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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

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?


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?


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?


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.

Describe how your Vision developed over the course of the Refinement Phase.

We have developed our specific vision for “The Next California” over 1.5 years but building on more than 30 years of work in this space. Our first round Rockefeller Food Vision Prize was well conceived and laid out; however, the Refinement Phase has allowed us to dig deeper and test the assumptions with our partners and others. Through (virtual) meetings, we have shared ideas and brainstormed in-depth with additional stakeholders to learn more about the region and their thoughts, concerns, and ideas about how to improve the vision as well as the work to achieve. We hosted  listening sessions with a range of partners (e.g. age, gender, ethnicity, occupation, experience) for input on key issues-- how to integrate diversity and equity into farming, additional data analyses and visions of the future, and how to track and measure climate outcomes. As a result, the Vision has evolved to reflect a stronger plan and aspirational future than when we began.

Please provide the names of all organizations you meaningfully partnered with to develop this latest version of your Vision (they contributed at least 10 hours of time to the Vision development during the Refinement Phase).


University of Arkansas

Arkansas State University

Natural Soybean and Grain Alliance

Cushman & Wakefield

In addition, we consulted with a number of individual farmers that sell into commodity markets and smaller-scale specialty crop markets (e.g. farm stands, farmers markets, and “you-pick” enterprises). We also talked with individuals and organizations outside of the region who were interested in investing there, including Paul Soulek (livestock and commodity crop farmer as well as horticulturalist), Brian Dawson (specialty crop distributor and impact investor in the agriculture/food space), with extension agents across AR, TN, and MS, and with non-profits in the region who have long been working on equity, diversity, and support of small farmers.

Describe the specific steps you took during the Refinement phase to include different stakeholders to develop your Vision, including a description (age, profile, and total number) of the stakeholders engaged, and how you engaged with each.

Communication has been key to our strategy from day one and continued throughout the Refinement Phase. To start, we shared the basic outline of our Vision with each of the stakeholders who had been a part of our work so far. This included: AgLaunch (five people, ages 30-60, agtech accelerator and incubator), the University of Arkansas (three professors, ages 40-70, experts in ecology, sustainable farming systems, and horticulture), Arkansas State University (two professors, ages 35-45, experts in agricultural economics), the Natural Soybean and Grain Alliance (two people, ages 65-75, farmers and PhDs in agronomy who now advise farmers), and six different farmers (ages 25-75) in the region. As people who had already been informed of our work to date, they were able to lend additional detailed insights and input on our Vision as it continued to evolve.

We continued to engage new stakeholders, albeit virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This included direct connections through our initial stakeholders, ongoing (virtual) networking, and people who saw our semi-finalist status and read our Vision. For example, Brian Dawson, an impact investor in the agriculture/food space (particularly aggregation and distribution), reached out to us after seeing our first-round application and has been a valuable sounding board as we refined our Vision. Other new stakeholders include Paul Soulek, a farmer; the Arkansas Land and Community Development Corporation, which has been working with minority farmers in the region for decades; and a private regional foundation whose grantees in this space will be key partners moving forward.

For us, success is when our partners own the vision and continue to grow and expand the work without us. Invested and empowered, on-the-ground partners are the only way to achieve this Vision.

What signals and trends did you draw from to inform your Vision? Please provide data or examples that back up each signal or trend.

California’s changing climate: CA suffered severe droughts from 2012-16. Nearly 80% of the state’s water is used in agriculture so it hit the entire state hard, especially farmers, leading to reduced production and revenue. By April 2020, more than 75% of California was experiencing abnormal dryness for this time of year and more than 700,000 acres will not be planted (National Geographic). With below-level snowpack, drought is predicted again this summer. Many farmers simply cannot continue there.

Crashing commodity crop prices: USDA-NASS data shows commodity crop prices at low levels since late 2014, hovering around 60% of inflation-adjusted historical averages. This is no longer an occasional low but a new norm. Soybeans are about half what they were in 2013. Commodity crop farmers struggle to make ends meet and store their crops in hopes of better prices, but with a glut of stored grain, prices are not likely to rise. This has led to larger farms to achieve economies of scale and has forced many farmers to take day jobs or leave agriculture altogether.

Trade wars: On top of already-low prices, the trade war with China has made farmers’ lives even more difficult. Prices have dropped and direct farmer payouts reached a decade high in 2019 ($19.5B, or double that of 2014), while farm bankruptcies and farmer suicides skyrocketed. The “oil war” has left oil prices near zero. This has led to lower biofuel prices, affecting both corn and soy values and contributing to larger stockpiles.

Consumer interest in socially responsible goods: Consumers’ desire for more socially responsible products continues to rise. A 2019 survey by Markstein & Certus Insights found that “70% of consumers want to know what the brands they support are doing to address social and environmental issues and 46% pay close attention to a brand’s social responsibility efforts when they buy a product.” This reinforces interest in local, healthy food.

