OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

Building the future of the Adirondack Food System: Conserved forests, diversified and earth-friendly farms, and resilient communities.

Adirondacker farmers will be paid fairly & people will have access to food grown in a way that protects land, air, and water for all life.

Photo of Brittany Christenson
2 5

Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 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.

Essex Farm Institute, Adirondack Council, Adirondack Food Justice Working Group.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

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

  • 3-10 years

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

Saranac Lake, NY 12983

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

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

Adirondack Park, New York, the largest protected area in the contiguous USA spanning 24,281 km^2, a patchwork of public and private lands.

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Our team selected the Adirondack Park because it is the food system that we have been working to build for the past 4 years. The protected nature of the region makes it a particularly interesting case study for resilient communities and agriculture in a highly-conserved setting. We also chose this place for its unique geography, long history of agricultural production, and the groundswell of resilient, diversified new farms that have been growing the local food system here over the past 10 years. 

Our personal relationships with The Adirondack Park began when we moved to the area (separately) to start and run land-based farms. We learned first hand the challenges of starting and running viable farming businesses here and were unable to support our families through farming alone. In 2016, we both shifted our focuses from our farms to supporting broader goals for the region in our roles as the Directors of AdkAction and Essex Farm Institute, respectively. We are now striving to help this great experiment in conservation to succeed and provide good food, healthy land, recreation, arts and culture, and fulfilling and equitable job opportunities for future generations, including our own children. 

From an organizational perspective, AdkAction’s mission is to create projects that address unmet needs, promote vibrant communities, and preserve the character of the Adirondacks. Essex Farm Institute, a program of the Adirondack Council, supports, promotes and trains farmers to build resilient, diversified farms that are economically viable, socially responsible and environmentally beneficial. 

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 Adirondack Park has been called the “Great Experiment in Conservation.” The 6-million acre park is the largest protected area in the contiguous United States comprised of almost 3 million acres of state-owned Forest Preserve land and 3 million acres of privately held land. The region is home to 102 towns and villages, 337,000 seasonal and year-round residents, and over 10 million visitors annually. The Adirondacks are largely intact from an ecological perspective with over 2,800 lakes and ponds, 1,200 miles of rivers, and 30,000 miles of brooks and streams. The inclusion of towns and villages within this protected landscape makes it truly special. The privately-owned lands are also protected by constitutional prohibitions and are zoned on a spectrum to help complement conservation through restricted development while also providing for economic opportunities within the Park’s communities. 

Communities of the Adirondack Park are suffering in step with other rural communities across the United States. Decreasing school enrollments, the out-migration of young families, and an aging population all serve as barriers to economic success. Many residents also work several seasonal or part-time jobs to piece together a living. Culturally, outdoor recreation is central to the lives of the residents and visitors of the Adirondacks. The region suffers from a lack of cultural and ethnic diversity, with over 90% of Adirondack residents being white. The Adirondack Diversity Initiative (ADI) was formed in 2015 as a coalition of organizations and individuals developing and promoting strategies to help the Adirondack Park become more welcoming and inclusive for all New Yorkers. 

Common crops in the early 19th Century were potatoes, root vegetables, cabbage, corn, apples, and beans. In the later years of the 19th Century, Adirondack many farmers turned to commodity crops, but over time production costs rose, crop prices declined, and competition for commodity markets from the Midwest increased. Because of these factors, agriculture across the Adirondack region generally declined with the exception of dairy farming.In the past decade, a new generation of farmers has been flocking to the Adirondacks, providing economic and environmental benefits. There has been a shift away from dairy and toward smaller scale, diversified agriculture and more niche-market high-value products in recent years. In 2017, agriculture in the Adirondacks produced roughly 6% of the market value of al New York agricultural goods. 

Our coalition hopes to see the “Great Experiment in Conservation” actually work. That is, to show the world that it is possible for thriving human communities to live within a preserved area that ensures all life forms have clean air, water, soil, and healthy food and at the same time provides economic prosperity and all necessary services to ensure access to education, employment, and health care.  Opposition to this “Great experiment” comes primarily from those who do not recognize or have not felt these benefits and would rather see the area return to a resource extraction economy.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


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.

Challenges facing agriculture in the region are rooted in fixed constraints and surmountable barriers. Surmountable challenges include unliveable farmer wages, state and federal policies that are antithetical to small and medium-scale family farms, underdeveloped food system technologies, and a prevailing food culture based on imported and commodity ingredients. The current economic prospects for farmers are bleak at best and local food affordability and access are major challenges for most Adirondack residents. Without major intervention, challenges to the Adirondack food system in 2050 are likely to be even more pronounced. 

