start creating the new system. In 2011, The Urban Farming Institute was formed as the founders of City Growers realized that relying on pure market forces to obtain land, develop farms, and train community farmers wasn’t going to work. In 2015, City Growers merged with UFI. This allowed government and philanthropic dollars to blend with market sales as revenue sources to support all the components of not only attempting to develop urban farms but also attempting to create a new industry. Public and private vacant-land conversion has been a slow process but recently has picked up steam. Currently, six parcels totaling approximately two acres are under cultivation or are in the process of being converted.

Urban community residents lead UFI, from the board to the staff. Executive Director Pat Spence is a beloved longtime Mattapan resident. Bobby and Nataka, a husband-and-wife team who were born and raised in Roxbury, are spiritual leaders of the urban farming movement and have both street credibility and industry mastery. Together they are a taste of the secret sauce that positions UFI to shift community behavior. As communities of color that historically and economically have been dispossessed, we must be more self-reliant regarding food—this is a crucial step toward making us more resilient to the unstable future.

How do we make it happen? How do we become more self-reliant? Start with the community influencers and provide them with the necessary education and tools. The UFI is positioned to “train the trainer”—partner­ing with individuals and organizations to provide education on the mechan­ics of small-scale food production, and to provide the tools—including land, soil, and water. The goal is to enroll families and to find champions within each family to start getting their hands dirty—one seed at a time. From a spiritual and cultural place, the next chapter in the movement is to make the act of growing food both a family and a community practice. Additionally, there is a health and economic argument: Densely nutritious and less-toxic diets, dollars saved from self-production and, potentially, dollars earned by selling excess food all are practical benefits.

Access to land is key. For many residents of our urban and peri-urban communities, the good news is that land ownership or access is an asset that we already have on the books. Be it your front porch, windowsill, or backyard, many urban dwellers have access to land and its power to grow. This underutilized resource is sitting right under our noses.

The UFI has been working with national and local land-trust experts, including the Dudley Neighbors Inc., and is in the process of creating a land trust for urban farms. Simultaneously, UFI is working with the City of Boston—a willing partner that is ready to shift appropriate vacant lots into this urban farm land trust. This provides secure long-term land tenure for the larger spaces within the community. An important milestone of this relationship is the construction of the new UFI urban farming center at the old Fowler Clark Epstein Farm on which the oldest buildings in Mattapan sit—the original farmhouse and barn are being repurposed as the hub of the activities described here.

Access to good soil also is critical for making the shift. Half of what urban residents put on the street corner for trash pickup can and should be turned into compost. We have the potential to create thousands of pounds of black gold. Vacant lots, raised beds, and backyards are waiting to receive it. We also have the unique opportunity for an intergenerational knowledge transfer—many of our elders have experience and knowledge of growing—and it is our responsibility to reconnect our kids to the sources of their food. Seeds can be part of that educational medium, being able to save, share, and plant community seeds is a critical part of true self-sufficiency and resilience. This is the reason that a seed library will be part of the new center.


Every year, hundreds of volunteers—primarily youths—are reconnected to the land by touring and volunteering at UFI farms, such as the Glenway Street farm pictured here.

An important benefit of this shift is that it offers an alternative to today’s material-accumulation-focused and screen-obsessed culture. Parents can point themselves and their kids toward activities that teach practical and produce something worthwhile. It enables us to reconnect to the natural cycles and all the richness of natural sciences (such as plant biology) that come with the growing of food.

Sustainable and long-term change includes ongoing education. It also requires a strong mindset, one that not only asks and answers important questions, such as, “How did we get here?” and “Where are we going?” but also envisions a new path and future of what is possible. What would it mean if nearly 100% of your home waste was turned into soil that grew most of your food? And what if this became true for you and for more than half your neighbors? I am humbly optimistic that this is what is next for urban farming.

Glynn Lloyd has been an innovator in the field of transformative urban economic development for more than 25 years. He is the president and founder of City Fresh Foods, a company that brings ethnic meals to homebound elders and provides healthy meals to school-aged children. Glynn catalyzed Article 89, a citywide zoning article that allows for commercial urban agriculture in Boston. He then founded the Urban Farming Institute, a community-led nonprofit that supports the development of the new urban farming industry in Massachusetts.

Fred Kirschenmann on his family's 1,800-acre certified organic farm in south central North Dakota.

From Soil to Sustainability

Frederick L. Kirschenmann shares an appointment as Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and as president of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.

Defining Sustainability.

As most everyone interested in sustainability knows by now, the concept has been appropriated by numerous entities and used in various ways, often to achieve different objectives. In his introductory chapter to the excellent 2013 edition of the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World report, Robert Engelman coined the term “sustainababble” to reflect this “cacophonous profusion of uses of the word sustainable to mean anything from environmentally better to cool.” Increasingly the term is used as a marketing tool, often it is used as an environmental metric, and, of course it is used extensively to describe an “improved” food and agriculture enterprise. While many of these uses may be grounded in good intentions, the result, as Engelman points out, has “a high cost.”

Frequent and inappropriate use lulls us into dreamy belief that all of us—and everything we do, everything we buy, everything we use—are now able to go on forever, world without end, amen.

Such a “dreamy belief” has certainly been prevalent in most of the visions of contemporary “sustainable agriculture.” Whether one belongs to the school of sustainable agriculture that is fixated on the notion that sustainability can only be achieved by intensifying the technology of our dominant industrial agriculture, or to the school of “greening” the system by inserting more environmentally friendly practices, or to the school that insists everyone must transition to organic, all are grounded in the belief that the fundamental principles of modern agriculture, which emerged in the early 20th century, can continue. According to this standard we simply need to tinker with the current system, in various ways, to make it “sustainable.” Although such “tinkering” can sometimes produce positive, short-term results, it fails to address the new challenges that will emerge in the near future. Occasionally pundits now refer to this “dreamy belief” of sustainability (appropriately, I think) as “Band-Aid sustainability.”

Historical Context.

In his engaging book Culture and Agriculture: An Ecological Introduction to Traditional and Modern Farming Systems, anthropologist Ernest Schusky provides us with a summary of how the human species fed itself since evolving on Planet Earth some 200,000 years ago. I think such a historical context can help us to better frame the concept of sustainability. Schusky reminds us that for most of our time on the planet we fed ourselves as hunter-gatherers. Like many other species, we tended to live in small tribes, gather and hunt the food available in a particular place until the food sources became depleted, and then move on to another place. Apparently various methods were also used to limit population growth to keep population density within “carrying capacity.”

It wasn’t until the Neolithic Revolution, approximately 12,000 years ago, that we began to transition from “food collectors” to food producers by domesticating plants and animals. We began to live in settled societies and attempted to produce enough food in place to feed a local, settled population.

As Schusky points out, this new way of feeding ourselves was “land intensive.” It tended to mine the natural fertility of the soil. Consequently, much of this early agriculture was based on “swidden cultivation,” also known as “slash-and-burn” agriculture. In other words, a common practice was to burn off perennial plants—trees or grasses—and then cultivate the soil and plant seeds (usually cereals). The natural soil fertility plus the fertility from the ash initially produced good yields the first year. However yields would decline quickly, as natural soil fertility diminished, so the general practice was to slash-and-burn a new plot of ground every year or two, and allow the first to lay fallow for 15 or 20 years before returning to cultivate it again, after soil fertility was restored.

In the mid-20th century we introduced a new form of agriculture, which Schusky calls the “Neocaloric Revolution,” because it is entirely dependent on “old calories”—fossil fuels, fertilizers, fossil water, etc. The discovery of fossil fuels was the principle innovation that ushered in the Industrial Revolution, but it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that industrial methods were applied to agriculture on a large scale.

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While Justus von Liebig came up with the idea of substituting synthetic fertilizers (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) for the “laborious” practice of maintaining soil health—and Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch devised the means of making ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen in 1909, enabling the conversion to an intensive “input” agriculture—the adoption of that agriculture did not take root as the dominant form of agriculture until after World War II.