Ongoing segregation: The Mid-Delta continues to grapple with enduring racial inequities and tensions. Mississippi’s state flag still contains elements of the Confederate Flag. While technically outlawed, racial segregation remains rampant; there is an ongoing fight in Little Rock, AR over the state’s efforts at de facto segregation in the city’s schools. The struggle for racial equality and justice is ongoing and black people are still advised not to drive alone after dark in the region.

COVID-19 and supply chains: While little data is available on this rapidly changing situation, COVID-19 is expected to push businesses to demand more secure supply chains in the future. This will create more interest in local food that does not depend on complicated logistics. CSAs are over-subscribed, and the US Postal Service is piloting food delivery. The pandemic has disrupted animal protein processing and production, with many animals being euthanized. This has also contributed to the glut of grains being stored in the US.

Describe a “Day in the Life” of a key food system actor within your food system in 2050 (e.g., farmer, chef, supply chain actor, food policy actor, etc.).

Betsy is a fourth-generation Mid-Delta farmer. Growing up, she watched her parents and grandparents struggle to make a living. Many years, commodity crop prices fell and her parents could barely cover basic expenses. Erratic weather meant seasons started late or ended early; if the soy and cotton were not planted in time, entire growing seasons were lost.

Today, that has changed. Betsy, age 35, and her family wake up. After breakfast, the kids love to “check” the fields. Instead of manual labor or human-driven machines like in the past, Betsy grabs her tablet and peers out at the rows of okra, eggplant, and peppers. Her children swipe around the tablet, already experts at the easy-to-use technology that lets Betsy check atmospheric and soil conditions, plant health, and more. She makes a few changes and the robots in the field respond automatically, motoring down target rows, addressing precise irrigation and fertilizer needs, and testing samples for pests, growth, and nutrients.

Betsy also checks on the longer term. Her data constantly syncs with other farms so they can share information and inform harvesting. She looks at the latest data from grocers, companies, and other buyers so she can tailor her crop (timing, size and weight) to grow on-demand while reducing food waste. She touches base with local food banks, restaurants, and schools to ensure they receive the crops they want and can glean her fields to utilize all food and keep much of her produce local.

Finally, Betsy goes to visit her neighbor Sarah, a first-generation farmer whose great grandparents were sharecroppers. Their horrendous stories, passed down over generations, convinced Sarah that she would never be involved in farming. Yet, today, with Betsy as a mentor and with access to shared machinery and labor pools as needed, she, too, is happy. Autonomy, higher prices, and new approaches to farming and value-added production provided Pedro a new beginning and a chance to build a better life.

Environment | How will your food system of 2050 adapt to climate change and remain resilient?

Today, California produces more than 1/3 of the vegetables and 2/3 of fruits and nuts grown in the US (CDFA) – yet its production is increasingly uncertain and unsustainable. The price of land and labor are both increasing. Urbanization and sprawl have taken land out of production, and as California’s climate warms, it will continue to face more chronic and severe weather, including drought, fires, excessive heat, late freezes, and more. Farming will need to shift, but it is important that it is done thoughtfully to anticipate climate impacts, geographic suitability, new technologies, and market shifts. The goal is to help farmers make optimal shifts so that they do not continue to produce what is no longer useful nor move to new areas and create other possibly worse environmental outcomes. In short, production shifts should be undertaken thoughtfully and proactively. Shifting production to the Mid-Delta brings environmental benefits around water use, land conversion, and food loss and waste – while promoting better seed diversity and soil health in the Mid-Delta. It also allows a chance to build a system from scratch to address many environmental, social, and livelihood issues.

The Mid-Delta has a long history of farming and plenty of water. Not only is California facing increased droughts, it is also highly dependent on snow melt from the Sierra Nevada mountains. As less snow falls, not only is there less water in aggregate, but the snow melts faster, ending by mid-summer. In contrast, the Mid-Delta is fueled by rainfall, which does not face the same hurdles and remains plentiful even in the face of climate change. It also has fertile soils that have a higher field capacity (i.e. ability to store moisture) than those in California, so less irrigation is needed. Shifting production of specialty produce would decrease current and future water pressures and use in California.

As heirloom varietals are revived through crossbreeding with higher yield varieties, this could also reduce input use, since the varietals are uniquely suited to the region’s climate. This diversification of crops could improve soil health, pollinators, wildlife, other biodiversity, and more. It also provides the opportunity to alternate specialty crops, as opposed to current mono-cropping practices. This would lead to increased soil health nutrients and organic matter, especially as biomass is recycled back into the ground, and to a significant decrease in herbicides. By growing crops uniquely suited to the region and with higher economic value, farms could also reduce the amount of land used. Farms could be integrated into the region and mixed with protected and riparian areas to maintain native pollinator populations and wildlife management areas and corridors. The overall goal would be to double organic matter while cutting input use by half and increasing net profits and the ability to sell avoided carbon or market credible “net zero carbon” products.

