"We like waste."
So says Will Raap, founder and driving force behind the Intervale
Foundation, a one-of-a-kind, farm-centric nonprofit on the
outskirts of Burlington, Vermont.
What he means is not that they like to see food or energy
go to waste, of course, but that waste represents opportunity:
the chance to build something creative and self-sustaining
and even beautiful out of something most people wish would
That pretty much sums up the Intervale. When Raap showed
up here in the early 1980s, the 700-acre slice of land between
Lake Champlain and the foothills of the Green Mountains was
a derelict neighborhood of junked cars, vagrants, rundown
farms and empty warehouses. Although anciently used for fishing
and farming by the Abenaki natives and home to Ethan Allen
in the 1780s, in the early 20th century this area was used
as a municipal dump.
Where most people saw a public nuisance, however, Raap saw potential
to develop a working model of regenerative agriculture. He leased
land from a farmer and moved his fledgling Gardener’s
Supply Co. there in 1985. (Raap was also attracted by the neighboring
scrapwood-fired energy generating station; the largest biofuels
power plant in the nation was not only in line philosophically
but presented tremendous potential for harnessing waste energy
to heat greenhouses, for example.)
Raap's vision was to bootstrap this urban-agroecosystem back
to health: clean up the abandoned cars, collect and compost
yard waste to renew the soil, and attract new farmers back
to the land to grow food to be sold locally. Over the past
15 years, that vision has taken shape through a combination
of volunteer labor, municipal support, philanthropic giving
and good old fashioned American enterprise.
Because most of the Intervale lies within the floodplain
of the Winooski River, the land here is protected from the
usual pressures of suburban sprawl. The area was also, Raap
realized, home to some of the best agricultural soils in the
state of Vermont and blessed with a climate moderated by the
influence of Lake Champlain. (When the New Farm team visited
Burlington for the Northeast SARE Conference in the third
week of October, the Intervale had just gotten its first frost).
Those factors combined to make it a perfect location for closing
the loops between city and country.
The Intervale's first and most successful undertaking, launched
in 1988, was Intervale Compost Products. (Click here for a
separate story on ICP.) Now handling 20,000 tons of material
annually and serving as a vital revenue provider for the non-profit
Intervale Foundation's myriad other programs, the composting
operation is the nation's largest example of an integrated
regional organic materials recycling program.
Taking the compost operation as a model, Raap and the Intervale's
constant endeavor has been to harness good works to good business,
creating programs that are self-sustaining or at least can
grow toward self-sustenance. "What we have done is anticipate
what the market wants 5 to 10 years from now," Raap reflects.
The founding of the Intervale Community Farm—Vermont's,
and one of the nation's, first community supported agriculture
farms—in 1989 was another example of that kind of forward
More recently, the Intervale has collaborated with the Gund
Institute for Ecological Economics, based just up the hill
at the University of Vermont, to attempt to quantify the economics
of sustainability, in theory and in practice. According to
Raap, Gund fellows produced a document known as the "Leaky
Bucket Report," in which they tallied all the payments
made by Vermonters for out-of-state products that could have
been sourced closer to home. Those items fell into two main
categories, both of which are central to the Intervale mission:
energy and food. UVM graduate and undergraduate students continue
to use the Intervale as a living laboratory for studying the
economic impact of tight community—that is, ecological—relationships.
"That's what I love about the Intervale: we don't talk,
we do," says Lindsey Ketchel, director of programs for
Other ongoing Intervale projects include the Center for Farm
Innovation, which seeks to develop energy and nutrient-management
technologies for small-scale farming operations; the Intervale
Conservation Nursery, which grows and sells native trees and
shrubs for restoration work around Vermont; and the Intervale
Youth Program, which each summer invites 12 at-risk young
people to participate in a 10-week program growing and selling
fresh produce on an acre of ground. Recently, the Intervale
Foundation launched a capital campaign to renovate the historic
Calkins farmstead, which in the 1990s was the last operating
dairy farm in the city of Burlington and is now home to the
But at the heart of the Intervale is the Farms Program, initiated
in 1994. The Farms Program is also enterprise-driven, appropriating
the 'business incubator' model in use in some urban areas
and applying it to an agricultural context, helping new farm
businesses get started by offering advice, shared equipment
and other infrastructure to people with more energy than capital.
farmers pay full, market-value rates for land,
they pay for equipment usage per hour, for greenhouse
space per square foot and for cooler space per
The Farms Program gets busy advancing the Intervale's ambitious
goal to supply 10 percent of the city of Burlington's fresh
food. (So far they've made it to 6 percent, or 500,000 pounds
of food a year, including 50,000 pounds donated to local social
service agencies.) It also addresses a critical gap in farmland
preservation efforts, which have tended to prioritize natural
over human resources.
