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Climate Change and the Next California in the US Food System

Revitalize the economy and food system of the mid-Mississippi Delta through the production and marketing of specialty produce

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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

World Wildlife Fund - US

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Large NGO (over 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

AgLaunch (4. Small NGO) Winrock International (5. Large NGO) Southern Bancorp Community Partners (9. Investment-Based Organization) Arkansas State University (7. Researcher Institution) USDA – Agricultural Research Service (7. Researcher Institution) Cushman&Wakefield (3. Large Company) The Heron Fund (Other—Foundation) IndigoAg (2. Small Company)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

www.worldwildlife.org

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Washington, DC

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

USA

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Mid-Mississippi Delta and Arkansas River Valley

What country is your selected Place located in?

USA

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

California dominates farming of specialty produce in the US today, growing half our vegetables and more than 2/3 of our fruits and nuts. Yet this is becoming increasingly unsustainable. Water is scarce, fires are common, and increasing temperatures are threatening crops’ ability to fruit properly. Farming will need to shift but without proper planning it might promote extensive land conversion, which is harmful to the environment, and ignore or worsen racial and social inequities. The US is not alone in facing this challenge. Countries across the world have their own “California” but no one is looking for the next one.

We want to proactively identify a solution that is good for the environment, for business, and for local communities – and that can be replicated worldwide. We identified the mid-Mississippi Delta and the Arkansas River Valley (“mid-Delta”) as a key region to serve as a pilot of what “Next California” could mean. Its cultivated farmland is about the same size as the farmed area in California, it has fertile soils, plentiful water, and a long history of farming. It is also centrally located, providing easy access to markets and the potential to cut down on food loss and waste with a closer, more distributed food system. Finally, from a business perspective, it offers inexpensive land and labor with some large markets already present.

WWF’s Markets Institute has spent the past year working in and learning about the region. We’ve forged deep connections with local partners, toured numerous farms, built relationships with land-grant universities, and met with public officials to build support for specialty crop production.

We have a strong group of partners who are eager to work with us to secure regional production of specialty produce. This would not only take some of the pressure off California but also revitalize an economically depressed area by bringing in higher value crops and associated production and processing facilities.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

The mid-Delta has a deep connection to agriculture. The Mississippi River and the smaller Arkansas River have good soil and are transportation corridors. Agriculture has driven economics in the region since the first European settlers arrived. Sugar and rice dominated the 18th century, and cotton became king in the early 19th century. These row crops remain common, but now wheat, soy, and corn (soy and corn for animal feed) have also become mainstays. Today, 75% of farmland is used to produce row crops and drive the economy with 25% used for specialty crops.

Agriculture also has an iniquitous history. As cotton and sugar cane spread, more labor was needed and slavery flourished as large plantations developed. After the Civil War, sharecroppers and tenants replaced the slaves. With land still in plantations, freed slaves and poor whites had little chance of becoming landowners and even when they did, several government programs helped larger landowners acquire the lands of former slaves. During the Depression thousands of small farmers, tenants, and sharecroppers lost their jobs and/or farms. Federal relief was largely aimed at whites, leading to further racial disparities and continued flight by African Americans to cities. Thus, even after the economy recovered, farming had changed. It became mechanized and required much less labor. Fewer people worked more land. WWII ramped up agricultural demand, and Delta agriculture flourished once again and remains an economic mainstay today.

However, despite the demand for its crops, the region remains poor. The massive farms in the Delta region do well when prices are high, but few people own those, and smaller farms in the Arkansas River Valley barely support the growers who own them. This region has high poverty rates (Delta 19.8%, River Valley 16.2% - nationally 12.3%) and low median incomes (Delta $45,479, River Valley $48,536 – nationally $57,652). Racial segregation continues to be a problem; nearly all farmers are white men. Much of this poverty hinges on commodity crop production. Low margins mean small farms cannot make ends meet and growers must also work other jobs, if they are available. They are eager for new models but do not have the ability to make changes on their own.

Despite these hurdles, local food culture remains strong. Fried catfish, okra, corn bread, and collards remain staples that bring regional pride. Local fruits flourish, such as pawpaws and muscadine grapes. There are a few larger cities, such as Memphis, but most of the region is made up of small towns with vast farms between them. Communities are close knit. The topography changes from flat plains along the Mississippi River to mountains alongside the Arkansas River Valley, bringing cooler temperatures and less humidity, but all provide strikingly beautiful tableaus, rich history, and endless possibilities for the future.