There were numerous agricultural visionaries, soil scientists and ecologists who issued strong warnings that this “N-P-K mentality” (as Sir Albert Howard called it) was the wrong direction for agriculture since it was contrary to the workings of nature and was, in fact, a “form of banditry” since it would steal the availability of healthy soil from future generations. (Howard, 1943) F.H. King, Liberty Hyde Bailey, Aldo Leopold, William Albrecht, Hans Jenny, Wes Jackson, and many others had similar concerns. They saw that maintaining the health of soil was crucial to any kind of truly sustainable agriculture and were all aware that modern industrial agriculture was still extremely “land intensive” and therefore damaging to the health of the land. We simply substituted “old calorie” inputs in place of healthy soil.

Of course, the immediate short-term benefits of industrial agriculture—the maximum, efficient production for short-term economic return—were too compelling to seriously consider the warnings of such visionaries.

However, Schusky reminds us that our “neo-caloric era” will of necessity be a very short period of time in the time-line of human history. We sometimes forget that this “modern” agriculture depends on a collection of “old” (nonrenewable) calories, which we are rapidly depleting. We also seem to forget that the first producing oil well in the US became operational in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859, (approximately 150 years ago), and it was fossil fuels (especially petroleum) that provided the cheap energy that sustained the entire neo-caloric economy. But all of these old calories are stored, concentrated energy— fossil fuels, rock phosphate, potash, fossil water, etc.—and these old calories had accumulated in the planet over many millennia. But once they are gone, the neo-caloric era, according to Schusky, must end, and we will need to redesign a new agriculture that can be “sustainable” in the post-neo-caloric era.

The point to remember in all this is that unless someone finally finds a way to invent a perpetual-motion machine, current, diffuse energy (sunlight) will never be as efficient (energy return on energy invested ) as stored concentrated energy. Consequently, any alternative energy we may invent in the future will never be as “cheap” as fossil fuels have been.

In addition, we need to acknowledge the ecological damage that the excessive use of the old calories has caused—damage that will further affect the “sustainability” of agriculture—more severe weather events due to climate change, eroded and degraded soils, depleted biodiversity and depleting freshwater resources. These are the “sustainability” challenges that will confront us in the decades ahead.

Of course, as the old calories get used up they will become increasingly expensive, so the neo-caloric era will certainly end due to prohibitive costs long before all the calories are used up.

So, a good way to frame the question of sustainability with respect to our future food and agriculture system is to ask ourselves if the current, industrial system (and any “Band-Aids” we might apply) can still be “sustained” when crude oil is $350 a barrel, fertilizer costs are five times what they are today, we only have half the amount of fresh water currently available, we have twice the number of severe weather events, and our soils are even more degraded than they are today.

Anticipating the Future.

Given the changes coming at us, a crucial challenge to sustaining a future food system will be to anticipate the changes and get a head start preparing for them. Perhaps we can learn a critical lesson from the research conducted by Jared Diamond. Based on his intensive studies of past civilizations, he concluded that those civilizations that anticipated the changes coming at them, recognized the value of their ecological reserves, and got a head start preparing for the changes were the civilizations that tended to survive for the long term (they were “sustainable”), while those that failed in that exercise were the ones that tended to collapse. In this regard, Schusky makes another important and sobering observation from his studies of human culture—namely, that “humans manipulate their cultures to achieve many practical, short-range goals; what they do not foresee are many more long-term undesirable consequences. Innovations that solve immediate problems often have built-in effects that eventually will cause major problems.” Perhaps these observations, from Diamond and Schusky, are among the most important to consider for anyone interested in achieving agricultural “sustainability.”

Given this scenario, it seems to me that the most urgent task before us now is to do all we can to restore the biological health of our soils, before the remaining old calories become too expensive to be a viable resource for continuing to “sustain” our food system. Of course other issues will need to be addressed at the same time—crucial among them: putting a cap on carbon, restoring our biological and genetic diversity as much as possible, restoring as many perennials as possible (forests and grasslands), eliminating food waste, and implementing the “right to food” and other recent UN proposals. However, key to future food sustainability will be biologically healthy soil!

Beacons to Guide us.

Fortunately we are not without practical wisdom to guide us as we design a new agriculture for the post-neo-caloric era.

Here are a few “beacons of light” to guide us. I prefer to call them beacons, rather than “models,” since we tend to think of models as examples that can be duplicated. In our new world, we will need to pay much more attention to the uniqueness of each ecological “neighborhood” and design agricultural systems that are suited to each ecology, rather than imagining another uniform, homogenized, global agriculture typical of the agriculture that has evolved in the neo-caloric era.

Here are a few of the “beacons” that can guide us on our future sustainability journey:

  1. Deborah Koons Garcia, Symphony of the Soil
  2. This new documentary on soil is a masterpiece of science and art that can be used to transform the way our culture thinks about soil. No one can watch this video and still think that soil is just “dirt.” It describes not only how soil was formed over many millennia, but also how to care for it and restore its biological health. The documentary can be obtained from Lily Films.

  3. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and cover crops
  4. In recent months the NRCS under the leadership of Ray Archuleta, has become very active, working with farmers and soil scientists to incorporate cover crops into monoculture farming operations, with significant results toward beginning a process of restoring soil health. Farmers who have incorporated these practices for a period of five to seven years have discovered that the improved soil health enables them to reduce their fertilizer and pesticide inputs by 70 percent and still maintain yields; furthermore the improved soil health dramatically improves soil moisture-absorption capacity, reducing flooding and nutrient pollution, as well as increasing drought tolerance. A video with some of the stories from farmers and soil scientists can be viewed below.

  5. The American Academy of Microbiology: “How Microbes Can Help Feed the World”
  6. One of the encouraging, recent developments concerning soil health has been the increasing attention given to the microbiome in soil. Even soil scientists, a decade ago, sometimes referred to soil as simply “a material to hold a plant in place.” Now we are beginning to understand that soil is a living community of organisms with billions of microbes at its base. While not perfect, a typical article on the subject has been published by the American Academy of Microbiology: “How Microbes Can Help Feed the World,” by Ann Reid and Shannon E. Greene, December 2012. It can be accessed here.

  7. John Deere, The Furrow, February 2013: “Building Better Soils”
  8. I take further encouragement from the fact that John Deere elected to devote this entire issue of The Furrow magazine to the subject of soil health. Again, many of the stories are about farmers and the benefits they have experienced from soil-health-restoring practices. The magazine, for example, features Gabe Brown, a “20-year no-till, cover crop, and livestock” farmer near Bismarck , North Dakota, who reports that before he started his soil-health farming practices, his soil was only able to “absorb a half-inch of rain-water per hour. Now it’ll take in 8 inches.” This issue of The Furrow can be accessed here. Brown has since also reported that while it now costs most conventional, monoculture farmers $4.50 per bushel in input costs to raise corn, his costs are $1.41 per bushel.

  9. Matthew Liebman, agronomist at Iowa State University
  10. Dr. Liebman has conducted more than ten years of research comparing results from typical two-year monoculture corn/soybean rotations with three-year rotations of corn/beans/ small grain with clover, and four-year rotations of corn/beans/small grain/alfalfa and a second year of alfalfa. The two-year rotation relies entirely on synthetic inputs of fertilizers and pesticides and the three- and four-year rotations incorporate modest amounts of livestock manure. His research has demonstrated that the soil health improves in the three- and four-year rotations; in addition, fertilizer and pesticides applications can be decreased by almost 90 percent. The land yields and return on investment in land and labor is slightly higher than in the two year rotation. Comparable ecological benefits have been demonstrated by incorporating perennial prairie strips into conventional corn/soybean monocultures. Reports on the published research can be obtained on the Leopold Center website.

  11. The Land Institute
  12. In Salina, Kansas, Wes Jackson established a research and education institute to explore the possibility of developing perennial grains that could eventually replace annuals. After 30 years of research, scientists have concluded that with additional research it could be possible to replace many annual grains, like wheat, sorghum, rice, and other crops with perennial varieties. Perennial plants are much more resilient than annuals and have many soil-building and carbon-sequestration capabilities by virtue of their robust root systems. Scientists have already demonstrated the soil-health-restoration capacity of such perennial varieties. In the longer term, post-neo-caloric future, these new varieties are likely to become the core of sustainable grain agriculture. Information can be obtained on the Land Institute website.

