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Getting to the Root of the Problem

by Rob Dietz

Dietz_Author_PhotoFarmland LP is a business born from the “uh-oh moment.” The uh-oh moment arrives when you comprehend just how unsustainable modern society has become. Although it can occur as an epiphany, it more commonly comes at the end of a long journey of grappling with grave topics like climate change, poverty, species extinctions, and resource wars. Jason Bradford’s journey wound through college classrooms, South American forests, and California farm fields. With remarkable determination, he turned his uh-oh moment into acres and acres of inspiration.

Bradford is a stocky ball of energy with a quick smile, hearty laugh, and rapid-fire delivery. All three are on display as he discusses his early career. As a graduate student in botany and biology, he assessed tropical ecosystems. He says, “I studied ecosystems in the cloud forests of Costa Rica because they were so cool — I wanted to understand how they fit in the global ecosystem.” He became the go-to guy for the Cunoniaceae family of plants, and his studies propelled him around the world, including a stop in Peru’s Manu National Park to study the effects of climate change on forest diversity.

“Manu is where I got my big uh-oh. I went from being a taxonomist to a team leader, so I had to understand the big picture.” His big-picture role included digesting reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC conducts assessments that, according to Bradford, take input from one specialty and use it to develop output for another specialty. That output, in turn, becomes a new round of input, and so on. “Climate change predictions start with economic models that estimate future population, resource use, and emissions. With emissions predictions, the climatologists predict temperature changes, and the biologists and agronomists come up with prescriptions.” Bradford detected what he saw as a fatal flaw in this modeling — there was no feedback. The economic models were based on continuously growing consumption, but the storms and emergencies coming from the climate models would, in time, keep the economy from growing. Somehow the modelers had overlooked this critical detail.

“Here I was, a recent Ph.D. at U.C. Davis, and I kept asking, ‘What’s wrong with me? Do I not understand economics?'” Bradford kept digging and unearthing troubling truths. He read the research on limits to growth, studied ecological economics, and concluded that the economic assumptions we live by are pushing us into a terrible trap. His university colleagues avoided the issue. “They would say things like, ‘You’re right, but we can’t do anything about it. Just keep your head down; the implications are too big.'” No one would question the ideology of continuous economic growth. Bradford says, “I understood why it was difficult for people, but I couldn’t erase what I had learned.” His next move demonstrates the determination needed to get out of the trap.

“I could have had a nice career as a professor studying amazing ecosystems, but the cloud forests wouldn’t survive — my research wouldn’t help them. I had to tackle [the problem of] resource overconsumption.” He departed academia and relocated to Willits, California to work on economic relocalization. He started a network of people pursuing a thriving but thrifty local economy. He produced and hosted The Reality Report, a radio program about sustainability. He founded Willits Economic Localization, a nonprofit that served as a template for the Transition Towns movement. That’s a bold and effective response to the uh-oh moment, but it wasn’t enough for Bradford. Not content just talking about the issues, he wanted to create a successful demonstration of economic localization.

Jason Bradford leading the way (photo by Eric Näslund)

Jason Bradford leading the way (photo by Eric Näslund)

No sector of the economy is more fundamental than food, and Bradford’s background in plants made him a natural for exploring the local food economy. He started an organic vegetable farm and partnered with a nearby school to bring his produce into the cafeteria. Despite his farm’s success, his overactive mind wouldn’t rest. “I had worked so hard on one acre, but what I had accomplished wouldn’t show up on a bar chart. Our produce wasn’t selling in Safeway where most of my neighbors went grocery shopping.” Bradford realized that to make a difference in the food economy, local organic farms needed more support, and that meant access to big money. The stage was set for another move.

Bradford knew he needed to be in a premium agricultural region. Hence the move to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Based on land prices, proximity to markets, water availability, and the sustainability-literate population, he recognized the city of Corvallis as the perfect place to launch Farmland LP and bolster the local food economy.

For an organization with a world-changing agenda, Farmland LP has a refreshingly simple model that can be explained in five basic statements: (1) Attract money from investors. (2) Buy conventional farmland. (3) Convert the farmland to organic. (4) Sell high-value crops, meats, and seeds in the local economy. (4) Provide a reasonable rate of return to investors. (5) Scale up operations so that healthy lands and healthy foods become the cornerstone of the economy.