Environment: We can not--and do not want to--change the mountainous terrain that is not suitable for traditional agriculture or the recovering “forever wild” forests that are protected in perpetuity by the New York State constitution. The short growing season is out of our control as well, although the length and quality of the growing season may change due to the global climate crisis. Access to land is also a challenge, as is the remoteness of the region. 

Technological: Tech challenges on family farms in the region are difficult to overcome at this time primarily due to spotty 4G and broadband coverage that restricts access to basic email and accounting programs. A lack of access to food system software has also been a challenge noted by many in the region and it is difficult for our food hubs to aggregate, sell, and deliver regional farm products in an organized fashion. 

Policy: The lack of USDA certified slaughter facilities causes farmers to drive long distances for meat processing. Food safety protocols put small and medium farms at an immense disadvantage without truly increasing food safety. Contracts with conglomerate food businesses often place much of the burden and risk on the farmers and farmers do not have access to legal help or know their rights. Farm subsidies disproportionately aid the largest farms in the country, putting small farmers at a huge economic disadvantage.  

Economics: Average net cash income for Essex County farms (the prominent farming county in the region) was $1,900 in 2017, down 10.5% from 2012 (versus $43,000 nationally).  EFI is aware that the range of farm owner "salaries" in the Champlain Valley was between $5,000 and $12,000 while workers earned closer to $20,000 annually. This is far below the United Way estimate of $64,000 needed for "bare minimum survival" in the Adirondacks. 

Diets & Culture: Many consumers are also economically disadvantaged and suffer from adverse health impacts related to poverty and low food access. Healthy diets are hard to maintain because processed convenience food is a big part of the culture and diversity is lacking. Native culture is largely excluded and wild harvesting is not incorporated into the food system. As of 2017, 19% of children and 9.5% of families are living below the poverty line in the region. These poverty rates contribute to the 19.2% childhood food insecurity rate and 11.2% overall food insecurity rate in the region. The 5% of households with no car and low access to a grocery store at especially high risk. 

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

Our vision will reimagine the Adirondack Food System in transformative ways. 

Policies will change and divert subsidies from the USDA Farm Bill to more small, diverse farms. In addition, the health care system will recognize the integral role that fresh food plays in health outcomes and health insurance providers will invest heavily in food systems that make fresh and healthy food options available to their customers. 

Food and health will be widely recognized as inexorably linked, so much so that doctors prescribe food ingredients to help improve health outcomes as a part of both preventative and curative care. Full-time farmers will have guaranteed minimum salaries subsidized by the health care industry.

Investment in the region's agricultural sector will allow farmers to incorporate emerging technologies that will increase on-farm efficiency and profits. This will help to bolster the triple bottom line (social, ecological and financial) for farmers and their families. 

Local food infrastructure, including value-added processing facilities, food hubs for aggregation and distribution of farm products, and mobile slaughterhouse facilities, will be built out and well-equipped to handle the volume of food produced in the region. 

Software will be created and integrated into the food system to make it simple to find, buy, and eat local food at every lever with the click of a button. Solar-technology and electric vehicles will help power farms and reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Emerging technologies will increase farm efficiency and reduce labor costs, but humans will never be eliminated from farms and the dignity and importance of working with the land will be culturally recognized.  

Indigenous communities will be engaged and compensated for sharing their knowledge about foods that can be sustainably harvested in Adirondack forests. Native mushrooms will be cultivated and will become a staple in the diets of people in the Adirondacks. 

The homogenized food culture that values processed food that always tastes the same no matter when or where it is found will be greatly diminished. In place of this culture, an appreciation for seasonal ingredients and fermentation for food preservation will be cultivated. 

To address food access issues, small scale food retailers will exist in each of the 100 communities in the Adirondacks. In communities that are too small for a traditional grocery store, farm-fresh food will be sold in existing businesses and facilities, like pharmacies and libraries. 

Food safety nets will exist and be structured gradually so that people living in poverty can access high-quality local food even as their income increases. Emergency food dollars will be available. Food benefits will be accepted broadly. 

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.

Farm owners and their workers will earn a fair and livable guaranteed wage and be able to take advantage of benefits such as health, dental, and eye insurance, paid family leave, disability, and retirement. They will work a reasonable number of hours.