Production in the Mid-Delta will reduce food loss and waste as well as energy use by designing more sustainable, closed loop systems from the beginning that serve as models globally about how environmental efficiency and financial profitably can go hand-in-hand. A more distributed food system reduces food loss and waste with less time to market and longer shelf life. Today, we waste up to 50% of specialty produce, which has a significant environmental impact. A lot of food is wasted since consumers do not purchase “ugly” or imperfect produce. As processing and specialty manufacturing plants are built in the region, they can use food that would otherwise be lost or wasted to do value-added production of products like jams, jellies, pickles, relishes, chutneys, BBQ sauce, and more. This also creates jobs and economic opportunities. On-farm waste products can be fed to pigs, chickens, and dairy – already common throughout the region – with the option to sell cured or smoked meats, eggs, milk, cheese, ice cream, yogurt, and cottage cheese. Systems could become even more symbiotic by building biogas digestors, converting the methane to electricity or natural gas while recapturing nitrogen, phosphorous, and liquid ammonia and fiber from the digester effluent.

The cumulative impact of these efforts will likely be larger and longer lasting than the individual positive, e.g. the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Companies are committed to measuring and reducing the GHG emissions embedded in their products. While it is relatively easy for companies to reduce emissions under their direct control or from their energy use (e.g. scope 1 and 2), emissions from the production of their raw materials (scope 3) are generally the single largest source of emissions in production. As we move forward, we will measure and reduce emissions in the raw materials and products from the Mid-Delta. This would attract buyers, increasing demand for both raw products as well as value-added products.

Diets | How will your food system of 2050 address malnutrition in all its forms (undernutrition, micronutrient deficiency, metabolic disease) for the people living there?

Today, the Mid-Delta suffers from overall poor health when compared to other parts of the US. Nine out of the ten counties with the worst levels of food insecurity (>30%) in the US are in the Delta (Feeding America). 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 at 30-35%(CDC). At the same time, these three states have some of the lowest rates of farmers markets and even worse rates of eating fruits and vegetables. Arkansas has the lowest rate of eating fruit in the US, out of all states, and Mississippi has the second lowest rate of eating vegetables (after Louisiana)(CDC). Currently, there is little-to-no collaboration in the region between farms and schools. Our Vision for 2050 would address these concerns through making fresh fruits and vegetables a way of life, boosting access and supply, integrating farm-to-fork programs into schools, utilizing and expanding existing outreach programs, and reviving pride in local varieties, dishes, and recipes.

By growing fruits and vegetables in the region, farmers would be growing food with only waste and by-products used to feed animals. Immediately, this would give more people access to fresh produce for more of the year. More importantly, however, it would also integrate these crops into life in the region. Access is not the only hurdle facing food insecure communities; people also need to be able to afford it, have an interest in eating it, and know how to prepare it. As more fresh produce is grown in the region, farmers and their families will become familiar with it directly, but even more people will be connected as consumers or through friends, neighbors, and associated jobs. If they are part of the landscape, fresh fruits and vegetables become more familiar, more socially accessible, and part of the way of life. Children will grow up seeing this bounty on their doorstep, giving them awareness beyond simple access. When they eat fresh produce, it will mean healthier, more nutritious produce, since it would have been recently picked and still full of nutrients.

Policies and programs would also be put in place to boost children’s health and security through school lunches and breakfast programs for those in need, including higher nutritional standards and partnerships with existing farms. Growing food can also be integrated into public school curriculums for science and health classes so that students can grow fresh produce and understand different ways to prepare it.

Beyond schools, people of all ages can connect to fruits and vegetables through Future Farmers of America (FFA), 4-H clubs, extension offerings, and more. One program would be to connect local producers with these clubs to organize door-to-door harvest sales with delivery for bulk food to raise money for club programs related to food. Another awareness and income generation activity would be to use these programs, as well as school offerings, to generate fundraiser meals (similar to pancake breakfast fundraisers) that feature local produce and chefs, are vegetarian based, and raise funds for the organizations and/or schools. These events could also be used to sell individual items in bulk to interested participants. These programs and clubs are already active in the region but can become more integrated with local communities (both production and consumption) by investing in culturally specific outreach and classes. This means tailoring cooking and health to meet people where they are today.

Finally, by reviving local heirloom varieties in hardier versions, there can be a re-embracing of cultural pride and passion for working with locally produced fruits and vegetables. Nostalgia foods and history can be utilized to create excitement, build awareness, and encourage the consumption of more nutritious foods. Our Vision is to build something unique with local stakeholders that will strike a chord in people in the Mid-Delta and allow this effort to grow and scale.