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

2300000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

California produces more than 1/3 of the vegetables and 2/3 of fruits and nuts grown in the US. However, California’s warming climate makes farming there less certain in the future, and the state will likely suffer from more chronic and severe weather, including drought, fires, excessive heat, late freezes, and more.

Farming will need to shift. Farmers will not stay in a region if water is too expensive, if fire destroys their crops, or if the environment becomes too inhospitable. However, farmers may shift to areas where they are more harmful to the environment, such as investing in native grassland conversion in the Northern Great Plains. We want to proactively shift farming to a region where it would be a win-win-win for the environment, farmers, and local communities. We believe that place is the mid-Mississippi Delta and the Arkansas River Valley. This is a region with a deep history of farming, existing farmland with rich soils (e.g. no habitat conversion needed) and some critical infrastructure. It has plentiful water and a lengthy (and lengthening) growing season. Shifting some specialty crop production from California to the mid-Delta would be a big gain from a social and an environmental perspective.

The mid-Delta region is economically depressed and has many food deserts that would benefit from higher value specialty crops and the associated infrastructure investment and jobs. Health and nutrition remain poor in this region and this is driven mostly by the rural population. Arkansas and Mississippi have some of the highest rates of obesity in the country, with more than 35% of adults qualifying as obese. Tennessee is just behind with 30-35%. At the same time, these three states have some of the lowest rates of farmers’ markets and even worst rates of eating fruits and vegetables. Arkansas is the state with the lowest rate of eating fruit in the US and Mississippi has the second lowest rate of eating vegetables (after Louisiana).

The region has some of the highest poverty rates (Delta 19.8%, River Valley 16.2%) and lowest median incomes (Delta $45,479, River Valley $48,536) in the country. Nationally, the country has a 12.3% poverty rate and a median income of $57,652. Farming drives the economy, but with the low margins that commodity crops bring, many farmers must now work full-time during the week while working their land in evenings and on weekends to support their families. Industries have shuttered and small towns are dying as young people move to regional cities or out of the region altogether.

Finally, the region faces significant racial hurdles. Built on a culture of white landowners and slavery, racism is still real and threatening. Populations remain segregated and in an already poor region, minorities suffer the most. These states are also at the top of the list for the number of hate groups in the area per capita.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

The mid-Delta has tremendous potential to grow specialty produce in commercial quantities at competitive prices to secure our food system and revitalize the region. While California will continue to be a key agricultural state, we envision a more distributed food system where areas are able to grow what is best suited to shifting climates, food is produced closer to consumers with less waste, and economically depressed areas can benefit from higher-value produce.

This won’t happen on its own. There needs to be a thoughtful, systemic shift that happens now rather than in the midst of a food crisis. It will need to include a mix of new policies, new markets that want to secure their supply chains, innovative business models that address inequity, and more. It will involve a grand coalition that WWF is uniquely suited to convene. We must also document what it takes to shift production at scale because virtually every country in the world has a “California” and none are planning for the impacts from climate change. This new model could serve as an example for other regions around the country and the world of how to think about and plan for such shifts.

Environmentally, this makes sense. Growing fruits, vegetables, and nuts that are suited to the region would lessen water and climate pressures while offering a more distributed food system with produce that is closer and fresher for consumers, more nutritious and better tasting, and with decreased food loss and waste. And, by shifting from row crops to specialty crops, use of dicamba in the region, currently quite high, would decrease. This would allow pollinators to return and remove dangerous chemicals from the environment.

This shift would also change local diets. With an abundance of fresh, local produce available throughout most of the year, more people could eat healthy foods. Better food would be more affordable and a way of life rather than more costly food only available at more distant grocery stores. While these foods are known, today they are not within reach of most in the region. They fit into local cuisines, and children would be familiar with them growing fresh in the fields.

These crops would also generate income in and for the region. They are much higher value than commodity crops and would support associated industries like flash freezing, canning, or other processing facilities. This would create better incomes for farmers but also more and better jobs throughout the region.

 Finally, by building this from scratch, inherent racial and gender inequalities can be addressed explicitly. Since this is a new industry, it is the perfect time to engage African American and female farmers. New crops and new partners would provide the opportunity to explore ESOPs, JVs, long-term contracts, social impact/green bonds, and other business models that would allow new farmers to enter the industry and share benefits more broadly, bringing much-needed integration and change to the region.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Farmland still blankets the region and commodity crops remain common, but instead of an unbroken line of soy and rice, specialty crops are intermingled, including berries, nuts, stone fruit, melons, and more. Processing facilities dot the region. Refrigerated trucks carry produce to regional markets and distributors to serve central and eastern US markets.

