For the last few years, Richard Rant has agreed to let researchers introduce strips of wildflowers among the blueberry plants on his family’s farm in West Olive, Mich. It’s part of an experiment to see if the wildflowers can encourage pollinating insects and, in a small way, begin to reverse the worldwide decline in beneficial insects. It’s also a pioneering effort in the nascent movement to persuade farmers to grow insects almost as if they were a crop.
That movement is being driven by news that is disturbingly bad even by gloomy environmental standards. Insects pollinate 75 percent of the crops used directly for human food worldwide. They contribute $210 billion in agricultural earnings. But honeybees are now so scarce, according to a new study from the University of Reading, that Europe is 13.6 million colonies short of the number needed to pollinate crops there.
Nor can farmers count on natural pollinators as a backup system. A 2011 study sampled four North American bumblebee species and found that they have declined by as much 96 percent over the past century. In China, the loss of wild bees has forced farmers to hand-pollinate apple blossoms using paint brushes.
The broad decline in beneficial insects has also affected species we take for granted as part of our cultural heritage. Just last week, researchers announced that monarch butterfly numbers, already at record lows, once again fell by half in the annual count at overwintering sites in Mexico, with the iconic monarch migration now "at serious risk of disappearing."
So far, the movement to get farmers to grow beneficial insects amounts, in the United States, to no more than a few hundred thousand acres of pollinator plantings, mostly subsidized by state and federal governments. Through its Natural Resources Conservation Service, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) now partners with the Xerces Society and other conservation groups to get the message out to farmers and help them with the technical issues of how to grow beneficial insects, and how to get paid for doing it. USDA also recently added a pollinator component to the farmland set-asides it pays for through its Conservation Reserve Program. Similar programs are also under way as part of the European Union’s "agri-environment" schemes, Australia’s Landcare program, and the United Nations International Pollinator Initiative.
The experiment on Richard Rant’s blueberry farm — part of a research study by Michigan State University entomologist Rufus Isaacs — is an example of what can happen when such efforts work well. The study results are not expected to be published until later this year. But for Rant at least, planting for pollinators has seemed to work. He noticed that the wildflower patches were humming not just with bees and other pollinators but also with wasps, ladybugs, lacewings, and predacious beetles known to attack the sort of insect pests that damage blueberries.
On his own, he started to add flowering cover crops — buckwheat, soybeans, mustard, alfalfa, and clover – in the 10-foot-wide gaps between blueberry rows, so that something nearby would be flowering throughout the growing season.
As fewer harmful insects turned up in his monitoring traps, Rant gradually cut back on spraying insecticides, from 10 or 12 times a season to as few as two or three in some years. The 80 percent saving on insecticides, he says, was easily worth $5,000-6,000 a year, "not even factoring in the labor and diesel for running the tractor." He also cut by more than half the number of honeybee hives he needed to rent during the pollinating season — a big savings because rental prices have soared as honeybee populations have collapsed. Rant is now so hooked on the idea of farming insects that he wishes out loud for something to flower directly under his blueberries, so the beneficial insects wouldn’t have to travel as far.
But other farmers have not yet taken up the idea, and the acreage being protected or enhanced for beneficial insects is still trivial in the context of the global expansion and intensification of agriculture. In the United States, acreage protected by the Conservation Reserve Program, for instance, has continued to shrink dramatically, both because of congressional cost-cutting and because the federal mandate for ethanol fuel has driven up the price of corn and encouraged farmers to plow under their marginal land for row crops.
Just from 2008 to 2011, according to a study by the Environmental Working Group, that expansion ate up 23.6 million acres of grassland, wetland, and shrubland — an area larger than Indiana — which used to produce beneficial insects naturally.
Add in the dramatically increased dependence on herbicides to eliminate weeds, and Orley R. "Chip" Taylor of the University of Kansas figures that monarch butterflies — the poster child of beneficial insects — have lost 167 million acres of habitat across North America since 1996. In many places, the milkweed they need to produce the next generation simply does not exist anymore.
Gary Nabhan, the Arizona ecologist and co-author of Forgotten Pollinators, argues that the U.S. public is willing to pay for the recovery of beneficial insects, even if Congress might not be. He cites a 2013 study in which Americans indicated that they were prepared to make household contributions that would total up to $6.6 billion just to protect the monarch butterfly migration. "But consumers, conservation advocates, and farm groups are still unclear on which mechanisms are the best way to invest in pollinators and other beneficial insects that affect their own food production and health."
It can be expensive. Getting the right wildflower seed mix and preparing a site can cost as much as $1,500-2,000 an acre, according to Mace Vaughan, pollinator program director for Xerces. Depending on the state, government programs could pick up 50-75 percent of the cost, but that still requires a big investment by farmers.
Wildflower plantings aren’t the only technique available to farmers. At the University of California at Berkeley, research by Claire Kremen has demonstrated that hedgerows of native shrubs and wildflowers also produce a big bump in pollinator abundance and variety, with the effect spilling over 100 meters into adjacent fields. But getting to the break-even point for a hedgerow can take eight years, and only then can the farmer expect to see any gain. And that’s with government subsidies included, Kremen says.
Some farmers are experimenting with simpler techniques — for instance, providing bamboo tubes, or boards with holes drilled into them, as habitat for leaf cutter bees, orchard mason bees, blue orchard bees, and other wild pollinators.
Polyculture, the opposite of monoculture, could also produce a broad recovery of pollinators, but it would require major changes in modern agriculture. It already works on a small scale in California’s Salinas Valley, says Kremen. Growers there are geared to supplying farmers’ markets and tend to "have a few rows of this, a few rows of that," with maybe 20 different crops growing on a 10-acre plot.
But that’s a much harder sell in California’s Central Valley, where large-scale intensive farming means there may be a crop flowering nearby one week, but no flowers for five miles in any direction two weeks later. So bumblebees and other native pollinators are scarce there. A practical solution might be to organize plantings of conventional crops in smaller contiguous zones, so that something is flowering nearby nonstop from spring through fall. But that would require adjusting the conventional pesticide regimen and rethinking a food distribution system that’s now geared to monoculture farming. And those kinds of changes are likely only if farmers see that profits depend on it.
"What we need now," says David Kleijn of the University of Waginengen, "are studies like the ones that [Michigan State’s] Rufus Isaacs is doing" with blueberry farmers, "showing that if farmers take up biodiversity schemes they will actually benefit from it, without the general public having to pay for it."
Simply paying a farmer to produce pollinators doesn’t really engage him in conservation, says Kleijn. "But if he can show his neighbors that by improving habitat for pollinators on his land, he was able to increase his yield by 5 percent, that’s something he can brag about. We need to use these psychological aspects much more in the way we deal with biodiversity."
Marketplace-driven incentives, like the "Conservation Grade" program in Britain could provide an alternative means of paying for pollinator recovery. The cereal company that runs that program pays farmers to set aside 10 percent of their land, and it stipulates a precise planting protocol for pollinator habitat, bird habitat, and so on. For their trouble, farmers get a markup on their crop and the buyer sells the product to consumers under a premium wildlife-friendly label.
But so far, those kinds of programs seem to function only on a limited boutique scale. It will take some far more ambitious enterprise to face up to what has become a global challenge.
"This is really different from other things conservationists have encouraged the public to do in the past," says Gary Nabhan. "It's not like saving pandas or gray whales. It’s not about pristine habitats. It’s more nuanced and complex. It’s about interactions and ecological relationships, not just species: You can’t save monarch butterflies without saving milkweeds. So people don't immediately get it."