  13. Jeremy Grantham, “Time to Wake Up: Days of Abundant Resources and Falling Prices Are Over Forever”
  14. The importance and benefits of restoring biological health of soils are not only being recognized by farmers and agronomists, but also by economists and investors. In the April 2011 issue of his widely read newsletter, Jeremy Grantham—one of the nation’s leading investment counselors—reminded investors that it was “Time to Wake Up: Days of Abundant Resources and Falling Prices Are Over Forever.” Grantham points out in this essay that investors need to change their investment strategies if they want to continue to make money on their money. Continuing to invest in cheap raw materials to increase value without paying attention to natural and social capital, which sustains our economies, will not continue to be successful. Among other things he advises investors to “invest in soil.” (A copy of the newsletter can be obtained here.) Woody Tasch, founder of the Slow Money investment movement and author of Slow Money: Inquiries Into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms and Fertility Mattered makes similar points regarding successful investing in the future and makes even more passionate appeals to “investing in soil health.”

  15. Sir Albert Howard, The Soil and Health (1947); Dr. Daphne Miller, Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing (2013); Roni Neff (ed.), Introduction to the US Food System: Public Health, Environment, and Equity (2014)
  16. Finally, health care professionals are beginning to recognize the relationship between soil health and human health, a connection that Sir Albert Howard had observed back in the 1940s.

    In his book The Soil and Health (1947), Howard suggested that we could not have human health without soil health, plant health and animal health— that they are all “one great subject,” and that this synergy would become the “health care system of the future.”

    The connections between healthy soil, healthy agriculture, and healthy humans are now reiterated by Dr. Daphne Miller, a practicing physician and professor of family medicine. In her new book, Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing, she provides numerous on-the-ground examples of such connections.

    Roni Neff, a health care professional at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has also edited a book of essays, some of which suggest the connections between healthy soil and human health.

Lessons from My Own Farm.

My earliest personal lesson about soil health came from my own farm. It began with my father, who started farming on our farm with my mother right after they got married in 1930, which was in the midst of the Dust Bowl. Somehow my father understood that the devastating results of the Dust Bowl on his land were not just about the weather; they were also about the way farmers farmed. Consequently, he became determined to not ever let that happen to his farm again, and so “taking care of the land” became his central passion, and early on he began to instill that value into his young son.

Later in my life, when I returned to our farm to manage it and was introduced to organic agriculture, I discovered that managing for soil health was central to the early advocates of organic farming, visionaries like Sir Albert Howard, Lady Eve Balfour, J.I. Rodale, and others. Consequently, I decided to convert our farm to an organic farm and began implementing the various practices for restoring soil health—applying compost, introducing a mixture of crops in a crop rotation pattern that included alfalfa, a deep-rooted legume that also supplied our ruminant animals with forages for winter feed.

By the 1980s, our soil had visibly improved—it was more porous, and earthworms and other soil life had dramatically increased. Then, in 1988 we experienced the first dramatic, practical result of this improved soil health. That year we experienced the worst drought in the history of south-central North Dakota. Our neighbors, who farmed with conventional synthetic inputs, never pulled a combine out of the shed that summer since all of their crops dried up and died from lack of moisture by the time they grew to roughly 7 or 8 inches tall. Remarkably, by contrast, our fields produced wheat yields that averaged 17 bushels per acre, despite the severe drought. That result could only be explained by the increased moisture absorption and storage capacity of our healthier soils.


One important lesson in all this was articulated clearly by Wendell Berry in an essay that he originally published back in the early 1980s, “Solving for Pattern.” In that remarkable essay, Wendell pointed out that in our culture we tend to try to solve problems in isolation, as if they were detached phenomena that could be solved with single-tactic, therapeutic interventions. But in fact, problems are always part of a network of interrelated phenomena. Of course, as long as we had all of the cheap “old calories” to perform all of our interventions, we could make the system of therapeutic interventions work relatively well. However, as we enter the post-neo-caloric era, at the same time that we have degraded the health of our ecological and social resources (especially soil), we will need to begin recognizing the ecological complexity of living systems and their self-renewing capacity. If we are to live healthy, productive lives, let alone feed ourselves, in our post-neo-caloric future, it will be essential that we sustain our ecological capital (soil being the foundation of that capital). We will need to “solve for pattern.”

It is interesting to note that this shift in our thinking is now also being recognized by some of our leading economists. In an essay, published in the January/February 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Michael Porter and Mark Kramer suggested that businesses that wanted to be successful in our future could no longer operate by “the old playbook” of marginalizing labor and raw materials in the interest of maximizing profits, and neither could they continue to externalize social and natural costs in the interest of maximizing short-term profits, since labor, raw materials, social and natural capital (including soil) have now all been so degraded that businesses can no longer be successful unless they “share value” throughout each of these sectors to maintain the health of the whole. As they put it: “Shared value holds the key to unlocking the next wave of business innovation and growth. It will also reconnect company success and community success in ways that have been lost in an age of narrow management approaches, short-term thinking, and deepening divides among society’s institutions.” We will now need to “solve for pattern.”

All of this further suggests, as John Ehrenfeld and Andrew Hoffman propose in their recent book Flourishing: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability, that any of us interested in truly achieving “sustainability” need to move beyond much of the “chatter” about simply buying more “sustainable” products. As they put it, “sustainability is not about windmills, hybrid cars, and green cleaners; it is about the way we live. It is about living authentically; it is about our relationship with nature, with each other, and with ourselves. To be sustainable requires a fundamental shift in our way of thinking and goes to the core of who we are as human beings.” I would only add that it is also about how we relate to soil!

Our Table Cooperative's vegetable crew

Changing the Culture and Changing Ourselves

Narendra Varma

Born and raised in India, Narendra Varma came to the United States in 1986 to attend Brown University. In 2010, after quitting his day job at Microsoft, Narendra and his wife Machelle purchased a 58-acre farm just outside Portland, Oregon to launch Our Table Cooperative.

This article appears in the Spring 2016 issue of the Slow Money Journal.

In the late 1990s, after eight years working at Microsoft, my wife and I found ourselves on the receiving end of a financial windfall that freed us of the burden of nine-to-five jobs. Over time, our interests coalesced around the twin themes of food and community. We came to the realization that our contemporary food system has failed us at almost every level and that we need to work together with our community to imagine a new culture
 of food that is both abundant and resilient. Inspired by the burgeoning Slow Money movement, we decided to dedicate our time, knowledge, and financial resources to this effort.

We started with values: the health and well-being of people and the land, interdependent relationships, strong communities, and a worldview that sees humans as an integral and important part of the natural world. We wanted all the people involved in growing, raising, processing, distributing, cooking, and eating food to have an equal voice and ownership of their food: a model community-owned food system in which the farm feeds the community and the community feeds the farm. Since economic and ecological sustainability were both critical, a for-profit structure was important.

Our answer is Our Table—a cooperative business with three distinct but interdependent membership groups or classes—workers, regional producers, and consumers. Workers, from farmers to the delivery drivers, operate the cooperative’s farm and manage the organization. Producers are independent farmers and food artisans who grow and produce all the things that we want to eat but do not grow on our own farm. Consumers are the people who eat the food, which includes all of us in the community. The cooperative brings this diverse group of stakeholders together to the proverbial table to solve a common problem, and collectively, its members own and control the business and share the profits.

Our Table's Grocery Store

Our Table’s on-farm full-service grocery store

Since 2013, we have been raising a diverse array of vegetables, fruit, and animal products on our 58-acre farm located just 15 miles from downtown Portland. Combined with products from our regional producer members, this allows us to offer a full diet of Oregon-sourced and organic foods. Our on-farm commercial kitchen produces everything from jams and jellies to soups and lasagnas. All of this is available via a CSA program as well as in our on-farm full-service grocery store. The store is our primary retail outlet and the only farm-direct healthy food source for our middle-class suburban community.

