"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
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.
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."
what I love about the Intervale: we don't talk, we
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
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
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.