Some people, particularly farmers, may struggle just to conceive of the words "beneficial" and "insect" together in a sentence. In that sense, says Nabhan, getting farmers and the general public engaged in pollinator recovery could be a turning point for the conservation movement, and even more so for modern agriculture.
• Richard Conniff is a National Magazine Award-winning writer whose articles have appeared in Time, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, National Geographic, and other publications. He is the author of several books, including "The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth." In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has examined the role of community-managed areas in preserving biodiversity and explored how cities can foster biodiversity.
When Gene Homicki co-founded the West Seattle Tool Library there were less than 20 tool libraries in existence. Running one was a low-tech affair with either “old, clunky software” or pen and paper to keep track of inventory and loans. There are now nearly 60 tool libraries around the world with an estimated 20 more in the works.
The tool library movement is reinventing itself and growing in the process. No longer just places to get a drill when you need one, tool libraries are neighborhood hubs offering classes, community building spaces, workshops, and a variety of tools ranging from belt sanders to lawnmowers and more. Homicki says this transformation from tool library to community space is one that often goes both ways.
“One of the things we’ve seen,” he says, “is tool libraries that start makerspaces. The other thing we’ve seen is coworking spaces and makerspaces that are adding lending libraries. It’s a natural evolution in both directions.”
He points to Makeshift Society in San Francisco as an example.
A “coworking space and clubhouse for creative entrepreneurs,” the original Makeshift Society has a small lending library. Recently, they crowdfunded for a Brooklyn location that will have a library to lend tools to the creative crowd (think: cameras, digital media tools, etc.). “I see it as a natural outgrowth,” Homicki says, “a bridge between the two in both directions.”
According to Homicki, building community around these spaces is key. In addition to sharing tools, people also share space, skills, and experience. While not every tool library becomes a shared workspace, many do become valuable centerpieces of the community.
“At the absolute minimum,” he says, “there are people there at the same time checking stuff out.” He continues, “And a number of the tool-lending libraries see themselves as a sharing hub; someplace people can go not just to borrow tools, but to go learn some of the skills how to use them.”
This focus on teaching, making, and repairing locally helps build resilient neighborhoods. This growing movement to take the health, vitality, and resilience of cities into our own hands is at the heart of the global sharing movement.
Homicki sees that tool libraries are an important part of this movement as they provide resources—both tools and community-building—for disaster preparedness and the challenges of climate change. But to do so, lending libraries need to be able to easily manage their inventory and membership.
Technology has made the process of starting and managing a tool library much easier. When the West Seattle Tool Library was in its early stage, Homicki and his co-founders tried using book-lending software and rental software, but neither was a good fit. Given Homicki’s background in tech he was, he says with a laugh, “roped into” creating a website for the library.
Now, expanding on what he created for the West Seattle Tool Library, he co-created myTurn to help people, organizations, and municipalities rent, share, and track assets. The idea behind myTurn is to get underutilized assets, whether in the public or private sector, into the hands of people who can use them.
“Our goal in creating myTurn,” he says, “was to scale up what we did in West Seattle. We have this atmosphere of taxpayers and government officials and people who run universities and even businesses who have restrained budgets. But they also have a lot of vastly underutilized public assets and private assets.” He adds, “How do we mobilize those public and private assets and get them back into use?”
The question myTurn is trying to answer is, how do we get the full use out of tools and other resources?
“We have an economy that’s uneven and sputtering at times,” says Homicki, “and we have this locked-up value that’s just sitting, whether in an attic, garage, or gathering dust in a warehouse."
How do we get those things out of storage,” he asks, “and unlock their value, either in a sharing environment or on the rental side when you’re looking at generating a revenue stream?”
Working with lending libraries, traditional tool and rental shops, and other businesses that are willing to lend or rent their goods, myTurn bridges the gap between them all and brings the sharing economy mindset of utilizing idle resources to the public.
myTurn introduces the larger sharing economy in ways that people are comfortable with, such as through libraries or rental shops. It also acts as a networking hub for lending libraries, providing resources, connections, how-tos and more.
“We really look at how we bridge the grass-roots tool libraries with bigger business and make it more convenient and easier for everyone,” says Homicki. “We want to see people reusing and sharing items even if there is a cost involved, rather than buying things new all the time.”
Homicki wants to make the sharing economy accessible to everyone by giving them “easy and comfortable” ways to begin sharing. From there, people can expand their sharing practice in their community.
For those looking to get involved with the tool library movement, Homicki suggests checking LocalTools.org to see if there’s a library nearby. For those who would like to start a tool library, check out the guide, How to Start a Tool Library.
Homicki also invites people to contact myTurn, as the platform is going to start matchmaking people who want to start a tool library in the same area. He adds that they will use the Sharing Cities Network to help make matches.
As a general rule, Homicki suggests finding five to seven people to get a library started. That's a big enough team to spread the work and make it easy to get things rolling.
“Once there’s a community,” he says, “it gets easier.”
Once things are moving, the goal is to become self-sufficient; to have a system, staff, regular hours, and funding in place. This self-sufficiency builds upon itself; the more reliable and consistent the lending library is, the more valuable it becomes as a community resource.
To help new tool libraries further, Homicki and myTurn’s co-founder Patrick Dunn also created a site called Share Starter. Among the site’s offerings are guidelines for starting a tool library, sample budgets, sample liability waivers, sample delinquency letters, and links to other references and resources.
“It’s part of that networking effect,” says Homicki, “of getting people together on the local, regional, and national level.”
As the tool library movement has grown, so has the vision for what it can be.
“We’d love to see a tool library in every neighborhood, in every country across the world,” Homicki says. “We just see this growing. We see the number of lending libraries doubling each year right now, and I think that trend will continue and potentially accelerate for a little bit.”
He points out that in the US there are about 15,000 public library locations, so we’re a long way from having as many tool library locations as libraries, but Homicki thinks that at least 1,000 tool libraries in the next five years in the US is possible.
“When people hear about the idea,” he says, “it just seems to make so much sense to them. It’s something that’s very inclusive; it’s that idea of a library that they’re familiar with.”
Some of the things driving the growth of the tool library movement are: better tech tools for managing inventory, a tough economy, and the rise of sharing as a practice. These have converged to create a great environment for tool libraries and sharing in general.
“The tool library movement,” Homicki says, “has really been at the intersection of these things. The next generation doesn’t want to own things, or can’t afford it, but they still want access to just about everything, whether it’s tools or cars, etc.” He continues, “It’s the right time for this movement, and for sharing and collaborative economy in general.”
• Cat Johnson is a freelance writer focused on community, the commons, sharing, collaboration, and music. Publications include Utne Reader, GOOD, Yes! Magazine, Shareable, Triple Pundit, and Lifehacker. She's also a musician, longtime record store supervisor, chronic list maker, and aspiring minimalist. Follow @CatJohnson on Twitter and Facebook.
Donald Graham said the "TheDream.US" fund already has raised about $25 million.
The program has other high-profile supporters such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, actor and director Diego Luno, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.
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An estimated 65,000 students graduate from American high school each year without legal status. They don't qualify for federal financial aid or many other scholarship programs, and without financial assistance, their opportunities to go to college are limited.
A majority of states don't afford them in-state tuition, although a growing number of states are extending the opportunity.
