Making farms the engine of economic
growth ... and community connection

On the shores of Lake Champlain, the Intervale Foundation has established one of the nation's most successful farm incubator programs, giving would-be farmers access to land, equipment and training--and the city's residents access to great food, responsible recycling, and a wealth of other benefits.

By Laura Sayre and Dan Sullivan
December 9, 2004, Burlington, VT

"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 just disappear.

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 thinking.

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 the Foundation.

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 Intervale offices.

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.

"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."

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 land."

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 farms.

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 the key."

"That's what I love about the Intervale: we don't talk, we do.”

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 says.

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, Ketchel says.

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 incubators

"This is a very magical place . It's hard to explain, but frequently, things just seem to come together."
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.

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," Ketchel says.

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 of regeneration.