With 16 employees and over 200 members, our gross revenues have grown to over $550,000 in 2015. However, this ambitious undertaking is not profitable yet and to date, financing from Slow Money–inspired investors has provided crucial operating capital in the form of preferred stock. We hope to achieve profitability in two years with $1.2 million in revenues and 800 members. We are currently trying to raise an additional $350,000 as we work towards this goal of financial self-sufficiency by 2017.

Chickens at Our Table

Over a few short years, we have overcome numerous challenges but continue to grapple with many more. Organic farming is a particularly risky business and the proverbial vagaries of nature are always rearing their ugly heads. However, the actual growing of food in a sustainable way is a complex but ultimately manageable problem. The more intractable issue is, at some level, far simpler—us: people; culture. On a day-to-day basis, what inspires me most is people, the individuals who work here and the members of our community who engage with us in myriad ways. On the flip side, the biggest single barrier to achieving our vision of a resilient and interdependent local food culture is the prevailing culture!

Our society does not place a great deal of value on the people involved in producing our food. The supreme irony of our business is that most of our workers cannot afford to purchase the food we produce! This is not because our food is overpriced. On the contrary, over 70 percent of our costs go towards payroll—at wage levels that are too low for comfort. The real reason most of us cannot afford our own food is because in our society, food is grossly underpriced. The true cost of production is not reflected in the majority of what we eat today because a large percentage of this cost is offset in space and/or time. We import much of our food from faraway places where labor is cheap and at home, we rely on migrant labor often working in near slavery conditions. At the same time, our farming practices destroy the soil, pollute our water, sicken our farmers, and decimate rural communities.

As much as each of us may, at an individual level, abhor these practices and their effects, we all bear a collective responsibility for them; it is our cultural values that create the system that results in these behaviors. In contrast, at Our Table, we make every attempt to price our food at what it truly costs to produce right here in our community, in a sustainable and closed-loop way. The result is that too many people in our community, including our own workers, find it difficult to purchase this appropriately priced food. The solution to this is not to make food cheaper by hiding costs but to change the value systems at the foundation of modern society. Obviously, none of us can undertake this herculean task alone. Certainly, none of us have all the answers. However, our society is a human invention—a figment of our collective imagination and if we act collectively, there is nothing to stop us from imagining and creating something different.

Aerial shot of Our Table

An aerial photo of Our Table Cooperative

Our real task is to change the culture and the only way to do that is to change ourselves. As someone once said to me rather ominously, “It is time to unwind the hypocrisy of our lives!” Farmers intuitively understand that when stewarded with love and care, nature produces a bounty and abundance that epitomizes the concept of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. We are a part of a larger whole, and coming together to collectively address common problems is a defining feature of what it means to be human. Pope Francis recently wrote:

We human beings are part of the environment. We live in communion with it.”

It is in this spirit of communion, love, and collective effort that we come together at 
Our Table. Workers, producers, consumers, and investors—the entire community—to take ownership of our food and change our culture.

This article appears in the Spring 2016 issue of the Slow Money Journal. Click here to learn more or to subscribe to the Journal.

Joan Gussow

I Trust Cows More Than I Trust Chemists: A Conversation With Joan Gussow

This interview appears in the Spring 2016 issue of the Slow Money Journal.

Joan Dye Gussow, Mary Swartz Rose Professor Emerita
 and former chair of the Program in Nutrition at Columbia
 University Teachers College, Nutrition Education Program, 
lives, writes, and grows organic vegetables on the west bank 
of the Hudson River. Long retired, she is still co-teaching her
 course in nutritional ecology at TC every fall. She is author,
 co-author or editor of five books including The Feeding Web: 
Issues in Nutritional Ecology, This Organic Life and Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life, and Vegetables.

Q. Michael Pollan has referred to you as his guru. You were talking about “nutritional ecology” way back in the 1970s. How did you originally develop this concept?

A. Yes, the term first went public in the subtitle of my book: The Feeding Web: Issues In Nutritional Ecology, which was published in 1978. This for me was an attempt to address the whole ball of wax. I might not have picked the right term for it. But I didn’t know how else to describe what I was after.

Some time earlier, I had seen an exchange in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Someone had written the editor asking why the journal had no coverage of the world hunger crisis, and the editor wrote back and said the world food crisis was the field of agricultural economists, demographers, and agronomists, but that it was not part of the field of clinical nutrition. Too often, the field of nutrition was this narrow.

Another example: I once asked a classroom of nutrition students to pick from a selection of journals about food, nutrition, and medicine one journal they thought their fellow students should read. I myself was fascinated by the food journals where you saw ads for what was coming next. Once I saw an ad for ”powdered cloud #9” that “gives your juice drinks eye-appealing opacity.” But not a single student in that class picked a “food” journal. 
One of them actually said to me later, “I don’t think that being interested
 in nutrition means you have to be interested in food.” So, on the one hand you had a nutrition editor who didn’t think his field had to do with hunger and on the other hand you had a nutrition student who didn’t see why she needed to be interested in food. Clearly, a broader view of things was needed. ‘Nutritional Ecology’ was my attempt at such a broader framework.

Q. This is the problem of professional silos.

A. Our job as nutritionists was to pay attention to the food after the swallow. Nothing before the swallow mattered. That meant that we were incredibly narrowly focused. The idea that nature had anything at all in mind regarding food was lost. Food technologists got busy trying to figure out things like the perfect balance of carbohydrates and protein in wheat, as if we could ever know what the perfect balance is. Food processors 
were only concerned with what they could do to the food to make it more marketable, not with valuing the essential character and quality of the food as it comes from nature.

Q. You’ve summed it up in the past by saying, “I prefer butter 
to margarine, because I trust cows more than I trust chemists.” Has your skepticism about technology gotten you into trouble?

A. How is it in this country we are so willing to look at technology and say that it will solve all of our problems? We always rush right in, let “progress” take over, and never imagine that it may have a negative effect on the overall society. I’m not sure why, but I felt this even in the very early days of the internet, when the excitement was so high. I was thinking, “People aren’t paying attention now to the environment. If everyone is busy watching frogs on their computers, they won’t notice when the actual frogs disappear.” That was decades ago and it is so much worse today.

Subscribe to the Slow Money Minute, a monthly roundup of news and updates.

Q. Are people similarly distracted when it comes to real food?

A. Yes, but they’re beginning to wake up. Today the food industry fortifies breakfast cereals with B12, which is only found in animals in nature. There’s a new film out about Michael Pollan’s In Defense Of Food and it features a tribe in Africa—one week they are eating antelope, one week they are eating honey, another week berries from trees, all along with various plant roots. This is, it seems to me, the polar opposite of breakfast cereals fortified with B12. We’ve arrived at the idea that to be nutritionally complete, we need every day one food from column A and two from column B, 
that we need to manipulate and measure and supplement ingredients, this much fat with this much vegetable protein and no gluten, counting each element. And we are trained to tell people to eat so many helpings of fresh fruit, winter and summer, forgetting that god doesn’t make fruit in winter.

Q. God does make organic Twinkies 12 months a year, doesn’t she?

A. That is not god. That is merely a god-like object called a factory, making a food-like object called a Twinkie. The point is that the professional field that should have been guarding the henhouse—attending to the integrity of food as it moves from seed to table, with attention to organic, biotech, hydroponics, energy, pollution, all the issues—this “field” has never really quite existed.

Q. Maybe this is also why there is no field in finance called slow money.

A. We share many of the same concerns about the long-term costs of reductionism.

Q. Isn’t this where the idea of local comes in? Global financial markets are reduced to a bunch of abstractions, a bunch of numbers. The place where you live and the life in the soil—these are the opposite of abstract. How did you get from nutritional reductionism to the local food movement?