Under the scholarship program, about 2,000 students are expected over the next decade to have their tuition, fees, and books paid for with the scholarship funds.
"All of us want to help set something right that is greatly wrong," Mr. Graham said at a press conference.
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To qualify, the students must be participating in the "deferred action" program announced by President Barack Obama in 2012. That allows immigrants brought into the United States without legal permission as children to obtain temporary resident status for two years. The status is renewable.
Graham said he got involved with the issue after learning about immigrant students unable to go to college as part of his work with District of Columbia College Access Program. He said he didn't worry about wading into a political issue because "Educating kids is not taking a political stand," and he sees widespread bipartisan support for these students.
Last year, The Washington Post was sold to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.
• To learn more visit http://thedream.us.
For farmers in some weak and troubled states, growing opium poppies or coca can be the only way to earn a decent income. Aid groups and governments are trying a new approach to successfully transition them away from these illicit crops for the long haul.
War-ravaged Afghanistan is the source of much of the world’s opium, and farmers there face many risks. Many have had their carefully cultivated poppy fields destroyed by intermittent government raids. If they manage to harvest, selling their crop means dealing with criminal or extremist organizations, including the Taliban. And while a successful poppy harvest can earn a farmer many times the best legal alternative, criminal processors and distributors make most of the profit from end products like heroin and morphine.
The US government and its aid arm, USAID, have allocated billions of dollars toward training Afghan farmers to grow legal crops like wheat, and for free or low-cost supplies like seeds. But these efforts have mostly failed to achieve long-term results. A principle reason: Afghan farmers lack what they need to make these new crops profitable.
RECOMMENDED: How well do you know Afghanistan? Take our quiz.
“We are expecting [farmers] to produce tons of fruit and vegetables, to transport them on trucks they do not have, on roads that literally do not exist, to sell in globalized markets against which they cannot compete,” said Sanho Tree, a development expert and director of the Drug Policy Project.
One of these possible alternative crops is the pomegranate, an ancient and prized fruit in Afghanistan. Afghan varietals are widely known in agricultural circles for being especially delicious.
Demand for pomegranates in first-world markets has spiked in recent years, as health food enthusiasts tout the fruit’s anti-oxidant superpowers. Rising demand and prices have created an opportunity to develop a sustainable supply chain from Afghan farmers to the outside world.
London-based Plant for Peace is working to create just that: a complete Afghan pomegranate export market, from startup seeds to paying customers. In 2011, the group worked with 800 Afghan farmers to plant more than 100,000 pomegranate saplings.
While Plant for Peace provides training and start-up supplies, the group's commercial partner, Funktional Foods Ltd., works to “develop and satisfy demand” for raw Afghan crops and more finished products, like fruit bars.
Working to create change in a place like Afghanistan can be daunting. A top official recently warned a US Senate committee that opium production in Afghanistan surged in 2013 to an all-time high, despite 10 years and $7 billion worth of counter-narcotics efforts by the US-backed Afghan government.
James Brett, founder of Plant for Peace, has seen his share of setbacks while working in Afghanistan. His admiration of the Afghan people and belief that providing a competitive livelihood to poppy farming could help create a lasting peace keeps him motivated
“Whenever I’ve gone to Afghanistan in the last six or seven years of my life, whatever home I’ve passed, whatever door I might have knocked, every door has been open,” he told his hometown newspaper in January. “They have nothing, and they give their all.”
While the majority of the world’s opium comes from Afghanistan, Columbia and Peru are the dominant sources for another ancient crop that is used to make an illicit drug.
The coca leaf has been chewed or made into tea as a modest, caffeine-like stimulant in several indigenous Latin American cultures for thousands of years. Coca is also the principal ingredient in cocaine, however, and has largely been outlawed across the globe.
Impoverished farmers in these countries face many of the same incentives – and dangers – as Afghan poppy growers. USAID has had success stories in following the supply chain model over the last 10 years by partnering with the Colombian and Peruvian governments to provide more than just seeds.
RECOMMENDED: How well do you know Afghanistan? Take our quiz.
These partnerships have helped farmers form large cooperatives and connections with international businesses who are interested in their newly grown crops, like cocoa and coffee beans.
Officials acknowledge that the gains are fragile, however. Colombia’s coca cultivation has declined from a peak in the mid-2000s, but much of it may have simply migrated to neighboring Peru.
While helping to create a complete supply chain for alternative crops is generating some promising results, reducing international demand for illegal drugs may be the only long-term way for these crops to truly compete.
Allan Savory's career has taken many paths, including researcher, game ranger, farmer, politician, and international consultant. He currently serves as president and co-founder of The Savory Institute, an organization researching livestock management in the grasslands of the world, based in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.
Savory has made significant breakthroughs in understanding what is causing the degradation and desertification of the world’s grassland ecosystems. He eventually coined the methodology “holistic management,” which The Savory Institute promotes around the world.
“When something is going wrong on such a global scale, and when so many brilliant minds have worked on it for centuries, you’ve got to say we’re not stupid, we don’t lack knowledge. There’s something systemically wrong. And I accidentally hit on what that is, and it’s profoundly simple to begin putting it right,” said Savory.
In March 2013, Savory gave an inspiring TED talk highlighting how to fight desertification and reverse climate change, which has been viewed over 1.7 million times on TED and over 625,000 times on YouTube.
In his book, The Grazing Revolution, Savory presents a solution that’s radical, yet simple—mimic the behavior of natural herds that once grazed the grasslands.
“We need to manage holistically, embracing all of our science and traditional knowledge—all sources of knowledge. We can do that from the household to government, to international relations,” said Savory.
Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Savory. We learned more about his vision for a more sustainable food system, the “Savory Grazing Method,” how he faces criticism, and his long-term plans for The Savory Institute.
You began your career as a research biologist and Game Ranger in current-day Zambia with the British Colonial Service before becoming an environmentalist, farmer, and much more. What made you shift your work and focus to environmental issues like desertification?
I never did shift my work or focus. We simply did not have the buzz words – environmentalist, biodiversity loss, desertification, climate change – I was seeing massive scale environmental degradation threatening the future of wildlife. And then gradually expanding this vision to seeing it threatened all life and had been the same thing that had contributed to so many civilizations failing. And very early on I saw the direct evidence in the field that floods and droughts were the result of land degradation rather than any change in rainfall as many scientists were claiming.
Over time, my understanding grew to realizing that land could not be managed independent of the culture of the people and their economy – that management needed to be holistic, embracing all science and other sources of knowledge. And that where livestock are involved they are best handled through a long-established planning process rather than any prescriptive grazing system, rotation or other form, no matter how flexible. In this manner we could consistently and successfully address the full complexity of society, economy, environment, wildlife, cropping and livestock.
What is the Savory Grazing Method? How did you develop it?
This was one of the names applied to holistically planned grazing. From the outset I developed today’s planned grazing as described in the TED book. Being entirely new I gave it no name. People began calling my work the Savory System. Because it was virtually the opposite of any management system – being a planning process – I was obliged to put a name to the work. I chose short-duration high-intensity grazing, or short duration grazing (note no use of the word system).
Academics added the word system dropping the planning process. This was because a prescribed system could be replicated where a planning process could not be replicated. When I found that others were claiming that the “short duration grazing system” was developed in Texas I had to disassociate entirely from short duration grazing. On advice, I changed to savory grazing method (not system) but was then told that government agencies couldn’t promote something tied to a person’s name. So I changed the name to holistic planned grazing, which it has been since.