Farming will be recognized as dignified work critical to the protection of human communities and native ecosystems. 

Adirondack farmers will produce the majority of what residents and visitors eat. 

State, federal, and municipal governments will support Adirondack farmers over giant commodity farms. 

Farms will serve as the foundation of the rural Adirondack economy, creating high-quality jobs and opportunities for agritourism, value-added products will flourish, and most restaurants and stores will carry local food products.

Educational programs will help farmers create business plans that are viable in the short, medium, and long term and transferable to family or nonfamily for generational continuation.

Indigenous communities connected to the Adirondacks will be the leaders of a movement toward sustainable wild harvesting of nutritious traditional foods and medicines that grow here.

All Adirondackers will have access to locally-grown fresh food options and systems will be in place to ensure future resilience. 

It will be more affordable and convenient for families to buy healthy local whole foods and locally processed value-added products than to buy imported and processed foods. 

Local food and beverages will be a central hub of social life in the Adirondacks, bringing together people from all socioeconomic, ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds. 

A strong web of support services will exist to reduce imported farm inputs and make doing business easy for farmers. 

The infrastructure exists for people to gather, buy products, and collaborate in activated social spaces.

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

It is the year 2050. Elijah is a vegetable farmer that lives in Essex County, NY with his family. Elijah works full time on his farm and grows 220 acres of diversified organic vegetables. The farm's facilities are all solar-powered and its tractors are fully electric. The farm has many greenhouses that are heated so Elijah and his staff can produce fresh vegetables all year long. The greenhouses are also automated to ensure that each plant receives the appropriate amount of water and natural nutrients to optimally grow. The sidewalls of the greenhouses are also automated to optimize air temperature and airflow.

In the field, Elijah employs farm workers from the local community as well as climate refugees. The refugees and local employees receive the same treatment, wages, and benefits. Elijah makes a profit from selling his vegetables, but in lean years his salary is subsidized by the health insurance industry and as a farm owner he receives a guaranteed minimum salary for his hard work. 

Each week, Elijah and his team meet the food hub driver near their solar-powered walk-in cooler and load the truck with vegetables that will be sent to a variety of farmers' markets, restaurants, value-added food businesses, and other retailers. Ten percent of the weekly harvest will be distributed to the region's network of food shelves. 

Elijah's friend Lexi is also a farmer. She raises pork and grows mushrooms a few towns away.  Lexi receives subsidies from the USDA Farm Bill to help with her mushroom business. She sells most of her mushrooms at the Pharmacy in her small town where customers buy mushrooms not only for their nutritional qualities but for their well-understood medicinal benefits as well.  Lexi's pigs are slaughtered on-site in the mobile slaughterhouse facility that visits her farm as needed throughout the year saving Lexi time and money and providing peace of mind that her pigs are able to be humanely slaughtered in an environment that they are accustomed to. 

At the local food hub, Elijah's vegetables and Lexi's pork are processed and turned into value-added products, like pulled pork sandwiches and coleslaw. Prepared meals like these help busy young families that are now flourishing in the area eat well between school, work, and play. 

Elijah has two children and is happy to know that they receive excellent nutrition at school. The public school that his children attend even buys vegetables from the local food hub that is grown right at his farm. Elijah's son Michael talks with his friends at school about their life on the farm and learn about the many ways their peers are also linked to the local food system. Michael was interested to learn from his friend Sarah that her mother volunteers at the local food shelf in exchange for groceries from local farms. 

After school, Michael rides his bike home to the farm and finds his parents participating in an ecology class near the wetlands that are located on the edge of the farm. He learns that the water samples are coming back clean and pure since his family hasn't used pesticides on the farm since his grandfather's generation. The wetlands are full of life and Michael spots a Great Blue Haron fishing in the marsh. He decides to get his fishing pole and try to catch something, too. 

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Website


Join the conversation:

Photo of Aphrodite Oti

Beautiful project! Its provides an interesting guide and inspiration for creating new farm communities in my country. The challenges captured in the project is quite similar and needs urgent redress.

Wish your team success in achieving a sustainable food system.

Photo of Vicent ST

It’s more helpful to think about the changes we need to make in how
we get and produce our food. Do you think your community needs is to grow food in ways that don’t damage the foundations that agriculture ultimately depends on –like healthy soil and available water; we need to process foods in ways that preserve their natural nutrition? Do you think your community needs to build a system that can support agricultural workers at a reasonable standard?