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Regenerating the Rio Grande Valley

The people of the Rio Grande Valley will grow most of their own food, using regenerative methods that are resilient in a changing climate.

Photo of Mike Morris
3 11

Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

National Center for Appropriate Technology

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.

HOPE for Small Farm Sustainability (Small NGO), Terra Preta Farm (Farmer Business Organization), Texas Center for Local Food (Small NGO), and University of Texas Rio Grande Valley Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Advancement (Research Institution). Many other collaborators will be added as we develop our vision.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

https://www.ncat.org/

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

  • 3-10 years

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

San Antonio, Texas

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?

The Rio Grande Valley of Texas

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Some members of our team live in the Rio Grande Valley, and for the past 10 years all of us have been working closely with farmers and other residents: promoting soil-building organic and regenerative farming methods, teaching people how to grow and prepare their own food, and helping them sell it locally. 

We selected this place to develop our vision because we see very clearly its potential to have one of the most self-sufficient, nourishing, and resilient food systems in the entire country. Despite being a marginalized community with many problems, the people of the RGV are wealthy. They just don't know it yet.

In fact, we have seen amazing progress in just the past few years--new organic farms, a farm-to-hospital program, schools and restaurants featuring locally-grown food, farmers markets, low-income residents learning to garden and cook, and a growing awareness of connections between soil, farming, nutrition, and the local economy. We want the world to know about all the positive things that are happening. 

In the process of strengthening this region's food system, we will learn lessons about food production, distribution, and food security that will be essential beyond the RGV by 2050. By that time, many parts of the United States will have a much hotter and more humid climate, resembling the Rio Grande Valley as we see it today.

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.

When people first visit the Rio Grande Valley (RGV), one of the things they notice is that people are warm, friendly, and polite. Family is important, and neighbors look after each other. About 91% of residents are of Hispanic ethnicity. Residents are very aware of their relationship to the border, which influences many aspects of daily life. Many people have friends and family in Mexico, and most people are, to some degree, bilingual. 

Although it is often listed as the poorest place in the entire United States, the RGV is rich in culture and traditions. The region celebrates Mexican cuisine, and is known for having some of the most delicious Mexican and "Tex-Mex" food to be found anywhere in the world--with some of the best being found at inexpensive neighborhood taquerias and food trucks. 

Local people are rightfully proud of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, which opened a new medical school in 2016 and is building programs in the health sciences. With 88% of its students being Hispanic, the university is one of the largest and finest Hispanic-serving institutions in the U.S. 

The climate is subtropical: hot and humid. Temperatures very rarely drop below freezing. The vegetation and wildlife are unique and stunning, with beautiful parks and nature preserves. This is the home of both the World Birding Center and the National Butterfly Center: a global biodiversity hotspot that is home to many rare, threatened, and endangered species found nowhere else in the United States.

Traditionally a rural and agricultural area, the RGV has grown and urbanized rapidly in recent years. It is common to see small patches of farmland surrounded by housing in suburban areas in the major cities: Brownsville, Harlingen, McAllen, and Mission. Urbanization has brought a host of cultural changes and odd juxtapositions. The impression for new visitors can be somewhat chaotic. 

The RGV is the most important fruit and vegetable-producing in Texas, including 26,000 acres of citrus trees. Among its other natural gifts and advantages, the RGV has alluvial soils, a year-round growing season, and receives 20-25 inches of rain per year. Despite urbanization, there are still 1.8 million acres of farmland, mostly owned by family farmers, with major crops being cotton, sorghum, and beef cattle. Most farming operations are small. Just 17% of farming operations have gross sales above $25,000 per year.

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

12600

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

1400000

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

The RGV has the same food-related problems one might find almost anywhere in the United States, but in an extreme form. Popular foods, and especially Americanized versions of traditional Mexican foods, are high in calories and saturated fat. A 2017 Gallup study (State of American Well-Being) ranked the McAllen metro area highest in the nation in the rate of obesity and seventh-highest in diabetes. Other studies have ranked the RGV at or near the highest in fast food restaurants per capita, and at or near the lowest in per capita consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. The US Census classified 52% of census tracts in the RGV as food deserts. 

Poverty is also a problem. The RGV frequently tops of the list of America's poorest cities and counties, and 30% of all residents live below the Federal poverty line. Around 50,000 farm workers in the area subsist on low wages and only work periodically. Most are not legal residents, and some are children under the age of 12. Extreme levels of poverty and food insecurity exist alongside great natural, cultural, and social wealth. 

One of the great produce-growing regions of the United States, the RGV has traditionally served the eastern half of the country extremely well, being a major source of winter fruits and vegetables. Farming remains important, and generates income and profits for larger farms and food-related businesses, but only 22% of all farming operations show a net profit. Because of the stigma connected with farm labor, few parents would dream of encouraging their children to become farmers. 