A. The idea of relocalization as a possible solution was suggested at the end of The Feeding Web. I was thinking, “People don’t know we’re importing pork from Haiti, the poorest country in the world. How can we make people aware of the madness and the destructiveness of this food system?” I thought the only way people could begin to learn how agriculture worked would be for them to get to know a farmer and the only way to do this would be to have a farmer in their vicinity and the only way there would be a farmer in the vicinity was if local people were willing to buy, in season, what the farmer grew.

Around 1990, when the national Organic Foods Production Act was passed, I was on a panel and asked to take a stand on local versus organic, and I came down on the side of local, saying that as long as we had local farmers, we could work with them to go organic, but once we lost the local farmers, the game was up.

Local developed in response to the corruption of organic by large industrial producers. There was a feeling that local couldn’t be stolen from us. Which of course turned out not to be true.

Q. Who has stolen local?

A. Walmart is trying to position itself as a local player. But this poses all kinds of problems for small producers who get hooked into a large supply chain and become hostage to a system that over time drives prices down and hurts them and other local producers.

Q. Is community-supported agriculture a meaningful alternative?

A. CSAs and farmers’ markets are part of the solution. Food hubs are
 a significant new thing. Central locations that bring produce together and then distribute it. These take up where CSAs leave off. I’m worried that CSAs are facing competition today that is just too tough from home delivery and online ordering.

Q. It all comes back to the internet, doesn’t it?

A. My friend Pam Cook has a wonderful story about the days of bulk purchasing through co-ops and buying clubs. Her buying club members used to get together to plan orders, and then again to divide the stuff up. But once you could order online, it ended the whole social structure. 
No one had to bother coming together. No one had to sit around and laugh. No one had to say, “If we’re going to fill out the order, someone has to buy another pound of beans.” It all died. The internet did it. The earth is down there breathing and we are not hearing her. The internet removes us from Mother Earth, makes us forget our dependence on her and on each other.

This interview appears in the Spring 2016 issue of the Slow Money Journal. Click here to learn more or to subscribe to the Journal.

Woody Tasch

State of the Soil

I am not a Democrat. I am not a Republican. I am not
 a political animal. I’m just an earthworm. An earthworm in the soil of a restorative economy.

Children sing the Soil4Climate song during Earth Day activities in White River Junction, Vermont, April 22, 2016

Soil4Climate: New Organization Fights Global Warming From The Ground Up

Eric Becker is chief investment officer at Clean Yield Asset Management. He has been engaged in social and environmental investing since 1993. Eric co-founded Slow Money Boston and Slow Money Vermont, as well as the Vermont Food Investors Network. He is a founding board member of Soil4Climate. Eric serves as a Trustee of Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, Vermont. He was also a founding board member of The Carrot Project.

In my day job, I’m a money guy. I manage socially and environmentally screened investment portfolios for people who want to align their money with their values. I got involved with Slow Money because of a personal interest in organic agriculture, but also because I had clients who wanted to channel some of their assets into sustainable food systems. But soil? I didn’t know anything about soil.

That was about to change. Through my involvement with Slow Money, my appreciation for and understanding of soil has continually grown and deepened. I remember first learning from a Woody Tasch talk that there were upwards of a billion microorganisms in a teaspoon of fertile soil. I learned from farmers and others at Slow Money gatherings about the myriad benefits of healthy soils, from nutritious food to water quality. Meanwhile, wearing my climate activist hat, I met biologists who explained that one of the most powerful tools we have to mitigate climate change is to put the excess carbon in the atmosphere back in the soil through restorative grazing and agriculture.

Increasingly I found myself in the company of soil advocates who view restorative agriculture as a key component of any scenario in which humanity effectively addresses the climate crisis. Now a few of these folks have formed a Vermont-based non-profit organization called Soil4Climate to advance the soil carbon narrative within the larger climate movement. I’m honored to be one of the founding board members of the organization, and further pleased that Woody Tasch has joined our advisory board.


Soil4Climate at Vía Orgánica in Guadalupe, Mexico.

Soil4Climate is inspired by innovative farmers, ranchers and other land managers who are increasing soil carbon while providing environmental and health benefits. As it turns out, nature is our most powerful ally in the fight against global warming. The ability for soil to capture atmospheric carbon is awe evoking. When we work to enhance this natural process, we get nourishing food and biodiverse spaces while also helping to assure a livable future.

Soil4Climate evolved out of an understanding that the climate crisis has reached a point where even eliminating the use of fossil fuels would not prevent an oncoming calamity. Research from NOAA showed that climate change from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was largely irreversible for at least a thousand years, even if our campaign to end fossil use was 100% successful. The planet doesn’t care. It will continue to warm from the carbon we’ve already pumped into the air.


Jesse and Callie McDougall of Studio Hill Farm, and Sally Dodge from Vermont Lamb Company.

The one silver lining in all this, however, is soil. In conjunction with essential emissions reductions, soil restoration may provide the extra ingredient needed to avert the worst climate disruptions that are otherwise already locked into the system. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated, it will take “a large net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere over a sustained period” to do so.

Where does this “large net removal” come from? For decades scientists have recognized that soil provides an important sink for atmospheric carbon. Esteemed Ohio State soil scientist Rattan Lal is considered by many to be the leading authority on the carbon drawdown potential of soils. In a paper from 2010, he estimated that the implementation of soil restoration practices may capture upwards of 3.8 gigatons of atmospheric carbon per year – fully a third of all global carbon emissions. However, a new paper by Richard Teague of Texas A&M, with Lal and others as co-authors, suggests the total drawdown in soil may be much higher when including the restorative potential of livestock managed for grass and soil health on prairie. Teague showed that Adaptive Multipaddock (AMP) grazing, a new type of grazing management that focuses on ecological goals, if employed on all available rangeland in North America, could, on its own, drawdown 730 million tons of carbon per year. When combined with “conservation cropping,” North American agricultural and grazing lands could pull down approximately one eighth of all global emissions. If the drawdown potential noted in Teague’s paper were realized on all cropping and grazing lands worldwide, the total yearly carbon capture would nearly offset the entire output from fossil fuel emissions.


Clearly, soil restoration through proper cropping and grazing practices is a valuable goal for us to work toward. We may never know with clarity what the yearly or total cumulative potentials for carbon capture in soil are, but we are certain that the quantities are large, and that movement forward in this direction is an essential course of action with multiple benefits. Combined with emissions reductions, soil restoration provides optimism for a livable future.


Soil4Climate at COP21 in Paris.

Soil4Climate supports all modes of engagement with citizens, scientists, policy makers, and practitioners to enhance soil carbon while meeting environmental and human needs. We are attempting to build a movement in the model of, while also supporting practical measures to help land managers employ regenerative practices. Our activities include writing white papers, organizing forums, encouraging policy, highlighting stories of success, encouraging sustainable investments, hosting online discussion groups, and even writing music and poetry. We stand with the emissions reductions communities that are doing essential work to phase out fossil fuels, and we employ an “all-of-the-above” strategy to engage stakeholders of any age or interest.

Please join us online in our Facebook and Google groups.

A few members of the Planting Justice team

Planting Justice Creates Access to Living-wage Careers and Affordable Food

With the help of Slow Money Northern California, Planting Justice has purchased Rolling River Nursery, and expanded the operation in Sobrante Park, which has the highest unemployment and crime rate in Oakland. The nursery is set to be transformed into an urban farm and training center that will greatly expand access to fresh produce, food-producing trees and living wage jobs. In addition to the investment of $600,000 by 5 members of Slow Money Northern California, the project is just finishing a crowdfunding campaign that raised over $100,000.

New jobs in nursery management, edible and medicinal plant propagation, and aquaponics production

With this project, Planting Justice aims to bring the largest and most biodiverse collection of certified organic tree crops in North America (1,100 varieties!) from Rolling River Nursery in Humboldt County to deep east Oakland.

Planting Justice

The relocated nursery works with a recirculating aquaponics operations that serves as a replicable, drought-resilient model for growing 100,000 pounds of organic produce per year on empty lots with paved or polluted soil.

The project creates at least 10 new, living-wage jobs for people coming home from prison. The new jobs are in nursery management, edible and medicinal plan propagation, aquaponics production, marketing, and distribution.