Growing new farmers
Vermont was an early leader in state-supported farmland preservation,
explains Ketchel, who works closely with the Intervale farmers.
"But four or five years ago, everyone woke up and realized
that buying conservation easements was not enough. You need
to see that there are farmers to farm that land as well. The
agricultural landscape is part of our culture and our character—and
it's also a huge benefit to our tourism industry. But you
can't preserve that landscape without farmers working the
Today, of the Intervale's 700 acres, 350 are currently under
the Foundation's management (some is leased, some is owned
outright). One hundred sixty of those acres are farmable,
and about 80 of those are currently being farmed by a dozen
thriving, independent farm businesses with scores of employees
and thousands—if not tens of thousands—of customers.
Significantly, the majority of Intervale farmers have come
to agriculture "more from environmentalist backgrounds
than from farming backgrounds," says Ketchel. The farm
incubator program gives non-farm kids the opportunity to find
out whether farming is what they really want to do—from
a perspective of ownership but without an enormous capital
risk. Although they've never actively promoted the program,
word of mouth and a good website (www.intervale.org) have
ensured the Intervale a steady stream of prospective farmers.
Those "farmers come to us in a lot of different ways,"
Ketchel adds. Some move to Burlington from across the country
specifically to take advantage of the program, others are
recent graduates from UVM or interns or workers from existing
Intervale farmers are divided into three categories based
on seniority. For their first three seasons at the Intervale,
they're known as Incubator farmers, receiving one-year renewable
lease agreements and a 20-percent discount on land rents and
equipment, greenhouse, and cooler usage fees. After three
years, farmers 'graduate' from the incubator program and,
if they choose to remain at the Intervale, become Enterprise
farmers, eligible for 5-year lease agreements but no longer
receiving the 20-percent discount.
"Enterprise farmers pay full, market-value rates for
land, they pay for equipment usage per hour, for greenhouse
space per square foot and for cooler space per pallet,"
Ketchel explains. Typically, this is when farmers start looking
elsewhere for farms of their own, and if the right place comes
up they may choose to move on. (There's currently no limit
on how long farmers may stay at the Intervale: Some stay as
few as three years, others for much longer. Two of the current
farms have been in residence for a dozen years or more.)
If they stay, at the end of their 5-year
lease Enterprise farmers ascend to Mentor farmer status, which
as Ketchel says is "more of an informal designation."
As the most senior farmers in the community, these individuals
give back to the program by sharing their time and expertise
with their less-experienced colleagues. All the Intervale
farmers get together for lunch on Wednesdays to talk shop;
usually, there's socializing on Friday evenings as well. "This
is farmer-to-farmer training," Ketchel emphasizes. "That's
what I love about the Intervale: we don't talk,
Most Incubator farmers start out with one to four acres and
apply for more land as needed. All Intervale farms must be
certified organic, and all are required to keep a third of
their land in cover crops in any given year. At the end of
each year for the first three years, Intervale staff work
with the farmers to review their business plans and make any
necessary adjustments. "We look at viability," Ketchel
says, as any business should. "Are you a thoughtful,
profitable farm? are the people working there happy?"
(The Intervale also runs a Farm Viability Program, which helps
young farmers both on and off the Intervale expand their business
skills, from planning to marketing to management.)
Current and former Intervale farmers consistently say that
along with mentoring, the equipment pool is one of the most
valuable features of the program. "It gives young farmers
the opportunity to try out lots of different pieces of equipment
and to figure out what works best for what they want to do,"
says Ketchel. Later, when they're ready to invest in their
own equipment, the farmers can make more informed decisions.
The Intervale accepts applications from would-be Intervale
farmers on a rolling basis, meeting four times a year to review
incoming materials. The centerpiece of the application is
a farm business plan, which is reviewed by Intervale staff,
then moves to a Farmer Committee for comments by existing
Intervale farmers, and then to a Land Committee, made up of
two farmer representatives, two staff members, and two board
members. The whole process takes about three months, Ketchel
As with any community effort, one key to the success of the
Intervale is communication. Intervale farmers are actively
involved not just in choosing and advising their new colleagues
but in prioritizing equipment purchases, negotiating rents
and setting other community ground rules. Offering honest
input and participating in meetings comes with the territory,
Until recently, the greatest limiting factor to adding more
farms was irrigation, says Ketchel, but a new grant will help
them expand the system next year.