There has also been some criticism based on scientific research that shows increased grazing and land trampling by livestock leads in the long term to soil degradation, rather than soil enrichment, as your method claims. What have actually been the long-term effects of planned grazing? Is soil degradation a heavy risk of this method?
It is to be anticipated that increased grazing and trampling will lead to soil degradation. In all those studies grazing was equated with grazing of the “land.” Only plants can be grazed, not land. And this distinction is important because plants can be overgrazed while the land, or soil, is overresting. And if the grazing and trampling of the plants is not controlled by timing the movement of the animals to the needs of plants and soils (as holistic planned grazing does), some plants can be overgrazed and some overrested, while at the same time soils are degrading through overrest, overtrampling and compaction.
Much of the research allegedly done on holistic planned grazing has eliminated the planning process, and thus the time factor. Holistic planned grazing was developed to ensure that no plants are overgrazed, few if any plants are overrested, and the soil is only trampled at any one place for a few days followed by several months of recovery time. The long term effects of planning the grazing (and trampling) holistically have been beneficial, and this has also been documented in a number of papers, articles, and case studies and photographically (see the list of references and resources here).
What was your vision in founding the Savory Institute? Has the Institute succeeded in working towards this vision?
The purpose of SI agreed upon by the six of us who co-founded the institute was to “expand the holistic framework into international consciousness to sustain life on earth.” We have since created a vision of what we hope to achieve by 2025: To influence the management and restoration of 1 billion hectares of degraded grasslands worldwide, and to remove barriers that stand in the way of large scale success, mainly flawed policies and lack of market incentives.
Given the Institute’s short life we are making meaningful progress toward that vision, especially given that new paradigm-shifting insights normally take a long time to be accepted, let alone embraced. That management needs to be holistic was strongly resisted by many within the scientific community 30 years ago, as was the need to use properly managed livestock to restore degraded grasslands. Today, however, many scientists accept and even promote these ideas – in their individual capacity. But the institutions they represent do not, and will likely withhold recognition until there is a shift in public opinion, which is now building.
You have also been involved in politics, serving as a Member of the Rhodesian Parliament in the 1970s. What impact do environmental trends like desertification have on the political and economic realms?
The impact is profound and fundamental, although not seen as such in mainstream political or economic thinking. Agriculture is not simply crop production. It is the production of food and fiber from the world’s land and waters. Without agriculture it is simply not possible to have an orchestra, a church, university, army, political party or government. It is the very foundation of civilization, which by definition is city-based and dependent on farmers/livestock producers to feed them.
And ultimately the only wealth that can sustain any community, economy or nation, is derived from the photosynthetic process – green plants growing on regenerating soil. Global political stability and good governance is likely to prove elusive as long as agriculture continues to produce more than 10 tons of eroding soil per human alive every year, as it does globally and in the US today.
The Savory Institute is implementing small-scale, local Savory Hubs in various communities around the world that offer consulting and training services, as well financial, network, and material resources to the regions’ farmers. Why is it important to focus on this local level? What unique contribution can small, community farmers make in the effort for food security on a global scale?
Almost all the knowledge required to produce more food than eroding soil is available today – we just need to use that knowledge within a holistic paradigm – managing agriculture holistically, forming the policies that undergird it holistically. Being a new scientific insight, leadership in this quest cannot come from politicians or from any institution, but only from ordinary people.
Accordingly, SI is pursuing a strategic vision for empowering others to manage holistically by working with local entrepreneurs and community groups to create Savory Institute-affiliated learning hubs. There is no way we could do this from one centralized organization if we want to reach the whole world. The hubs would be locally led and locally managed. Those running the hubs will always understand the local context better than SI will. Local entrepreneurs will be far more successful than SI could ever be in finding ways for their hub and its programs to become self-sustaining.
Each hub is in charge of training, consulting, and implementation support for farmers in its region. It also includes a land base that demonstrates the results that can be achieved through holistic planned grazing and provides a place where farmers, ranchers, pastoralists, scientists, and government and non-government organizations can collaborate in learning about and documenting the results of managing holistically. Evidence and data can then be leveraged to inform policies and establish market incentives.
Ten hubs have been established in 2013 and are in the process of being accredited by Savory Institute, and we have close to 40 candidates for 2014. We hope to have 100 hubs operating by 2025. Hubs can beget hubs, as the hub already formed in Zimbabwe (the Africa Centre for Holistic Management) has shown over the past two years, having trained people from throughout Africa resulting in hubs forming in South Africa, Kenya, and elsewhere. Through these hubs trained facilitators are training community facilitators who in turn can train hundreds of people – all of whom can assist their neighbors and spread the knowledge and practices.
Our target of influencing the management and restoration of 1 billion hectares of land by 2025 will involve billions of people, from producers and consumers, to corporations and policymakers, to researchers and film producers – none of whom is too small to contribute to the increasingly rich global network of learning hubs. We have to remember that it was a relatively small group of organic farmers who kept organic agriculture alive and growing over many years against institutional resistance and opposition.
• This article originally appeared at Food Tank, a think tank focused on feeding the world better. Food Tank researches and highlights environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable ways of alleviating hunger, obesity, and poverty and creates networks of people, organizations, and content to push for food system change.
Pete Seeger passed away on Jan. 28, 2014 at New York-Presbyterian Hospital at the age of 94. His wife, Toshi Seeger, passed away last July. Pete was known around the world for his performance of the music of ordinary people, and for his passion for their concerns, especially labor struggles, the fight against war, civil rights, and cleaning up the Hudson River.
In New York state's Hudson Valley, where he lived for most of his life, he was known for showing up unannounced at community events, banjo in hand. And, along with Toshi, he organized the annual Clearwater Sloop Festival, named for the famous sailboat he took up and down the Hudson River, reminding people to care for and protect their iconic river.
Pete believed that change would come, not through big, grand pronouncements, but through the choices we each make. When I interviewed him in 2007, he said: “If there’s a world here in a hundred years, it’s going to be saved by tens of millions of little things.”
And when I asked him about what it had meant to him to be famous for so many years, he scolded me for even asking. “Fame is a trap and an illusion,” he said.
Pete Seeger has been a presence in my life since the time I was growing up in the Hudson Valley of New York. My family was among the scores who went to see him perform at a run-down little park on the Hudson with his sloop, the Clearwater, docked nearby. His songs of his love for a polluted, neglected water-way rekindled in people a yearning for connection to the great river.
Later, I heard him sing at rallies against the Vietnam War, and I knew then that there were adults who shared my passion for peace and justice.
More recently, Pete Seeger has been sending post cards to YES! with ideas for stories we might cover, and he made a donation that he said should be used to send a copy of YES! to each of the foreign embassies located in the United States.
Finally, in December , I had a chance to talk to him in person. We met at the home he built himself on a ridge overlooking his beloved Hudson River. He introduced us to his wife, Toshi Seeger, told stories, sang us songs, and showed us his electric pickup truck, powered by the solar panels on his roof. Here is part of our conversation:
Sarah: When did you first realize that music, especially the music of ordinary people, would define your life?
Pete: I didn’t know it would define my life. My mother gave me a ukulele at age eight, and I sang the popular tunes of the day.
[Sings] He’s just a sentimental gentleman from Georgia …
The other songs my family liked to sing were rounds.