Farmers who previously couldn’t support themselves now make a tidy profit with higher value produce and can be dedicated farmers. Co-ops are common, allowing farmers to share expensive new machinery and housing for laborers. Labor groups have streamlined the process, providing farmers timely access to workers while ensuring that laborers enjoy a steady stream of work and can benefit from vested equity in some of the new businesses. Meanwhile, the mid-Delta is known for agtech innovation as it debuts robots capable of picking delicate strawberries and peaches.

With associated industries flourishing, the unemployment rate is down and previously disenfranchised groups, like women and minorities, have now become specialty crop farmers through innovative partnerships and business models. Farming has diversified and revitalized many of the small towns dotting the rivers. People are moving back to the region.

Finally, fresh food is abundant. A significant portion is sold to local farmers markets, retailers, hospitals, schools, universities, and restaurants, providing needed nutrients to the local population. Food that is shipped to other states is shipped shorter distances than from California, leading to fresher, tastier, and more nutritious produce, as well as less food waste. Some previously little-known fruits, such as pawpaws and persimmons, are widely demanded and bring renown to the region.

There are more investments to be made and more issues to tackle, but the mid-Delta now serves as an example of how environmental sustainability, economic development, and financial profit can be mutually reinforcing.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Specialty crops have the potential to revitalize the mid-Delta. Environmentally, this region is well-suited to support many crops. It has rich soils and plenty of water as well as existing, irrigated farmland. Growing food here would lessen pressure on California and the US food system generally, allowing California to specialize in crops that cannot grow elsewhere while leading to a more distributed food system that takes advantage of unique climates and allows food to reach markets faster.
The mid-Delta would provide a good climate for many crops. For example, many crops need “resting” time, meaning cooling temperatures when they are not growing. Some require nightly rests (i.e. cooler nights) while others are more affected seasonally (i.e. colder winters). If crops need time to “rest” at night in cooler temperatures, they will not grow well in the Delta region and could continue to be produced in California. However, for crops that need to rest over the winter, the Delta provides an opportunity. For example, as California gets warmer, it will not have cool enough temperatures in the off-season to allow peach trees enough “chilling time” to bloom and fruit properly in the summer. However, since the Delta will continue to have seasonality even in the face of climate change, it will continue to be able to offer this critical rest period.
There is also a chance to reinvigorate heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables that are unique to the Delta region. Not only would this create a competitive advantage for the region as consumers increasingly demand new varietals and unusual options, it would lead to seed diversity and the benefits that brings to diets, pollinators, animals, and more. Soil health, an important indicator of a farmer’s long-term ability to produce, would also improve. Growing a mix of and alternating specialty crops as opposed to current mono-cropping practices would increase nutrients in the soil, especially if inedible biomass was recycled back into the ground. Fruits and vegetables also mean a significant decrease in use of dicamba, currently widespread throughout the region.
Policies will be key to bringing about many of these changes, but they also provide a chance for further innovation and revitalization. Demand incentives can change. Commodity crop subsidies can be eliminated, and crop insurance expanded to cover specialty produce. At the same time, enabling policies can spread gains and promote equity. Carbon taxes encourage businesses to measure Scope 3 emissions and work with suppliers to decrease the footprint of their supply chain, bringing new markets and opportunities to the region. Reduced postal rates for CSAs, similar to those offered to nonprofits today, give new income streams to farmers and more people access to fresh food. In addition to farmers markets, we can have farmers post. It’s no longer just national companies delivering food, but farmers, individually or working together, being able to easily sell directly to consumers while making use of an underutilized asset, the US Postal Service. High standards are put in place for school lunches, boosting children’s health and food security while growing the market and fighting childhood malnutrition and obesity. And, federal policies around eliminating food deserts and malnutrition change incentives and the ability to produce and sell locally. Combined, these policies mean that farmers can once again be producing food rather than feed while addressing one of the most significant ironies of our time—farm families have the highest levels of malnutrition and stunting of any sector of the population on the planet. But, this does not have to be the case.