Economics | Where and what will the jobs be that support living wages in your future food system of 2050, and how will these jobs impact gender equality?

While the commodity row crops of today provide few opportunities for additional value-added production or processing, specialty crops provide many opportunities at all scales, from kitchen preparation and canning to larger-scale processing and manufacturing. Jobs, income, and assets will be created through development of processing facilities and new business models. Instead of shipping feed grains, rice, or cotton out of the region, fruits and vegetables could be sold regionally or processed locally to reduce loss and waste and create value-added, shelf-stable products for the region and beyond. These include IQF (individually quick frozen) vegetables and fruits (a quickly growing area that is likely to be much larger by 2050), canning, and pureeing, each of which can provide year-round, indoor, well-paying jobs with benefits.

As the variety of fresh produce increases in the region, so will the need for associated equipment, processing facilities, and infrastructure. Impact investors and governments can provide early-stage financing to help producers grow their operations to include value-added processing and laborers could benefit from equity positions in regionally organized planting, cultivating, harvesting, and processing operations. There is also an opportunity for impact investors to use impact funds to invest in facilities on the condition that they employ women and minority workers. While some current equipment geared towards commodity row crops can be repurposed, new equipment and facilities will still be needed for processing, packaging, and shipping the produce. Building and running these facilities will bring immediate jobs while the model going forward will be to have more shared equipment for planting, tending, harvesting and processing specialty crops whose use can be coordinated and rotated between producers and crops as needed, bringing down barriers to entry.  

There is also potential for innovative financing to address inequity. State and federally funded, centrally located infrastructure can vest equity to dedicated harvesting and processing workers. Low-interest loans, as repaid, could vest equity to labor and producer groups. Long-term contracts for buyers can be used as collateral to leverage such investments. Social impact investments or green bonds can even be used to train and employ hard-to-employ populations, like recently incarcerated or older and un-employed individuals to bring down recidivism and unemployment rates.

While we expect the number of farm laborer jobs to decrease with automation, there will still be some laborer positions needed in 2050. However, rather than the current model of migrant laborers coming and leaving with low income and no benefits, rotating labor systems can be developed. These would take the burden off individual farmers while also offering better jobs and more benefits to workers. By aggregating labor to meet pooled labor needs, central housing can be provided and workers can rotate through crop seasons and farms, gaining access to steady, year-round employment with benefits. It would also bring transparency to an area that is currently ripe with abuses and illegality.

By 2050, workers will be members of the community in well-paying, year-round jobs with benefits. AgLaunch, a Memphis-based agtech accelerator and incubator, has already put Memphis on the map for agtech around commodity crops. They attract early stage start-ups to pilot beta versions of technologies on farms and help farmers adapt to and contribute to the industry as it evolves. Startups grant equity to farmers who run, test, and provide feedback on the newest agricultural technologies. They are now focusing on specialty crops through the “Next California” Challenge, which will source early prototypes and firms interested in developing automation and robotics specifically to serve the specialty produce industry. In our Vision, automation in 2050 means both a lower cost of producing high-value crops and the creation of long-term, higher-paying jobs as the resulting robots are manufactured, deployed, managed, and repaired locally whenever possible. Mid-level and management jobs would be accessible and entry-level jobs more attractive.

Finally, farming itself can be expanded and democratized. Today, with low commodity prices, vast farms are needed to make a profit and farming is dominated by white males as it has been for centuries. Barriers to entry, both physical and social, remain high. However, with specialty crops and value-added production, less or even no land will be required to have higher incomes. This new system will open doors and give new opportunities to groups that have not had them before. Women and minority farmers will not only have a chance to compete on a more level playing field, but agricultural impact funds will help such groups specifically to buy cropland, opening more doors and starting a virtuous cycle.

Culture | How will your 2050 food system ensure that the cultural, spiritual and community traditions and/or practices in your Place flourish?

Building on the Mid-Delta’s history and culture will be key to making our Vision a reality. The region has a deep and proud history of farming which permeates all aspects of life. At the same time, farmers are getting older and few younger people want to farm, as barriers to entry remain high. Small farming towns are dwindling or dying as young workers, and their families, leave the region or head to larger cities, like Memphis, within it. Our Vision provides a chance to build on historical roots and reinvigorate important cultural heritage while also offering a chance to address past injustices and create a more equitable and diverse future for all.

Our Vision focuses on making farming more accessible, profitable, and integrated than it is today, translating this way of life into healthier diets and better jobs across the region. We see a future where nearly all people have a connection to farming. Many will grow produce, but most could be connected through more vibrant local food systems, connected as consumers or through friends, neighbors, and related jobs. Local land-grant universities that are already active in the region could expand and connect their offerings to rural populations more broadly than ever before by investing in culturally specific outreach and classes. For example, there is a chance to reinvigorate and reintroduce heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables that are unique to the Delta, as well as little-known options that thrive in the region, such as paw paws, persimmons, and muscadine grapes. Heirloom varieties could be bred with high-yield crops to improve strains that are already specifically adapted for the Mid-Delta’s climates. This would lessen inputs and create a competitive advantage, boosting ties to the region and inspiring interest in farming.