Joy and temperance and repose …
I think my mother’s father taught it to her. He was a conservative New Englander. My father’s family were radical New Englanders—Unitarians and abolitionists from way back. But my mother’s father came from Tories.
Sarah: How did you go from pop music to folk music?
Pete: I was 16 when I came to New York. I had graduated to a tenor banjo in the school jazz band, and it was kind of boring—just chords, chords, chords. Then my father took me to a mountain music and dance festival in Asheville, North Carolina, and there I saw relatively uneducated people playing great music by ear.
I’ll never forget Mrs. Samantha Baumgarner, sitting back in her rocking chair with a banjo—oh, she’d painted the head of her banjo with brightly colored butterflies and flowers, and she was singing funny songs, tragic songs, violent songs, “Pretty Polly,” about murdering your true love.
Sarah: You did some traveling with Woody Guthrie later on, didn’t you?
Pete: He taught me how to hitchhike and how to ride freight trains. You don’t get on a freight when it’s in the station—the railroad bulls will kick you off. You go about 100 yards or maybe 200 yards outside to where the train is just picking up speed and you can trot alongside it. You throw your banjo in an empty car, and then you throw yourself in. And you then might go 200 or 300 miles before you stop.
Then I would knock on back doors and say, “Can I do a little work for a meal?” Or I’d sing in a saloon for a few quarters.
In six months I saw the country like I never would have seen it otherwise. I was curious to learn how workers were doing. I went out to Butte, Montana, which was a copper mining town then, and went a thousand feet down where it was hot, hot, and they were sweating, down there, working away.
They had a good union, though, and I knocked on the door and said, “I know some union songs, would you like to hear them?” And they paid me all of five dollars, which was a lot of money then, to sing some of the coal miners’ songs I knew from the East.
After World War II, we started a little organization we called People’s Songs. It was a very small organization; our publication had a circulation of about 2,000, and we finally went broke in 1949. The Cold War was too much for us. The ruling class knew just how to split the labor movement.
I dropped out of the communist movement about the same time as I moved up here to Beacon. I was never enthusiastic about being somebody who was supposed to be silent about being a member of something. On the other hand, I was still curious about what was happening to communist countries.
I went to the Soviet Union three times, in 1964, and in 1967, I think, and again in 1981. I concentrated on singing songs of the civil rights movement, rather than the labor movement, because that’s what really turned my life around: seeing what Dr. King did, without using force and violence, whereas the communists said the world would not be changed without a great revolution. I think that was the big mistake.
Sarah: Did you witness for yourself what Dr. King was doing?
Pete: Toshi and I were on the march from Selma to Montgomery for three days. And I sang in Selma and Montgomery from time to time, and one time in Birmingham and in Mississippi another time.
It was only through the years that I realized what an absolutely extraordinarily thoughtful person King was. He insisted, from the beginning, in winning the bus boycott without violence.
Some of the middle-class African Americans would say, “Dr. King, accept a compromise. More people are going to be hurt and killed.” These were doctors and lawyers who didn’t want to lose their business. And the young people would say, “They bombed us. Why don’t we bomb them back?” And King would bring them together to talk and listen to each other, and it might take a whole day or sometimes two days or even three days. But finally, they’d say, “Okay, this is what we’ll say and this is what we’ll do. Because we know we have to work together or we’re not going to win.”
Sarah: Besides the labor and civil rights movements, you were also involved in the anti-war movement.
Pete: There are still battles among people who are not quite sure what kind of actions can be effective. I tend to agree with Paul Hawken that it’s going to be many small things.
I think of Tommy Sands, an Irish song leader, who got song leaders from the North and the South singing together for a whole evening. They had people there who’d been killing each other—Protestants and Catholics—and at the end of the evening, they tentatively started talking to each other.
Sarah: When you sing, “Bring Them Home,” you say “one of the great things about America is that we can speak our minds.” And you said that at a time when you had been blacklisted for many, many years. Can you talk about what it means to you to be a patriot?
Pete: Well, Toshi and I are both deeply proud that we were able to be part of the anti-Vietnam War movement. And I say this is one of the great victories for the American people.
Now here’s another story you might like. In Albany, a woman named Ruth Pelham, about 25 or 30 years ago, found she liked to make up songs for kids, and the kids in her neighborhood liked to hear her sing.
She saved up enough money to get a suitcase of instruments and a little van. She’d go to one neighborhood on Monday, another neighborhood on Tuesday, and so on, six days a week.
And it got to be a favorite thing in Albany to go to the music mobile.
And she’s a good songwriter:
We’re gonna look to the people for courage in the hard times coming ahead.
We’re gonna sing and shout, we’re gonna work it out, in the hard times coming ahead.
With people’s courage, with people’s courage, with people’s courage we can make it!
We’re gonna look to the people for laughter in the hard times coming ahead…
And people just add verses:
We’ve gotta look to the people’s chutzpah!…
Albany is a different town than it used to be because of it. A few years ago, the mayor of Albany had a big gathering, and there were hundreds of people there with her, singing together.
Oh, I haven’t even told you about our local group! It’s called the Beacon Sloop Club. When the Clearwater first stopped here, we had a little party. A thousand people, mostly young people, came. Toshi made stone soup. You know the story of stone soup? I’d never heard of it before, but I got it published in the local paper, and Toshi fed a thousand people out of one big iron pot.
One woman brought down a chicken, and said “I was going to feed it to my family, but they’re all here.” Another brought down a roast beef—”my family’s here, you might as well take it!”
And then, when the festival was over, everybody said, “Now I’ve got to get back to my family, my church, my business, my veterans’ organization,” whatever it was.
And the next year when Clearwater started again, we had to start from scratch organizing the festival. At which point a teenager said, “Why don’t we have a sloop club here, so we have people who know how to put on a festival.”
I groaned. Another organization, minutes, elections. I called a meeting but only three people showed up.
Toshi said, “Don’t call it a meeting. Call it a potluck supper.” Then 30 people came. We have had a meeting the first Friday of the month for 36 years. When we have a holiday songfest, almost 200 squeeze in, and we’re practically part of the establishment. It’s funny.
Before the Clearwater started cleaning up the river, land was very cheap. This land was only $100 an acre when we bought it. Now my neighbor is trying to sell one acre for $100,000. That’s what’s happening in the Hudson Valley. The real estate people say, “We filled up Long Island. We filled up New Jersey. Now we will fill up the Hudson Valley.”
Sarah: [laughing] So you never thought you were helping the real estate industry when you cleaned up the Hudson?
Pete: I was complaining to a politician in Beacon, “We’ve grown too fast, we’re doubling every 20 years. We can’t do this forever. He says “Pete! If you don’t grow you die.” And, I didn’t know what to say, except at one o’clock in the morning I sat up in bed. “If it’s true that if you don’t grow you die, doesn’t it follow that the quicker we grow the sooner we die?”
That doesn’t mean that we know how to solve the problem. But the first step in solving a problem is admitting there is a problem to be solved.
Sarah: One of your most famous songs is “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To everything there is a season).” What kind of time do you think we’re in right now?
Pete: We are in a crisis time. I don’t give us a chance of—well, you never can tell. There might be a little tribe somewhere in the world on some isolated island, but I see human beings wiping each other off the face of the earth. We’ve invented such weapons—not just nuclear weapons but chemical weapons and all sorts of things.