Planting Justice

Aligned with Planting Justice’s mission, the project supports a shift in how prisoner re-entry is handled in California and across the country. In six years, not a single one of the 20 formerly incarcerated staff at Planting Justice have returned to prison! The non-profit incubates a worker-owned urban farming cooperative to support people in re-entry by replicating these technologies on other empty lots, as collective owners of the enterprise.

One of the Slow Money Northern California investors, Theo Ferguson, raves:

“It was a joy working with Gavin Raders, Executive Director of Planting Justice.  He is an entrepreneur in service to and totally aware of the fundamental change Planting Justice is making on environmental, social, financial, and governance Community Benefit Returns on Investment.”

Funding Through Self-Directed IRA and Foundation Grants

Several of the Slow Money individuals involved directed their low-interest investment through a Self-Directed IRA. They were joined by several foundations, one of whom had an existing relationship with Planting Justice. Six percent of the funding for this project came in the form of grants.

Eliot Coleman

My Agricultural Grandparents

This article appears in the Spring 2016 issue of the Slow Money Journal.

Eliot Coleman has over 50 years of experience as an organic farmer. He is the author of The New Organic Grower (Chelsea Green, rev. 1995), Four Season Harvest (Chelsea Green, rev. 1999), and The Winter Harvest Handbook (Chelsea Green, 2009). Eliot presently owns and operates Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine.

It is not uncommon for farmers to talk about the influence their grandparents had on their farming education and their eventual success in agriculture. I am no different. But my story comes with a unique twist. My paternal grandfather, Leander Walter Townsend Coleman, was born in 1868 but was not a farmer. Unfortunately for my farming career, the Coleman family association with farming on the family land had ended three generations before Leander’s birth. So the grandparents I am about to acknowledge are not related to me by blood. And, although they are long deceased like Leander, they still reside on my farm and I consult them on a daily basis. My grandparents in farming are old books and the people who wrote them. They live on the shelves in my library and I am as indebted to them as I would be to a blood relative. I call them grandparents because all these books were published during Leander’s lifetime. The farming techniques they convey were understood when he was born, were practiced during the early years of his life, and were as successful then as they are now.

I became acquainted with my agricultural grandparents shortly after starting my farming career. I have a passion for learning where ideas originate and how they develop, so I spent long evenings in the dusty agricultural stacks of many libraries. Dogged research into old periodicals and old books slowly gave me access to more and more of these delightful predecessors and their writings. These literary grandparents introduced me to the age-old truths of agriculture. They gave me insight into how successfully and how rationally food was produced before modern agricultural science started to tell us that it couldn’t be done that way. These grandparents prepared me both practically and philosophically for the world of farming I was about to enter.

One of the first I got to know was Stephen Alfred Forbes, once head of the Illinois State Lab of Natural History. In 1880, he published a pamphlet entitled On Some Interactions of Organisms. Forbes provided me with philosophical assurance that the solution to agricultural problems is not difficult. It simply involves learning how natural systems work so that we will know how to cooperate with natural forces rather than attempting to ignore them or control them with chemicals. Forbes wrote:

From the consequent human interferences with the established nature of things, numerous disturbances arise … We must study the methods by which nature reduces these disturbances, and learn how to second her efforts to our own best advantage … By far the most important general conclusion we have reached is a conviction of the general beneficence of Nature, a profound respect for the natural order, and a belief that the part of wisdom is essentially that of practical conservatism in dealing with the system of things by which we are surrounded.

An extensive school of what I might call ecological agriculture existed in the 19th century along the lines expressed by Forbes. Its principal interests were, first, understanding the functioning of the biological world, second, getting to the cause of the problems arising from “human interferences with the established nature of things,” and, third, learning to modify agricultural practices in order to work within natural laws. Farming was not conceived of as a war but rather as a diplomacy of biological cooperation, a nurturing rather than a roughshod trampling.

Not all my grandparents wrote in English. There is also a French grandfather, Vincent Gressent, on the shelf. He was fully involved in the practical aspects of vegetable production. During the 19th century, some of the most successful market gardening ever known was taking place within the city limits of Paris, powered by composted horse manure from the city stables. When I came across Gressent’s book, Le Potager Moderne, first published in 1864, it supplemented Stephen Forbes’ philosophical reassurances with the hard, practical experience of a fellow grower. As Gressent wrote at that time:

“For vegetable growing, chemical fertilizers don’t do all that one wants: They stimulate the plant and produce quantity, but to the detriment of quality … Insect pests only attack weak, sickly plant specimens lacking proper nutrition … In proof of this, I offer the market gardens of Paris where vegetable growing has reached perfection … One does not see pest problems in Parisian market gardens wherever copious compost use and rational crop rotations are practiced by the growers.”

By the end of the 19th century, the increasing urbanization of Paris had forced the Parisian market gardeners to move to less valuable land outside the city and a classic horticultural model was displaced. Around that same moment in time (1898), an English grandfather, Robert Elliot, wrote Agricultural Changes. Elliot had successfully demonstrated on his farm how perpetual soil fertility could be maintained by alternating four years of rotationally grazed grass and legume pastures with a couple of years of annual crops such as grains, beans, and vegetables. The extensive organic matter from the roots of the tilled-under pasture plants provides ideal growing conditions for the annual crops plus soil structure to protect against erosion.

Elliot’s biographer wrote that Elliot had (and I find this phrase delightfully English) a “robust aversion to purchasing anything he might be able to produce more cheaply for himself.” (But then that’s a valuable policy for any farmer.) “Elliot therefore set out to devise a system which would be as farm generated as possible in respect to fertility.” At our farm we share Elliot’s robust aversion. We use the very same system he advocated because it is unbelievably productive, efficient, and thrifty.

Operating in that same spirit is a second American grandfather, Cyril Hopkins, professor of agronomy at the University of Illinois and director of the Illinois Agricultural Experiment Station. In his 1910 book, Soil Fertility and Permanent Agriculture, Hopkins emphasized that soil fertility was not something the farmer had to purchase but rather was a by-product of intelligent farming techniques. It is hard to imagine an extension pamphlet today that would state as Hopkins did, “The real question is, shall the farmer pay ten times as much as he ought to pay for food to enrich his soil? Shall he buy nitrogen at 45 to 50 cents a pound when the air above every acre contains 70 million pounds of free nitrogen?” Hopkins wrote numerous experiment station bulletins like that encouraging farmers to realize that no salesman was going to tell them about green manures, cover crops, crop rotation, legumes, incorporating livestock, and so forth because they were management practices that did not have to be purchased.

Cyril Hopkins (right) taking a soil sample from the Morrow Plots.

Cyril Hopkins (right) taking a soil sample from the Morrow Plots.

The efforts of Cyril Hopkins serve as a metaphor for independent truths up against advertising and a sales blitz that tries to pretend the truths don’t exist. The result of a century of fertilizer salesmanship is that no one today remembers Cyril Hopkins. The soil fertility truths that he championed, although they were understood for generations, have been forgotten so long that they are regarded by agricultural science today as some sort of revolutionary heresy.

A grandmother needs to be mentioned here. Maye Emily Bruce wrote a little volume in the early days of the organic movement in England entitled From Vegetable Waste To Fertile Soil (1940) that has long had an honored place on my bookshelf. Maye Bruce wrote some of the movement’s earliest volumes on compost making and conducted experiments and devised herbal stimulants to make composting a faster and more dependable process.

And then there is Selman Waksman, a professor at Rutgers and a leading authority on soil microbiology. His 1931 book, The Soil and the Microbe, helped explain why Maye Bruce’s compost was so important to soil fertility. Waksman wrote, “By reason of the fact that microorganisms do not occur in the same abundance in all soils and that they are generally favored by conditions that lead to best plant growth, there exists a close relationship between the biological activity of soils and soil fertility.” The microbes that run the soil and the inhabitants of the human microbiome are gaining in respect every day and are coming to be seen as the new frontier of health.