Cultural links to fresh produce and farming can also be explored and built out through partnerships with local schools. This could include a focus on fresh produce by planting fresh gardens or taking field trips to tour farms. Agriculture could be integrated into the local community. History classes could look at what farming used to be and where it is today, exploring how culture can remain strong while adapting to new realities. Cooking classes could focus on using heirlooms and regional fruits and vegetables while also exploring health benefits of fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Science experiments and lessons could focus on how a region’s food is produced, how climate interacts with it, and what that means for nutrition.

Meanwhile, lowering barriers to entry in terms of farmland needed, promoting innovation through farming and processing, and removing the often painful reminders of slavery and sharecropping by switching from commodity row crops like cotton to specialty produce would also allow a chance for minority and women farmers to enter new production systems on more equal footing. There is an opportunity for these previously disenfranchised populations to re-embrace farming, while farming can also welcome them back. This reinvigoration of farming and enhanced inclusivity could provide an opportunity to address and put to rest some of the more painful aspects of the region’s history while creating a new, more equitable future.

These efforts would work together to encourage young people to enter farming. This focus on reintegrating community with the land would let cultural and spiritual norms flourish. Farming would no longer be seen as a last resort, as is often the case in young workers today, but a chance to find a viable place in one’s region. It is a chance to build on what makes this region’s people so passionate today while preparing them for the future.

Technology | What technological advances are needed to transform your food system into one that meets your goals and embodies the values of your Vision in 2050?

Technology will be key to lowering barriers of entry to growing and selling specialty produce as well as creating jobs and boosting the economic resiliency of the Mid-Delta. As the region looks at switching from the commodity row crops grown today to specialty crops and value-added production, labor is the biggest hurdle. Commodity row crops are largely mechanized. This means that farmers are used to using and driving machines to plant, tend, and harvest their crops. There is little use of laborers in the fields. Even farms with 15,000-20,000 acres may have only a few permanent staff, with some temporary workers as needed. However, with specialty crops, there is currently no technology available to pick delicate crops such as strawberries or peaches. They must be harvested by hand, which means a significant investment in labor.

While higher margins could cover the costs, finding labor in a timely way is also quite difficult and time consuming. Local labor is not interested in these low-paying, physically demanding jobs so famers must bring in migrant laborers through the H-2A visa program. This is a difficult process and requires a large up-front investment, as farmers are required to provide housing and transportation for the workers. This means that small farmers face an additional burden as they try to cover these upfront, fixed costs. As technology to automate these processes is developed and specialty crops can be cared for by increased automation and the use of robots, the barriers to entry will lower and more farmers will be able to grow fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

AgLaunch, a Memphis-based agtech accelerator and incubator, is a local partner who will work to tackle these challenges. They will launch the “Next California” Challenge to source early prototypes and firms interested in developing automation and robotics specifically to serve the specialty produce industry. Companies from around the world will adapt, test, and deploy their technology. This would help launch the Mid-Delta as a hub for agtech innovation, bringing in additional capital, people, and other resources. Technological automation and innovation will also lead to jobs and income. Robots will need to be manufactured, deployed, managed, and repaired. These are better-paying, more secure jobs with benefits, as opposed to laborer positions with erratic schedules, no security, and little chance for advancement.

Robots and automation will also be deployed in downstream sorting, packing and organizing, retrieving inventory in cold storage, and processing and value-added operations. While automation will eliminate many of the more menial jobs, it will create a great many additional jobs just as computers and electronic files have increased the use of paper rather than reducing it.

There is also an opportunity to invest in better technology for transporting and processing. Fresh specialty crops will no longer be limited to delivery in refrigerated trucks or frozen at IQF facilities. There could be additional opportunities to puree, can, or process in aseptic packaging that retains nutrients as well as IQF. Investments in IQF could allow for a variety of textures when thawed. Transportation, in a region already primed for it through FedEx’s Memphis headquarters, could be automated or improved through better sensors, tracking, and equipment so that less food is lost or damaged in route and nutrient retention is improved. Of course, the region’s river barges could become viable for transporting bulk produce. All of these would also lead to more jobs and investment, continuing to boost the region and mark it as the place to come to learn more about the future of specialty produce.

Data will also be key to improving efficiency of production, marketing, and sales. We have known for some time that data systems can be utilized to monitor health, water, nutrients, and pests affecting both plants and animals. These data systems will be employed in the new specialty crop production systems of the Mid-Delta to increase productivity and efficiency, reduce loss and waste, pick at peak, and increase net producer income.

Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the weakness in most of today’s very efficient supply chains, and especially those for specialty crops: information only goes one direction—from buyer to seller. The supply chains that will be developed in the Mid-Delta will use data to manage production but also to inform buyers about the volumes, values, and types of produce that will be available for purchase at specific times. This will allow producers to identify the best markets for all produce before it is even harvested, which will be especially important when there are higher yields than have been contracted. This information will also make it clearer to local value-added processing facilities the amount of product that will be available to them so that they can plan production and marketing more efficiently.

Policy | What types of policies are needed to enable your future food system?

Policy support from federal, state, and local government will be key to bringing about our Vision. Policies can help shift incentives for production, processing, and demand both at the retail and consumer level. They can also reduce risks, lower barriers to entry around labor, promote partnerships and health, and show other regions and countries how policy can be used to reposition local economies, support innovation, and revitalize regions.

The US federal government could address farming incentives by reducing or eliminating commodity crop subsidies while lowering the risk of growing specialty crops by expanding crop insurance. In 2017, the Mid-Delta received over $1B in commodity crop subsidies (USDA).  Arkansas commodity crop farmers ranked fourth in the nation in terms of subsidies received, incentivizing farmers to invest in these low-margin crops. Specialty crop producers in the US do not receive such subsidies. By eliminating or reducing crop subsidy programs, market distortions can be removed. Additionally, only row crops can be directly insured. Making crop insurance available for specialty crops outside of “whole farm” insurance would help reduce risks. Without that insurance, it is riskier for farmers to invest in produce.

Policies could also de-risk specialty crops by banning broad-spectrum herbicides, such as Dicamba, which have already caused problems in the region due to drift from targeted fields. Dicamba is widely used across the region and policies governing use and liability are set by each state. Few states have significant restrictions and in some of the states in the Mid-Delta, even if penalties are imposed, the fines do not go to the farmer who is hurt by the drift. All levels of government could limit or ban the use of such herbicides or put in place strict liability frameworks to ensure financial protection for those who are harmed by drift. This should cover actual costs, anticipated sales, and reputational losses that affect access to markets in the future.

Policies can also reduce barriers to entry and risk around sourcing labor. While in the long-term we expect harvesting to be automated, manual labor will be needed in the short term to pick specialty produce. Sourcing migrant laborers for specialty crops is time consuming, complicated, and expensive. It will be a barrier to entry for all but the largest farms. Policies could simplify and streamline the process or even provide support with loans and training programs to aggregate labor while ensuring better treatment of laborers with longer-term, more secure positions with benefits.

While lessening risk and existing barriers are important, policies to encourage or even promote innovation and create new demand will also be key. Innovative financing models, especially at a state and local level, could include support and training for banks who leverage long-term contracts, create co-ops, invest in social impact bonds, or fund processing plants and infrastructure in a way that allows equity to vest to workers and farmers. Government could provide first loss guarantees for impact investors that are willing to support the social and economic transition of the region’s economy from commodity crops to specialty crops. Government programs could help first time farmers, women, or minority farmers, or those setting up businesses to process and create new value-add products with local produce.

Enabling policies could also help to spread gains and promote equity. Climate smart ag policies could encourage businesses to measure Scope 3 GHG emissions in the products they sell (the GHG emissions embedded in products that come from primary production). They would be incentivized to work with producers and intermediary processors and/or suppliers to decrease GHG emissions from their supply chain. This would bring new markets and opportunities to the region.

Rural areas, and in particular businesses based in rural areas, are disproportionately dependent on the USPS. The US Post Office could start delivering food by creating standard sized boxes with set postal rates for farmers shipping food to homes, creating new income streams for farmers and giving more people access to fresh food through a “Farmers Post” to complement existing Farmers Markets.

Finally, new markets and equity could also be promoted through higher standards for school lunches. Policies at all levels of government could focus on eliminating food deserts and malnutrition, especially for children. This would be a chance to boost farmer sales, integrate food and nutrition into the local community, and boost the health and awareness of children in Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee. Policies that would allow schools to be drop off and distribution hubs for CSAs could get food to the children who need it most. If SNAP would allow the poor to buy directly from farmers, this would also allow farmers to sell directly to them.

Describe how these 6 Themes connect with and influence one another in your food system.

Our Vision for 2050 uses specialty crops as a springboard to transform life across the Mid-Delta region. Our Vision is like a kaleidoscope. We are building on existing local pieces but turning the instrument one notch so the viewpoint is entirely different.

Systemic change begins when farmers switch from commodity to specialty crops. There is an immediate and direct economic effect as farmers see higher margins and can compete with smaller farms. Yet, farmers will only invest in growing specialty produce – and disadvantaged farmers will only get that option – with technology and policies in place to eliminate barriers and de-risk this shift. Once in place, farming will offer higher incomes and become a more appealing way of life. Technology will remove the need for intense physical labor. In a region built on farming, we have a chance to reinvigorate farming’s historic prominence in a more equitable way.