I’ve been saying for years, it may be that climate change is a wake-up call for the whole human race. It’s going to be a multi-trillion dollar disaster for the rich countries, and a human disaster for the poor countries. Where’s Bangladesh going to put 45 million people? And Calcutta, and other cities? It’s going to be a disaster like nobody’s ever seen—and I hope people like Bush and people from the oil industry are still living so that they can see what a mistake they made.
Sarah: What’s your secret to getting children singing, getting people even at Carnegie Hall singing together, getting people to fall in love with their river and take care of it? Are there some things we can learn about why people choose to get involved?
Pete: Well, it’s been my belief that learning how to do something in your hometown is the most important thing. It’s not just me who thinks this. Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” And the great biologist René Dubos said, “Think globally, act locally.” And E.F. Schumacher said “Small is beautiful.” And now Paul Hawken. All these people are saying the same thing.
If there’s a world here in a hundred years, it’s going to be saved by tens of millions of little things. The powers-that-be can break up any big thing they want. They can corrupt it or co-opt it from the inside, or they can attack it from the outside. But what are they going to do about 10 million little things? They break up two of them, and three more like them spring up!
• Sarah van Gelder interviewed Pete Seeger for Climate Solutions, the Spring 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. You can also watch a video excerpt of this interview and see Michael Bowman’s photo essay of Pete Seeger at home. Sarah van Gelder is executive editor of YES!
Marton Balogh recognizes that the work of the Civitas Foundation for Civil Society is about more than just one thing.
The non-governmental organization (NGO), with offices in Cluj-Napoca and Odorheiu Secuiesc, addresses social, economic, and governmental needs across Romania, ranging from training for elected leaders to helping rural farmers market their products.
Civitas was founded in 1992 with the goal of improving local government and increasing the involvement of citizens at the local level. Since then, it has expanded to include helping in the development of NGOs and in rural development.
“If you are trying to develop a community, or a country, it is not only public administration that is the single center,” Mr. Balogh says. “They need to have functioning NGOs.”
Balogh is regional director for Civitas and manages its operations from its office in Cluj. He joined Civitas in 2000, drawn to the NGO’s training programs for public officials.
During a recent interview at his office, he spoke about the importance not only of strengthening the work of public officials, but also of building the foundation for productive NGOs across Romania.
Despite the small staff of Civitas – 20 employees between its two offices – it is involved in a number of projects, including those funded by grants from both public and private organizations.
Civitas has also helped small farmers form cooperatives across Romania, which has allowed them to market their goods to food stores in cities such as Cluj. Prior to that, these farmers lacked access to large markets because they did not have the scale of production to compete with commercial growers in neighboring countries.
Civitas also helped create “e-centers” in rural villages, connecting many residents with the Internet and computers for the first time.
Staff members also provide regular training in human resources development, as well as courses in project management and how to access funding from the European Union.
Another major initiative of Civitas is an online platform – ongcluj.ro – that serves as a virtual community, of sorts, for NGOs in Cluj and the surrounding region.
Civitas also offers programs that train public officials. To date, more than 300 public officials in seven counties in the Transylvania region have participated in distance-learning programs aimed at sharpening their skills in project management, communication, strategic management, and human resources, among other topics.
It is important for local public officials to do more than just enforce or implement laws and policies, Balogh says. They also need to know how to plan strategically and manage efforts to foster economic growth in their communities.
Balogh teaches courses on NGO management, public policy, and project management at the College of Political, Administrative, and Communication Sciences at Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca. His work with Civitas enriches what he can pass along to his students, he says. “For me, it is important … not to have only theoretical information, but also practical information.”
Carmen Ciobanu, a project coordinator for Civitas and a former student of Balogh, has been with the NGO for more than six years. She manages a program for youths between 16 and 24 who are unemployed and not in school. The program includes vocational training along with lessons in social media platforms and marketing strategy.
The youths are also provided with internships, which offer opportunities to gain professional experience by putting their lessons to work crafting social media and marketing campaigns for small enterprises.
A class of 12 participants recently completed its internships, Ms. Ciobanu says. One student was hired by the placement agency and three agreed to volunteer for the organizations for which they had worked. The results were promising, she says.
Instances like this make it easy to be passionate about her job and the work of Civitas, Ciobanu says.
“We are so into these activities,” she says, “and we see the opportunity for each of these projects.”
• For more information on Civitas, visit www.civitas.ro.
In indigenous societies, the concept of the “tribal elder” is universal, and age is synonymous with wisdom. In such cultures, elders remain vibrant members of their communities, while younger generations are beneficiaries of the elders’ many gifts. Conversely, the elders remain enriched by the ever-present vibrancy of youth.
But in contemporary Western societies, community-wide inter-generational engagement is no longer the norm. It’s a loss … for everyone.
Enter the United Kingdom’s Susan Langford. Her “magic” power is the ability to connect the young and the old (can we still use that word?) around profoundly engaging and creative activities. Through her organization, Magic Me, Susan is rekindling that inter-generational dynamic, enriching everyone who is touched by it.
Back in 1986, a 25-year-old Susan Langford was working in London as a community artist. It was around that time when she attended a talk by Kathy Levin Shapiro, a Baltimore, MD, native who founded Magic Me to link at-risk school students with nursing home residents. Inspired by Kathy’s work, Susan saw that the model could be applied in her own community, but she wanted to put her own spin on the program, building it around the arts. After several years of fundraising and pilot programming, Susan (along with colleague Stephen Clark) launched Magic Me as an independent charity in the U.K.
“I started setting up Magic Me when I was 28, and I am now 54. I am sure that my own aging has been affected by working on a daily basis with people aged 9 to 90 plus. Meeting regularly with people in their 70s, 80s, and more gives me a really healthy perspective on life.” Susan continues, “We live in a world so dominated by pressures to look and act ‘youthful’ and deny our natural aging that I feel lucky to be able to accept and explore this process as my life's work.”
Right now, Susan is leading an inter-generational group, creating a short animated video for an anti-ageism campaign. 17- and 18-year-old high school students are meeting with seniors (citizens) from East London, along with a photographer and storyteller from Magic Me. The gang has only a few months to learn animation techniques, develop the storyline and script, and produce/edit the film (not to mention orchestrate a marketing and social media campaign to get it to a worldwide audience). The film will premiere at the prestigious British Film Institute in London on May 14, 2014.
Thank you Susan for your work, for answering these questions, and for showing people how to fearlessly pursue a passion.
The 10 questions
IN JUST ONE SENTENCE, WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE IN LIFE?
To make the most of all that is best about life on earth and to enable others to discover and experience this for themselves.
HOW HAS THIS WORK CHANGED YOU?
I started setting up Magic Me when I was 28 and I am now 54. I am sure that my own aging has been affected by working on a daily basis with people aged 9 to 90+. Meeting regularly with people in their 70s, 80s, and more gives me a really healthy perspective on life, and I meet many individuals who are using their so-called retirement years to learn, take on new challenges, and try things they never had the chance to do before.
We live in a world so dominated by pressures to look and act "youthful" and deny our natural aging that I feel lucky to be able to accept and explore this process as my life's work – including feeling relaxed enough about my age to publish it on this website!
WHAT DO YOU GET FROM GIVING?
Energy. Taking action often gives me energy and giving to others means that the action is bigger because I’m not doing it on my own.
WHO IS A LIVING HERO, AND WHAT WOULD YOU ASK THEM IF GIVEN THE CHANCE?