"So far we've been incredibly lucky that we've had a
good balance of incubator, enterprise, and mentor farmers,
and that spaces have opened up as new farmers have applied,"
Ketchel observes. In case that luck doesn't hold, however,
they're now drafting guidelines to help maintain that balance.
The ultimate goal: to hatch new Intervale-like
In 10 years of existence, the Intervale Farms Program has fledged
a couple of dozen new farmers. That's an impressive achievement,
but it's not a rate of output that will repopulate rural America
any time soon. The best way to expand the impact of the Intervale,
people here agree, is to encourage duplication of the model
elsewhere. Intervale staff say they'd love to see other communities,
both within and beyond Vermont, launch farm incubator projects.
And there's enormous interest: Ketchel says the foundation hosts
half a dozen visitors a month, "from all over," who
want to learn more about what's going on here. Currently, Intervale
staff are in close communication with two non-profits in Vermont,
one in New York, and another in Canada about launching analogous
projects. Will Raap is also involved in a farm incubator initiative
in Costa Rica.
||"This is a very magical place
. It's hard to explain, but frequently, things just seem
to come together."
In talking with other groups, Ketchel says, they're careful
to temper their enthusiasm with hard reality. "We try
to be very transparent—there's not a lot of funding
out there for this," she cautions. "And we don't
really have it set up as a package we can hand people, although
we give out as much information as we can." Although
like all Intervale programs, the farm incubator project is
designed to be self-supporting, for example, cash flow can
be an ongoing challenge.
Some people question the extent to which the Intervale model
can be translated to other areas. "Burlington is unique,"
Ketchel admits. "The Intervale is a supportive community,
and it's situated within a larger community that is very receptive
to ideas about buying locally grown foods and supporting local
businesses." (A few indices of that support: the town
enjoys three farmers' markets a week; its largest supermarket
is locally owned and buys regularly from Intervale farms;
dozens of area restaurants feature locally grown produce,
cheese, and meats.) On the other hand, observers credit the
Intervale with helping to nurture Burlington residents' understanding
of and commitment to those sorts of ideals. "So a program
like this can be a stimulus too, which is significant,"
The foundation also continues to strive to improve the design
of the Farms Program in order to make it as useful as possible
for the fledging farmers. They're in the process of a developing
an arrangement called Program to Partnership, which will enable
participating farmers to build equity at the Intervale in
the form of land or equipment. "We want to create ways
for the farmers to gain ownership, because we think that's
something that they're missing. It'll probably take a couple
of years to figure it out, but we'll do it."
Interestingly, the Intervale incubator program has proved
congenial to a wide range of different types of farms, from
crops to marketing strategies to management structures. Intervale
farmers sell to farmers' markets, restaurants, local supermarkets,
co-ops, and through CSA shares. In addition to mixed vegetable
producers, there's a berry farm, an egg farm, a flower farm,
and a bean and grain farm. Although most Intervale farms are
private businesses, one of the oldest farms, known as the
Intervale Community Farm, operates as a non-profit, and there
are also two worker-owned and -operated farms, Arethusa Collective
Farm and Diggers' Mirth Collective.
Ketchel, who's been with the Intervale for three years and
before that worked for the Vermont Department of Agriculture's
ag development division, says that diversity is one of the
most rewarding aspects of her job. Life at the Intervale is
a continual lesson in the many different forms a small farm
business can take—and in how those different farm enterprises
can complement one another.
"This is a very magical place," she concludes.
"It's hard to explain, but frequently, things just seem
to come together." Recently, for example, the staff were
thinking about how they wanted to do more to improve soil
health on new acreage coming under Intervale management. They
were talking about how it would be nice to establish rotations
including livestock as well as cover crops to build organic
matter and reduce weed seed populations in those fields. Shortly
thereafter, they received applications from two new farmers,
one planning to specialize in onions and root crops, the other
with a small-scale livestock enterprise plan. Now they're
talking about how to integrate the new farms with the soil
improvement agenda. And that, in a nutshell, is the essence