Growing specialty crops would be just the start. Opportunities for value-added production and processing will also arise, bringing new economic opportunities and reviving cultural heritage and healthier diets. For every specialty crop, more jobs will be created downstream. Entrepreneurial residents can market and/or process and sell new products into new markets. Local and family recipes and food traditions passed down through generations can inform new offerings. Crops native to the region can be introduced widely and heirloom varieties can help preserve local food history. A focus on home recipes, native crops, and crop integration would spur greater interest in eating local, healthy produce.

Nearly every person in the region will have some connection to farming, whether by growing crops, working in the fields, purchasing them as consumers, or working on value added processing, market development, or distribution. Lower barriers to entry will mean previously disadvantaged farmers, such as women and minority farmers, will be able to enter a more viable farming system. Improved livelihoods, awareness, personal connections, and access to local food will encourage healthier diets and an economic boost to the region.

The environment and climate change are the impetus for this entire shift in production. Environmental pressures will be lessened in water-starved California, and different regions in the US can focus on crops that are best suited for local production. Regenerative agricultural practices will reduce input use and improve biodiversity and soil health, while a more distributed food system will reduce food loss and waste. These improvements will not only avoid or reduce overall GHG emissions; local producers will also sequester carbon in forests, riparian areas, and even in nut and fruit orchards.

Our Vision is to revitalize a region and demonstrate that by approaching a problem with strong partners, an integration of financial, environmental, and social goals, and a willingness to think outside the box, everyone can thrive.

Describe any trade-offs you may have to make within your system to attain your Vision by 2050.

While our Vision is highly dependent on interrelated systems, there are also some trade-offs and potential hurdles, especially with the existing farming system. Two significant ones are how to best integrate diversity concerns into our approach and how to balance small and large farms.

We see a great opportunity as we build a new approach to make equity a strong focus. Women and African American farmers remain disenfranchised today. The region has a long and deep history of racial strife which is still present in 2020. Distinct peoples remain largely segregated, but African Americans face far fewer opportunities, shorter lifespans, and greater hardship. There is an opening here to address some of these concerns, but it will not be easy. The current financial, economic, and social systems have been created to support mostly white, male farmers. Most government programs do the same. It is in fact these systems that have historically disenfranchised minorities and not allowed recent immigrants to the region to enter except at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.

We need to consider the trade-off of focusing too strongly on equity and inclusion from the beginning as it could slow or halt progress in shifting production. Attempts to be inclusive could well end up alienating others. Discussions of race, ethnicity, or gender are challenging under the best of circumstances. We will have to rely on our partners to know when, how, and with whom to lead those discussions. This effort will fail if it is not community-driven and we have begun by purely listening. Through this process we have been able to share ideas with local producers and groups to what is possible. Even then, it is possible that goals will need to be prioritized and sequenced shrewdly and tactically, rather than tackled simultaneously.

There will also be a tension between the large farms along the Mississippi River and the smaller ones along the Arkansas River. Large farms are already profitable. They have many of the needed resources to begin experimenting with specialty produce, making them low hanging fruit to moving quickly, but also do not have the same need for an economic boost. Small farms are barely making ends meet with commodity crops and are eager to see the higher profits specialty crops can bring but will need greater support and aggregation to develop large markets. While both groups can prosper by 2050, there will be trade-offs between speed and economic development in the short-term.

3 Years | Describe 3 key milestones that you would need to achieve within the next three years for your Vision to be on track?

In the next three years, we will need to focus on the following:

Explore business models. Over the first 12 months, we will explore key business models. We will explore the options of organizing labor at scale to meet the needs of local producers of different crops as well as the ability to provide full time employment for labor. We will also explore the efficacy of creating a centralized processing plant and cold storage over that of a more distributed system. We will also explore the ability to achieve our mission.

Secure market interest. Before farmers begin growing specialty crops, they will need to know that there is market demand for the crops that they will produce. In preliminary discussions with major food companies, there is already interest due to concerns about secure supply chains. The pandemic has heightened concerns about supply. Climate change is also making companies nervous and more interested in resilient supplies. We will conduct deeper analysis and outreach to secure market demand and begin to create a pipeline of companies that are interested in sourcing specialty produce from the Mid-Delta. We will especially look at how contracts can be used by farmers to help finance their working capital needs.

Run a pilot. While continuing to build support on the ground through ongoing outreach to local community groups, farmers markets, churches and social groups, schools and clubs in the area, the post office, and local specialty food buyers, distributors, and retailers, we will complete more detailed economic modeling and risk analysis over the next 12-18 months, after which we would run a pilot over the subsequent 12-18 months. This proof of concept for the general strategy will be invaluable for the next steps in achieving our vision.