Malala Yousafzai, campaigner for girls’ right to an education. Her calm strength and ability to grow as the situation demands is very inspiring. She is however just an extreme example of the many thousands of young women around the world fighting for justice, and I admire the way Malala gives them hope and a voice. I would ask her “what will you do next?” because I am sure Malala has a lifetime of achievement ahead.
WHAT EVERYDAY RESOURCES COULD HELP YOU ACHIEVE YOUR PHILANTHROPIC GOALS?
A Room of My Own, as Virginia Woolf put it. What I mean by this, is time and space to pause and reflect. In a busy day, and a world where busy-ness is one of the most valued things to be, I regularly need time to stop "doing" and take stock.
As an organization Magic Me needs time for our team and our participants to sit and reflect together, to understand what we are doing and tune in, to plan so we know our goals are the right ones. Finances for "thinking time" can be the hardest to raise – but the most important.
WHAT IS A BURNING QUESTION YOU HAVE FOR THIS COMMUNITY?
What techniques and tools have you found to be successful to engage other people in your cause? The individual campaigner or social entrepreneur is a key in many campaigns and programs, but can’t achieve much without building support and keeping others involved.
WHAT WOULD THE TITLE OF YOUR BOOK BE?
Sharing the Experience is the title of my book – written with my long-term colleague and friend Sue Mayo, Associate Artist at Magic Me, back in 2000. Our aim was to capture Magic Me’s philosophy and practice and share it with a wider community of artists, community builders, educators, and care givers interested in running their own inter-generational arts projects.
But the philosophy rings true for our organization – everything we do is a partnership with schools, older people’s groups, artists. No one has all the answers, and we need contributions from many points of view to create a rich and worthwhile experience for all. The book combines text, photographs, and stories because each format speaks to us in different ways.
TELL US SOMETHING YOU RARELY SHARE IN PUBLIC.
In my first "proper job" with a graphic design agency, as a young graduate, I was too shy and socially inexperienced to pick up the phone and talk to strangers. In my first week I waited till colleagues went out to lunch to make phone calls. I wasn’t born with this essential skill; I had to learn it. It’s good to remember, when I am mentoring shy volunteers and students, or going into a new situation.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR OTHERS WHO ASPIRE TO BE CITIZEN-PHILANTHROPISTS?
Don’t try to do everything yourself. Respect the talents, skills, and viewpoints of other people and remember – they will be better than you at many things. By bringing together many perspectives, experiences, and people, you will do more, build sustainability, and stay in touch with other people’s day-to-day experiences and realities.
WHAT QUESTION DO YOU WISH I HAD ASKED, AND WHAT IS THE ANSWER?
Where do you relax and find new energy after a hard day?
One special time and place each Wednesday evening is my stained-glass class, run by artist Sheenagh McKinlay in her East London studio with a great team of classmates. If I arrive feeling too tired to be creative I always gain inspiration and energy from the beautiful glass – choosing just the right blue to go next to a particular red or green. A 7th century artform using lead and glass is my perfect antidote to IT problems!
• This article was originally posted at Talking GOOD, a series of interviews with “citizen philanthropists” who champion causes and lead by example. Talking GOOD was launched in 2012 by Rich Polt, principal of the Baltimore-based PR consultancy Communicate Good, LLC. You can nominate someone for a Talking GOOD interview here, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Griswold remembers sitting in a room in Guatemala back in the mid-1990s, tasting coffee offered up by an exporter. As he considered the product and chatted about price, one key person was absent from the negotiations: the farmer who grew the beans.
“The farmer would literally be standing outside the door, no ability to taste his own coffee, not really understanding what the cupping process was, watching me slurp and spit, just hoping to see a thumbs up,” Griswold recalls. “And it seemed so asymmetric that I should be able to have this skill and they can’t.”
The drive toward transparency and “empathy” – a term seldom uttered in the commodities trade – has been Griswold’s mission ever since. As founder and president of Sustainable Harvest, a seller of fair trade coffee to the likes of Green Mountain and Whole Foods, Griswold not only has opened the room up to farmers, but just about everyone else involved in the $20 billion a year coffee market.
This mission to inject more symmetry into the business has served Sustainable Harvest well. In 2013, the company closed $70 million in global sales.
The journey toward Sustainable Coffee began when Griswold joined a handful of early employees of Ashoka, working under founder Bill Drayton. In his two years there, he went from unpaid intern to Ashoka’s first director of communications.
Writing stories about the Ashoka fellows and their impact, Griswold was soon eager to test out his own chops as a “public service entrepreneur” – the moniker that proceeded “social entrepreneur” back then. He signed on as a volunteer to help a Mexico-based Ashoka Fellow, traveled to southern Mexico, and got his first taste of the coffee trade. He found it somewhat bitter, especially when he saw the low margins for coffee farmers compared with the top of the chain at the retail level.
Operating out of a single office in San Francisco, he founded Aztec Harvests. And because he wanted to go “beyond fair trade,” which was just emerging at the time, he made the Mexican coffee farmers he worked with 100 percent owners in the enterprise.
“I started importing beans, and I made all the mistakes you could possibly make in terms of not knowing anything about how a commodity business works,” Griswold says.
Several mistakes came out of inexperience, but not all. Griswold entered a world of distrust and secrecy, where no one in the supply chain really knew what his competitors or suppliers were clearing. The lack of information strained relationships, both professional and personal.
“I thought, ‘This is crazy,’” Griswold says. “The idea that everyone would keep their margins secret seemed so inefficient to me. People were guessing what their margins were, and they were usually guessing high.”
But some things did work out. Ben & Jerry’s used his coffee for an ice cream flavor. Through his Ashoka connections he was able to sell to United Airlines, which served his coffee on U.S.-Mexico flights.
Still, selling just Mexican coffee put him at a disadvantage. So he exited Aztec and started up Sustainable Harvest, which spawned a “two-year walk in the woods to try to find someone willing to fund a high-risk, high-capital, low-margin business,” he recalls with a smile. Getting started with a small business loan, Griswold moved from the Bay Area to Portland in 2000 to lower his costs.
At the time, he sourced from several companies in Latin America, and his sales were about $3 million, which might sound like a lot for a young business. But with gross margins around 10 percent, well, you can do the math. For the first several years Griswold worked alone, managing everything from answering customer calls to importing logistics, marketing materials, and finance.
The issue of transparency and general mistrust continued to bother him. So when some suppliers in Mexico considered making a break from the coffee business, Griswold saw an opportunity to bridge the trust gap. He convinced them to stay and to unite with Sustainable Harvest, creating a training office for growers for improving yields and to understand what their product tastes like when it reaches the cup.
This created the first “Let’s Talk” gathering, a trade convention of sorts for all of his supply chain partners that has continued annually for the last decade. It’s a trend Griswold coined more than a decade ago as “Relationship Coffee.”
“Suddenly something clicked there,” he says. “Our buyers wanted to know more about where they were getting their coffee, they wanted to be doing the deals. And the farmers needed more training just to get their small and growing businesses up to speed just to be able to handle the demands of these buyers.”
Coffee farmers who work with Sustainable Harvest are trained in tasting, and specifically, tasting their own coffee. They’re also provided insight into how the entire supply chain functions, the cut that roasters take, the cut importers take, the prices involved in shipping, packaging and retailer mark-ups, and ultimately, to the consumer’s cup. They’re also provided high-tech tools, like iPads and apps, instead of aging computers from the U.S. office. It’s all part of the equalization Griswold tries to achieve.