Selman Waksman

Selman Waksman testing Streptomycin, a bacterial antibiotic produced by the soil actinomycete.

Another grandmother is Lady Eve Balfour, born in 1898. Lady Eve was a major force behind the development and popularization of organic farming in England. Her 1943 book, The Living Soil, was one of the earliest expositions of the organic philosophy and the thinking behind organic farming. She was also influential in expanding the early organic movement in the U.S., thanks to a number of promotional tours she engaged in during the 1950s. Back in the late 1970s, I organized a number of tours in the other direction to show American farmers the high level of expertise among organic farmers in Europe. Most of the early hippie farmers on those tours were pretty left wing and certainly non-fancy. One night in England, we were all sitting around a pub drinking Guinness. Lady Eve joined our table and right away I could tell the group was impressed that she could knock back the Guinness as fast as we could while simultaneously demonstrating an encyclopedic knowledge of organic farming. After she moved on to another table, one of the old leftist hippies turned to me and said, “Damn, if that’s the aristocracy, I think there should be more of them.”

Lady Eve Balfour

Lady Eve Balfour

Another important grandfather is Leonard Wickenden, a past president of the American Chemical Society, who became enthusiastically involved in organic growing after he retired from his career as a chemist. He used his scientific background to defend and refine the organic concepts that worked so well for him in his garden. In his 1954 book, Gardening With Nature, he explained the most basic rule for success:

“Let your aim be to feed your soil—not your plants. The modern method of using the soil as an inert medium for conveying plant food to the crop is grossly unscientific. Feed the soil and it will convey well-balanced food to the crops in a steady stream throughout the growing season. There will be no brief stimulation of the plant with … nitrate of soda, followed by a famine when the soluble salt is exhausted or washed away, but a process of day by day nourishment which will produce sturdy vigor in the crop.”

The important fact from my experience, after 50 years of practicing what my grandparents have taught me, is that this production system simply works and it works far better than most people can imagine. These concepts have successfully fed mankind for 4,000 years, a fact that the last grandfather on my list, Franklin Hiram King, expressed so eloquently in his 1911 book, Farmers of Forty Centuries. King pointed out that the obvious answer to maintaining agricultural production in perpetuity is written on the soil of farms all around the world where the importance of feeding the soil is recognized.

This article appears in the Spring 2016 issue of the Slow Money Journal. Click here to learn more or to subscribe to the Journal.

Jim Baird in a field of organic vetch in the Columbia River Basin

Investing in Soil Health, One Piece of Land at a Time

This article appears in the Spring 2016 issue of the Slow Money Journal.

Leslie Christian is a financial advisor who has been a leader in social and environmental investing for decades. She is a senior advisor at RSF Social Finance and NorthStar Asset Management and past board member and treasurer of the Business Alliance For Local Living Economies (BALLE). She was previously president and CEO of Portfolio 21 Investments.

Three years ago, in collaboration with a group of farmers and investors, my spouse and I formed an LLC called Living Lands. Together we wrote our purpose and articles of incorporation to place the highest priority on soil health. Under the astute guidance and leadership of Jim Baird, a longtime farmer in eastern Washington and a founding member of Slow Money, we purchased a 100-acre piece of farmland in the Columbia River Basin. Jim manages the land in conjunction with his other activities, including Cloudview EcoFarms, an educational and experimental farm project with operations in Royal City and Ephrata.

Our conversations have been wide-ranging and spirited. We have talked about soil and carbon and the best way to figure out whether we are improving the health of the soil. We are all concerned about water, and it has been enlightening to hear from Jim and Sam (another investor and also a farmer based near Ellensburg) about the history of our state’s water districts, irrigation programs, and farmer involvement. We are currently in the process of transitioning the land we purchased to certified-organic status, an important element in our pursuit of soil health, although by no means the “silver bullet.” Last year we leased the farmland to a young couple Jim has been mentoring. By leasing our land and raising commercial crops (currently alfalfa), they are able to make a living as farmers while continuing their explorations of farming practices.

We are not going to “scale” Living Lands. We may form Living Lands II and buy another piece of farmland. When we do, we’ll need to pay as much attention to it as we have to LLI. We found out that the property we bought has more rocks than we expected. It may not be suited to growing onions, but maybe potatoes. It’s complicated, but that’s what makes it meaningful. It’s personal and place-based and unique. We are forming relationships that we wouldn’t otherwise have had. We are placing the highest value on the land and the people who know the land.

Recently, I attended a breakfast meeting in Seattle. The sponsor was The Nature Conservancy’s NatureVest, a relatively new division that is bringing private and public capital to conservation through various kinds of investment. If I thought 100 acres of farmland in eastern Washington was complicated, then the work of NatureVest is off the charts. Our state’s land commissioner spoke about the scope of the need for conservation and at the same time the intimate, personal nature of every transaction. I cannot imagine NatureVest “scaling” its work. Rather, I see it experimenting, trying out ideas, sharing what works and doesn’t, spending a lot of time and energy in design and detail, and putting together fascinating, compelling conservation investments that address what’s really needed for life on this planet to sustain.

With Living Lands, it’s one piece of land at a time. And the same is true of NatureVest.

The vocal financial mainstream is dismissive of “one-offs” and seems to prefer algorithms to human ingenuity and common sense. In fact, even an employee of The Nature Conservancy had the audacity to say that he really hoped we wouldn’t need TNC and NatureVest someday—that the goal is to “figure all this stuff out” so the real money can come in and get all of this “to scale.” But, really, these are the kinds of investments that should take over the world—not by scaling so that Wall Street can swoop in and do its “magic,” but by inspiring the participants, engaging the public and working at an essential level—real dirt, real trees, real plants, and real people.

Jim Baird

Scaling means making a product, service, or solution more uniform and repeatable. This may have made sense back in the industrialization and manufacturing eras of the 19th century and maybe the 20th century, but we have gotten carried away. For people who are so proud of our innovations and creativity, we are really quite old-fashioned to believe the same principles that brought us through the industrial age are going to see us through this next era. We seem to think it’s appropriate to scale everything—farms, education, healthcare, and even relationships. Yet, people and places are so much more diverse, nuanced and interdependent than assembly-line products or software code. When we scale enterprises that directly serve people and places in all of their uniqueness and weirdness, we must inevitably standardize our understanding of those people and places. In the process, we surely fail to engage them or ourselves fully. We sacrifice quality for quantity.

There’s another aspect to this insistence upon scaling. It feels top-down and controlled. It may be rationalized as a way to reach more people, but the underlying motivation is inevitably connected to increasing pro t margins. We should ask, “Scale for whom?” When we talk about “getting to scale,” it usually means getting to a scale that makes investors happy. Unfortunately, happy investors are often inclined to ignore or minimize employees, nature, communities, and families.

Like many of my friends and colleagues in Slow Money circles, I know it is time to move in a fundamentally new direction.

This article appears in the Spring 2016 issue of the Slow Money Journal. Click here to learn more or to subscribe to the Journal.

Animals, Land and People: An Interview with Will Harris

This interview appears in the Spring 2016 issue of the Slow Money Journal.

Will runs the largest USDA-certified organic farm in Georgia, farming 1,200 owned acres and 2,000 leased. He has over 2,000 head of cattle, raises 60,000 pastured chickens, and also raises eight other species of animals, most of which roam around in a model of farming based on the way animals graze on the Serengeti plains. He has built two abattoirs on site—one for red meat, one for poultry. He has an organic vegetable CSA and an heirloom orchard. His farm closes the loop on sustainability through rotational grazing, solar power, and the recycling of all of his various “wastes” from his animal operations. All of the wash water, bones, and other animal “wastes” end up back on the land, building the soil over time.

Q. As you look at the situation in farming today, what jumps out at you?

A.Today’s farmer is facing a transformation. But it is not only the farmer. Equally important is a transformation of the appetite of the American consumer. The complexity of this transition is great. And there’s also an investment side of this transition—how do we finance kinder, gentler, regenerative agriculture. We still live in a world that is full of big box stores and fast food places. This transition isn’t going to happen immediately and it shouldn’t. It is going to take time. You’ve got to remember that the big changes to food and farming— commodification, centralization, industrialization—started after WWII 70 years ago. It could take another 70 years for the pendulum to swing back to some semblance of it was.