As fruits and vegetables are produced throughout the region, more people will have access to fresh produce for more of the year. And, importantly, these crops will become integral to the region. Studies have demonstrated that access is not the only hurdle facing food insecure communities. People also need to be able to afford the produce, have an interest in what is grown, and know how to use it. This is an agriculture region and nearly all people have a connection to farming. As the bright color of budding and ripening fruits and vegetables dot the region, many people will be directly growing the produce but even more will be connected as consumers or through friends, neighbors, and associated jobs. The USDA’s Extension Services are active throughout the region, already integrated into local communities, and they could provide education and outreach not only on growing methods but market opportunities, cooking options, and health. Schools and 4-H clubs, already popular, could participate in activities and grow their own food. Diets would improve as more people eat healthy fruits and vegetables –ones that are full of nutrients since they would be more recently picked.
Specialty crops will boost farmers’ income, re-establishing their importance to the region. The new crops will offer higher margins than commodity crops. Right now, growers with 500 or even 1,000 acres in the Arkansas River Valley are not able to support themselves or raise a family on the income from their land. They are forced to work multiple jobs and farm at nights and on weekends. Specialty produce would allow much smaller farms to compete and give producers higher incomes.
Jobs will be created through agriculture (manual and skilled labor), food processing and manufacturing, technology, and allied industries. Most fields are prepared and crops are planted and often tended with machinery. But commodity crops are largely harvested mechanically while many specialty crops need to be tended and harvested by hand. More labor will be needed. This could be through migrant labor, but we are also eager to explore other alternatives, such as sharing groups of labor that move between farms. In this way, there could be more full time jobs with benefits. There are also options of paying local labor more than they make now, but less than current “all-in” costs of hiring migrant labor (including travel, lodging, transportation, etc.) to boost the labor pool. Having a system of aggregating labor to take the burden off individual farmers to find, keep, and even compete with each other to provide year-round positions for workers, or other unique approaches could be far more economical for all. It would also allow more laborers to be full time though there would still be seasonal labor requirements.
A need to harvest delicate produce also offers opportunities for technological innovation. Agtech has made huge strides forward in decreasing environmental pressures through targeted analysis and applications and through automated harvesting. However, robots that can choose and pluck ripe strawberries and peaches remain out of reach for now. The mid-Delta can become a hub for innovation by attracting early stage start-ups to pilot beta versions of technologies on farms and learn as the industry evolves. Equity would vest to farmers and laborers who run, test, and provide feedback on the robots. Automation also means the creation of long-term, higher-paying jobs. It wouldn’t decrease jobs any more than computers have decreased the use of paper. Instead, jobs would be created as these robots are manufactured, deployed, managed, and repaired – and ripple effects are felt as farmers can produce more with less, opening the door to value-added production and opportunities to make use of less-than-perfect produce that otherwise would go to compost.
Jobs and income would be created through processing facilities. IQF freezing is a quickly growing market and canning remains popular. Such facilities would provide year-round, higher paying positions. There could also be innovative business models that afford growers the possibility of equity in downstream processing plants and workers a chance to earn equity in value-added processing.
There is also room for innovation around funding needed equipment and infrastructure in the region to support a new and expanding specialty produce industry. While this could be funded in a traditional model, such as through banks or USDA grants/loans, cooperatives or even more unusual ESOP or JV models could make sense alone or in combination with more traditional models. In 2050, a range of innovative funding models will have been tested and established to promote equity, align incentives, and bring greater profits to all involved, including local communities, small farmers, minority farmers, and workers. These models include: (1) State or federally funded centrally located infrastructure that vests equity to workers for dedicated harvesting/processing and/or to landowners for value that is added through aggregation or accessing downstream markets, (2) Low-interest rate loans which, as they get repaid, vest equity to labor and/or producer groups, (3) Long-term contracts from buyers can be used as collateral to leverage investments, and (4) Social impact and green bonds are more readily available.
Finally, through these innovative finance models and by developing community buy-in from day one through our strong team of local partners, previously disenfranchised groups are included. Today, if they exist at all, minority and women farmers remain scattered in some of the poorest and most marginal regions of the state (e.g. where they can still afford land and have not been deprived of it) and are largely smallholder farmers with poor land and little ability to support themselves with the low margins of commodity crops at such small scales. By designing a new industry using new business models and with new and different markets, there would be an opportunity to develop new groups of workers and producers from the beginning and to incorporate inclusion and diversity into the innovative business models, bringing new opportunities and a stronger, more equitable economic, social, and cultural future to the region.

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Thank you so much for the Food Extension Initiative.

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