Through it all, Griswold says he has tried to make Sustainable Harvest as transparent as he could, even as the company has spread to hundreds of farming co-ops and added big-name retailers as customers. He’s been accused of oversharing, he admits.
“I think people are taken aback when you start being really open about numbers,” he says. “You’re getting into delicate areas of conversation. If a farmer makes this much, how much should a retailer make? And those are really deep issues we find transparency brings forward, and we need to face them globally in many areas of commerce.”
Ninety percent of the company’s coffee is certified fair trade organic. And Griswold says freely that his coffee is far and away the highest priced in the industry. The base price paid to farmers is $1.90 (per pound) in a market that at the time of this printing averages transactions of $1.20 a pound.
The consistency in quality and delivery are the main reasons for the elevated pricing, he says. But this openness isn’t just about doing good; it’s about improving the product and ultimately the profits, Griswold says.
“It creates a much more consistent supply chain because people are shipping what you want them to ship and they know what they’re shipping,” he says. “It’s not just this roulette game. Most farmers look at coffee for physical defects but not for taste. ... Now it’s changing.”
Griswold says the company employs 16 Q-graders (or certified professional tasters) and has invested in training 200 of its suppliers to become certified Q-grader tasters as well. Over time, the firm has tracked the quality scores of the coffee farmers as they steadily improve, along with roasters willing to pay more for high-quality coffees, in a proprietary database system that can measure just about everything important to the business – even the carbon footprint of its shipments.
The coffee industry is facing perilous times. Climate change has touched off la roya (or “coffee rust”), a mold affecting crops because of elevated temperatures in certain coffee-producing regions. Prices have fallen significantly, in large part due to a surge in supply from Brazil and Vietnam.
Those suffering the most from low prices are the high-quality specialty producers in Central and South America – Sustainable Harvest’s main suppliers. The trend is prompting farmers to sell their land to much larger coffee suppliers or to golf course developers in coffee stalwarts like Antigua and Costa Rica. According to Griswold, just two decades ago El Salvador produced 128 million pounds of coffee; today it’s down to less than 20 million pounds.
“So who’s left to farm coffee? It can’t just be the landed gentry and the very poor,” Griswold says.
Today’s tough coffee market reminded Griswold of another experience. Early on as an importer, he bought lots of shade-grown coffee, believing it would be more popular than organic or even the still-nascent fair trade varieties.
Then the coffee commodity price fell by half and he owed more than $100,000 to his financiers. It took him several years to pay off his debt, and from that taught him an important lesson: to work collaboratively with his suppliers and customers.
“It was the worst feeling of my life, and probably the best lesson I could have,” he says. “If I only had success, I don’t think I would understand what it feels like to let your family down, to feel like you don’t know where to turn. So when farmers face coffee market prices that are below costs of production, I can empathize in a very deep way, and explain my work is to try to help change that.”
That experience has inspired Griswold and his team to continue investing in farmer training and hosting “Let’s Talk Coffee” events, which he says help smallholder farmers know “You don’t have to walk alone; we’re going to figure this out together.”
•Scott Anderson is the managing editor of NextBillion.net.
• This article originally appeared at NextBillion.net, a blog and web resource bringing together the community of business leaders, social entrepreneurs, NGOs, policymakers, and academics to explore the connection between development and enterprise.
[Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.]
In a country where almost 40 percent of women will experience some form of emotional, physical, or sexual violence at the hands of men, this may seem a counterintuitive notion.
However, a small but growing number of organizations and individuals are proposing that to tackle gender-based violence at its root, it is vital to make men a central part of the solution.
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“Over the last 25 years, billions of dollars from across the public, private, and social sectors have been spent on efforts to close the gender gap. But it hasn’t closed significantly. If we don’t start to work with men, we might still be here in another 25 years,” said Will Muir, co-founder and CEO of the Pune, India-based nonprofit organization Equal Community Foundation (ECF).
ECF is one of a handful of organizations in India that have made it their mission to work with men to combat gender violence and achieve parity between the sexes.
ECF’s approach is based on the belief that men’s attitudes and behavior sit at the heart of the problem, and that any efforts to change these attitudes must treat men not as perpetrators of violence, but as agents of change.
“Even though not all men are a part of the problem, all men can and need to be a part of the solution,” Muir said.
Sadani and his team have spent the last 20 years mobilizing young men in the western state of Maharashtra to promote gender equality within their communities. He believes that gender issues have been seen as "women’s issues" for too long, and that an expansion of focus is essential.
“Transforming the powerful and empowering the exploited cannot be mutually exclusive agendas,” he said. “[We need to] start looking at gender issues equally as a men’s and women's issues, otherwise men become isolated … and the gender divide widens.”
India is home to some of the most inequitable attitudes toward women today. A recent study by the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) found that 81 percent of men surveyed believed that the man should have the final word on decisions in the home, 68 percent were of the opinion that a woman should tolerate violence to keep her family together, and 65 percent said that there are times when a woman deserves to be beaten.
It is upon these attitudes that ECF, alongside others, has begun to focus its efforts in recent years, working to mobilize and support those who are open to thinking differently.
“In every community there are men who respect women and care about gender equality, but [they] lack the confidence, skills, and knowledge to take action. We need to find these men and provide them the … support to take voluntary action … and spread this vision in their community,” said Rujuta Teredesai, ECF’s co-founder and executive director.
To do so, the organization has developed a series of community-based trainings, under their flagship program Action for Equality. One evening a week for 15 weeks, their young trainees take part in a series of games and activities that have been designed to get them thinking about the roles of women in their lives.
“While we cover heavy topics, including discrimination, gender, violence, and sexuality, we try to make them as simple and engaging as possible," says Anjana Goswami, ECF’s Action for Equality program manager.
“They teach us about women, and help us understand how to interact with girls as friends. It’s something I can’t talk to my parents about but I really appreciate," said Vikas, one of ECF’s latest graduates.
ICRW, which also runs a growing number of programs aimed at engaging men in the debate on gender equality, emphasizes the importance of challenging social norms as well.
“Social norms are engrained into our everyday lives, [and] this is where one really needs to work," said Madhumita Das, a gender specialist with ICRW.
To date, ECF has enrolled 2,791 young men in its gender awareness program. With 1,216 graduates and over 100 active volunteers who participate in community engagement once a week, the project is growing increasingly popular.
Sixty-one percent of women living with these graduates have reported a significant reduction in violence and discrimination from their sons as a result of the program.
“Both of my sons have been part of the program. They often come home and share what they discuss in the class with his sister and me, which we find really useful,” said Savita Kasbe, a mother from the Super Indira Nagar community. “They’ve also started helping out with the chores, which is a big help for me.”
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However, while violence against women is rising rapidly on the national and international agenda as a serious public health concern, the number of organizations working with men to address it in India remains small.
“There is a woeful dearth of minds who have so far come to address this aspect of the crisis. Not even 1 or 2 percent [of organizations working on gender-based violence] are focusing on men”, Sadani said.
As momentum for this kind of approach grows, however, Das believes it will be important to expand and capitalize upon it.
“It took a very long time to bring men into this discourse of addressing violence against women, but recently, there has been a shift. People are talking about it a lot more. Now it is the responsibility of those working with men and boys to push this," she said.
• This article originally appeared at Thomson Reuters Foundation, a source of news, information, and connections for action. It provides programs that trigger change, empower people, and offer concrete solutions.