Q. Saying it’s going to swing back towards what it once was raises all kinds of questions.

A. I don’t mean returning to my great grandfather’s agriculture. But the ag we have today is completely built on maximizing consistency and efficiency. Very little emphasis is placed on animal welfare, the environmental sustainability of the program, or the economic impoverishment of rural America. What this has done has made food obscenely cheap and the cost has been borne on the backs of farm animals, the environment, and rural America. When I say it will swing back to where it was I mean … hey, technology is fantastic, I’m sitting in a pasture in my new Jeep, talking to you a cell phone with a laptop open on the seat beside me … but I’m talking about rediscovering fundamental respect for the animals, the land and the people who are producing the food.

Q. What’s the relationship between this kind of respect and the quality of food?

A. There was a time when farmers put everything they could into making their milling wheat or corn for cornmeal for their pigs or their chickens the best possible quality. They didn’t do so for altruistic reasons or vanity. They did so because when they went to sell, they wanted to get a higher price for their produce, based on quality. After WWII, the USDA set minimum standards for milling wheat and feed steers and Number One hogs and Number Two corn. When we set minimum standards, we de-incentivized adding quality. It became about producing as cheaply as possible and still meeting those minimum standards, with the Chicago Board of Trade deciding how much you were going to get.

Today the Tysons and Cargills and Smithfields and other large multinational corporations of their ilk have moved so far down this model of efficiency that I don’t believe they can ever move back. They are so committed to uber-high-volume, uber-efficient production operating purely on a cost basis that they will never be able to move away from that. But it’s not just the big guys. Small producers at the other end of things face a different set of challenges as they strive to return to a higher quality system of production.

Q. Sounds like you are heading towards the ag-in-the-middle story here.

A. I am. What we are doing at White Oak Pastures is one example. We built our own processing capacity, investing $7.5 million to do it, so that we can achieve and maintain the quality we want in our product.

Q. To the small guys, you are big and to the big guys, you are small. Can you say more about how your particular scale allows you to produce a high-quality product?

A. There are some animals, in the case of beef, that just aren’t going to make good steaks. You did all the right things, you cared for them properly, you had the right genetics, but they just did not turn out as a good steak animal. If you are focused on quality, you will inform your meat cutters that when you get an animal that is of inferior quality, let me know and we’ll decide what to do. For instance, we may make ground beef. In that case, I may lose $400 on that animal. But I protect my overall quality. You can only do that if you have complete control of the processing.

Q. Isn’t this the question of appropriate scale? The idea that there is an optimal scale at which quality, market share, and impact can all come together?

A. Scale is everything. I don’t mean the bigger, the better. It has got to be scaled properly. When it’s right, scale is the balance that comes from a three-legged stool: production, processing, marketing. In this balance, it can’t be the best two out of three, or the stool will topple over.

I couldn’t have built the processing we need for any less than we spent. Our $7.5 million investment worked for us. We’re profitable, but it’s not a get-rich deal. It’s a good family business, good enough to bring two daughters and spouses back into it. But I didn’t figure out that scale in the abstract. I didn’t say at the outset, ‘$28 million in sales and 123 employees is our ideal scale.’ I kind of blundered towards it. I made a lot of mistakes along the way and there were many times that I thought, ‘I’ve got this,’ that I really didn’t. But we did arrive at a scale that is working.

Q. As your operation has grown, you’ve added species, added diversity. Yet it is usually the case that the bigger farms get, the more commodified they get.

A. It used to be that farms were organisms. The farms of my great grandfather’s era had grain, cattle, chickens, lots of different species living in symbiotic relationships. Nature abhors a monoculture. Nature always gravitates to many different species of plants, animals and microbes living in symbiosis. You don’t have a forest with nothing but rabbits or a forest with nothing but deer in it. There’s always a smorgasbord. Henry Ford taught us the factory model. The efficient way to build cars was to build a factory. It works beautifully for cars or anything else that is complication. A watch is complicated. A cow is complex. A factory is complicated. A farm is complex.

Reductionist science works for complicated systems. You can isolate the variables. But when it comes to nature, to complexity, reductionist thinking doesn’t work.

White Oak Pastures

Q. How did you make the transition from the post-WWII model of commodification, centralization, and industrialization to a model that puts respect for animals, land, and people first?

A. After WWII, we applied the industrial model to farms. Just like you make cars at the car factory and shirts at the shirt factory, we started making pigs at the pig factory and chickens at the chicken factory. We started using industrial tools: pesticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones.

The industrial system of farming was wildly successful in achieving what it set out to accomplish—in making food cheap, abundant, and consistent. But it had unintended consequences. My family has seen these up close.

My father went to a meeting in Bluffton in 1946. A young man was a salesman for a fertilizer company. Chemical fertilizer wasn’t being used much at that point. The fertilizer company was a repurposed munitions manufacturer that was making ammonium nitrate fertilizer. This kind of fertilizer didn’t become cheap and abundant until after WWII, when all those munitions plants were repurposed. This young fertilizer salesman had two 100-pound bags of ammonium nitrate and he gave every farmer 5-10 pounds in a brown paper bag with the request to spread it out on a pasture, water it, and check it in three days. The effect was like steroids in a weight room. When my dad and the other farmers checked the results, there was no comparison: ‘Shit, I want my whole farm to look like that!’

So, we put ammonium nitrate on every acre we owned twice a year. But what my dad didn’t know, what no one knew at that time, is that ammonium nitrate was killing microbes in the soil and oxidizing the organic matter that it had taken millennia to create. For the next 50 years, we kept applying ammonium nitrate all over our land twice a year.

In the ’70s, I went to the University of Georgia. I majored in agriculture. No one ever mentioned to me that fertilizer kills microbes and oxidizes organic matter. No one. By the mid ’90s, I was starting to read things that introduced me to new ideas. And then I started noticing at the edge of the woods where the truck doesn’t get, and so we hadn’t applied fertilizers and pesticides there, the land had more tilth and was teeming with life that you could see and even more that you could sense, and that made me realize that if we’d never used the ammonium nitrate and pesticides, all my land would have this much life.

Q. There’s a lot to admire in that story of observation and learning.

A. I’m still observing and learning. I’m new to the goat and hog business and I’m just learning these herdmanships. Hogs are really forest creatures. Sheep and cattle are pasture creatures. I had some goats that had been on pasture but I put them in the woods with the hogs. I noticed that they were shinier, gaining weight, playful, just generally doing better. And the hogs also seemed to start doing better. I googled and tried to research something that would explain this. Couldn’t find anything. I kept observing. Here’s what I’m thinking. The goats are eating plant species that the hogs don’t eat and the hogs were eating the goat shit and then hogs are getting different nutrients from that goat shit, so they are healthier. And when the hogs ate the goat shit, they broke the lifecycle of the barberpole worm, internal parasites that affect goats, so the goats also started doing better. Seems like textbook mutually beneficial symbiotic relationships, but I don’t have the textbook. I have the farm.

Q. What do your observations tell you about Allan Savory’s holistic management system?

A. It’s past time to be talking about sustainable farming practices. We’ve got to talk about regenerative farming practices, those that every single year improve the productive capacity of the land. The end game of most regenerative practices is going to be sequestering carbon in the soil. Not as a response to global warming, per se, but because this is what turns soil that is a dead mineral medium into an organism that is teeming with life. Allan Savory’s holistic management system is the best game in town. This system emulates nature, using prairie animals to build the soil by mimicking the predator-prey animal systems, where animal herds were bunched and moving. Hooves breaking the soil, defecation, microbes in the animal guts working with microbes in the soil, intensive grazing. This flies in the face of commodified, centralized, industrialized livestock practices.

This interview appears in the Spring 2016 issue of the Slow Money Journal. Click here to learn more or to subscribe to the Journal.