In contrast to the model, getting Farmland LP up and running has been anything but simple. Bradford and his business partner Craig Wichner took on considerable personal risk, working without a paycheck or a safety net for years. But their efforts are paying dividends. They have attracted funding not only to buy land, but also to purchase livestock and equipment and hire farmers. In 2011 they had 260 acres. By the end of 2012 they had bought 6,000 more acres, and now both agricultural products and additional investments are flowing more freely.

It can be real stunner when you internalize the uh-oh moment. It’s enough to make you want to dig a hole, climb in, and hide from what you’ve learned. Jason Bradford dug a hole and found not only the root of the problem, but also room to nurture the roots of a solution.

Fixing Food and Farming with a True-Cost Economy

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderPending farm legislation in Congress could eliminate food stamps ($80 billion worth of support per year) for families in need, while increasing subsidies for very large farm operations. Programs to promote stewardship of the land through soil and water conservation could also face dramatic cuts.

You might have hoped that subsidies to super-sized farms would instead have been on the chopping block. You might also have hoped that stewardship of the land through soil conservation programs would have been boosted on food security grounds. Well, your hopes are in the process of being shredded in the halls of Congress.

But maybe there’s still room for hope. A paradigm shift is underway in our nation’s approach to food and agriculture. Movements are gaining steam that support organic food, local food, farmers markets, local food security, and food safety. On the food safety front, outrage is growing over the inability to inspect more than two percent of imported food, especially in the wake of food scandals abroad (e.g., melamine in pet food, pork treated with chemicals to taste like beef, deaths of children from school lunches prepared in used pesticide containers).

For these movements to work, they’ve got to influence policies at home and abroad. Economic and agricultural policies that favor financial profits over healthy food systems won’t work. U.S. farm programs are failing to address serious food supply issues. At the same time, many nations are ceding control over their best farmland to outside interests, as if the notion of local food security had no meaning. Such maneuvers could increase the risk of famine and starvation in the event of droughts, floods, or other disruptions in food supply.

Millions of acres of prime farmland around the world have already been bought up by countries such as Saudi Arabia and China, as well as by corporations. A large Chinese agribusiness pork producer has just put up over $4 billion to buy the Smithfield company located in Virginia. Tens of millions of acres of prime farmland in Africa are now owned by countries and corporations that have little interest in local people, many of whom are evicted from their ancestral lands.

Along with these land grabs, population growth is putting pressure on farms to produce even more, especially as the gains in yield from the Green Revolution wind down. At dinner tonight there will be 219,000 new mouths to feed. How is civilization going to meet the challenges posed by a growing global population when the planet’s productive soil is being lost and contaminated?

Authors like Lester Brown have called attention to the deterioration of productive farmland throughout the world. Although there are examples of land restoration efforts such as in part of China’s Loess Plateau, these do not offset ongoing declines. In the United States the annual erosion loss is 1.7 billion tons of topsoil.

Managing these weighty issues in the food system requires a complete economic overhaul. In a global, true-cost, steady state economy, the agriculture and food goals for each nation would be to rebuild foodsheds with greater local sustainability and secure resilient food systems.

Each nation would maintain an agricultural base sufficient to feed its people, including backup plans in case of crop failure or natural disasters. Such resilience is needed because climate destabilization has dramatically increased the number of weather disasters. From 1900 until 1970 the number of global disasters remained below 100 per year. Now the average is over 300 with several years spiking to over 500. These disasters pose serious threats to food production and stress the emergency response resources of governments.  In addition, the increased frequency of these disasters is making rescue operations and aid from other nations less common.

A pioneering farm bill for a true-cost economy would begin redesigning the food system, based on principles of ecology, justice, and health. Such a system would be fair sustainable, and humane. The federal government would be encouraging, not impeding, local and community agriculture that would employ many more people on ecologically sound farms.

Abusive soil practices would become a thing of the past as the connections between soil fertility and food security become more obvious. Degradation of soil would be seen as a direct threat to long-term national security and well-being.

Interest in genetically engineered food and organisms would wane as attempts by Monsanto and other food/chemical giants to control the world’s food supply are beaten back by the power of expanding local and community food organizations.

For more information on how U.S. farm legislation could be changed, check out the great work being done by the National Farm Family Coalition. For descriptions of many exciting and challenging food initiatives, read Philip Ackerman-Leist’s book Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable, and Secure Food Systems.