10 Years | What progress will you need to make—by 2030—that would set your Vision up to become a reality by 2050?

Doubled specialty crop sales over 2020. Doubling sales over 10 years will suggest that our Vision is on its way to a reality. After the pilot, production will expand in the pilot region and in other parts of the Mid-Delta by 2030. These early results are essential to achieving the full vision by 2050.

Significant processing and distribution capabilities. Facilities will be converted or created with new investments in infrastructure and cold storage to harvest, preserve, process, store, and distribute specialty crops. Investments in the region position the Mid-Delta to gain through value-added processing as opposed to shipping crops out of the region for freezing, canning, etc. By 2030, no more than 5% of all production will be lost or wasted, 25% will be sold locally, another 25% will be processed with value-added locally, and 50% will be sold outside of the immediate region.

Technological advances. By 2030, investments will be made in technology, such as through AgLaunch’s “Next California” Challenge, to reduce manual agricultural labor as robotics become more available and affordable. While these advances will not be complete by 2030, gains will already have been made in this region, as will be reflected in the employment and earnings data.

New business models functioning. Some combination of joint ventures, employee stock option programs, long-term contracts, social impact bonds, and green bonds will be in place to promote equity. Feedback and results will be available for some, such as long-term contracts, while social impact bonds will be in place but still early in the process.

Policy support. Federal, state, and local government will lower or remove row crop subsidies, expand crop insurance to include specialty crops, invest in R&D, increase demand, and expand financial innovation to target women and minorities and small-scale, value-added production. These changes will not happen overnight, but advances in crop subsidies and insurance will have been made.

If awarded the $200,000 prize what would you do with it?

To develop “The Next California” thus far, we have investigated the potential of the Mid-Delta to grow specialty crops in larger quantities to ease pressure on California and to pro-actively shift agriculture to a more sustainable location that could be more economically beneficial for farmers, women and minorities, and local consumers. This funding would be used to launch the next phase of work toward our 2030 goals that would make our 2050 Vision a reality. We would move from field testing and development of the individual pieces of the pilot to scaling the efforts we need to achieve the Vision by 2050.

To start, we will answer any partner questions about the pilot, including a deeper dive into innovative business models and economic development opportunities. This will include developing a better understanding of labor needs and potential, both through immediate opportunities and long-term possibilities around innovation and technology. We will also address seed varietal questions, sourcing and supply chain concerns, and unintended consequences.

The second prong of work will be to invest in relationships on the ground, including developing markets, promoting local champions, and ultimately bringing our on-the-ground partners together to develop a shared business plan. This plan will be a roadmap to develop specialty produce and boost financial resilience in the region and will serve as a model for other areas across the country and world.

Finally, the pilot will include economic modeling demonstrating some of the opportunities and hurdles and a risk analysis. The pilot will also model the pitfalls and benefits to growers, businesses, communities, and other key partners. With support from the Rockefeller Food System Vision Prize, we will be able to lay the groundwork for growth of the industry, see our partners poised to take steps to scale the work, and make our Vision of “The Next California” in the Mid-Delta region come to life.

If you are chosen as a Top Visionary, The Rockefeller Foundation would like to share your Vision widely with a global audience. What would you like the world to learn from your Vision for 2050?

Every country has its own “California” but few, if any, are anticipating the impacts of climate change and laying groundwork for the “Next California.” Every country and every site will be different, but the basic problem is the same. Our goal is to document our process and lessons learned to be shared widely, creating a pay-to-play platform so every region that contributes to the system will be able to see what others have done, allowing everyone to learn faster. While no two solutions will be identical, our approach can serve as a model for examining new possibilities, who might be partners, and how to shift business models to benefit entire communities.

Yet, not everything works, and best intentions are not enough. There will be hurdles and setbacks, but it is possible to think differently, approach this problem in a new way, and create a system that will benefit all involved. We should all be making new mistakes, not ones we have already made before. Individual learning curves are too costly. Our Vision for addressing the systemic challenges in our food systems is like a kaleidoscope: they always have the same pieces, but if you turn it just a little you can see an entirely different picture. Our goal is to do something that is replicable and generates lessons learned, but also demonstrates that financial profitability, economic development, social gains, and environmental sustainability can build off each other to achieve a virtuous cycle and success for all.

Please share a visual that communicates the structure and operation of your food system in 2050. Describe the visual.

Please see attached video (


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Photo of Itika Gupta

Reading through the Refinement Visions, I came across other Visionary teams from various parts of the United States. Incase you havn't already, connecting you all Jonathan Lundgren Marian Stuiver Matthew Barry Ron Weiss @Jason Clay so you can provide some feedback on one another’s Vision submissions from the context of your region's most pressing challenges in the present and future. Happy connecting!

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This is really helpful – thank you so much.

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