While no one keeps statistics, the percentage of food grown and consumed locally is minuscule. As a whole, the food system is not serving residents well, creating mainly seasonal and low-wage jobs. People are surrounded by an ocean of fresh fruits and vegetables that they are not eating. 

There are a handful of organic farmers in the RGV, but 99% of agriculture can be described as conventional, with heavy use of petroleum-based fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Croplands are farmed 5-6 months of the year and mostly left bare during the summer months, because it is too hot for crops or workers. Topsoil often blows away in large dust clouds. Cattle are grazed in open pastures that have been degraded by decades of over-grazing. 

The Rio Grande River, source of most irrigation water, is polluted, high in salinity, and has been called one of the most endangered rivers in the world (World Wildlife Fund, 2007). Water scarcity is inevitable in the future, as RGV population doubles to around 3 million by 2050, intensifying competition with upstream irrigators and urban areas. Due to population growth alone, a federal study found that water supplies will fall short of demand by 500,000 acre-feet in 2050. Climate change will make the region hotter, and forecasts for the southwestern United States show droughts becoming longer, more frequent, and more intense. The RGV food system will bear the brunt of all these changes.

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

In our vision, there will be new winners and losers in the year 2050, and the people of the RGV will be among the winners. An industrial food system that enjoyed overwhelming economic and political power in 2020 has turned out to be surprisingly fragile and has largely failed, because of climate change and other forces. Meanwhile, challenges that appeared insurmountable in the RGV in 2020 have turned out to be surprisingly easy to overcome. In fact, many problems solved themselves as soon as economic and political pressures and restrictions were eased.  

A confluence of social and economic forces will drive transformation in the RGV: creating many more livelihoods and good-paying jobs related to the production and distribution of food. Perceptions of the RGV will shift from a deficit-based vision to one focused on assets, opportunities, and a strong sense of place. 

We will continue to provide regionally-appropriate technical assistance: teaching people how to garden and cook and showing farmers and ranchers how to incorporate regenerative methods such as no-till farming, cover crops, organic farming, and adaptive multi-paddock systems for livestock. All of these build soil health, increase climate resilience, and slow and reverse the degradation of farmland.

We will also continue to develop markets for locally produced food. In order for farming to become a good-paying job (and not merely an income supplement), farmers need to get the highest possible prices. Our team has worked intensively on market development over the past decade: writing feasibility studies related to local food distribution, conducting "wholesale readiness" training, and helping develop farm-to-school, farm-to-work, and farm-to-hospital programs.  We see great opportunities for increases income from high-value crops and value-added products, sold into Houston, San Antonio, Austin, and other large Texas cities. All of these local food markets are severely under-developed. 

Challenges related to diet and health are more complex, and change will come more slowly. Shifts in attitude will take place as people are exposed more frequently to fresh, locally-grown foods (including foods they have grown for themselves). As farming and related jobs become viable, accessible, and admirable career paths, people will celebrate the work and skill of local farms. RGV residents will change from passive consumers into active participants who are shaping their own food system and appreciate the importance of healthy eating and self-care. 

Many people and organizations in the RGV share our vision. We need area colleges and universities to be deeply involved. The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is leading the way, and we feel confident that other schools will also want to participate, as the science around regenerative agriculture and soil health has matured and become a respectable area of research and scholarship.

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.

In 2050, over half of all food consumed in the RGV is grown in the RGV, and just 25% of food grown in the RGV leaves Texas. There are still 1.8 million acres of farmland, mostly belonging to family farmers. There are gardens everywhere. Fruit and vegetable acreage has doubled, and (because of climate change) there is a large acreage in tropical fruits.

Hundreds of organic farms grow diverse crops in healthy soils that hold water and are resilient in a hotter climate. Cover crops armor the surface against runoff and provide shade that cools the soil surface. Use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides has fallen by three-quarters. Ranchers use adaptive multi-paddock systems on half of all grazing land. 

The region still has a distinctive cuisine, but now emphasizes locally-grown ingredients and traditional (healthier) Mexican foods. People avoid fast food restaurants and prefer meals made from fresh, readily available, and culturally relevant ingredients. Rates of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related illnesses are in the lowest 25% in the nation.  

In every large Texas city, there is a well-developed market for high-value crops and value-added products from the RGV. These products are prized by consumers, who gladly pay premium prices for them. 

Half of farming operations have sales over $25,000 per year, and 75% show a net profit. With encouragement from their parents, young people eagerly pursue careers in farming. Many schools offer training and degree programs.

There are still 50,000 farm workers, but they join unions without fear of retaliation, have health insurance, and earn wages allowing their families to live above the poverty line. Almost all are legal residents of the US. 

Water in the Rio Grande River is clean and more usable for irrigation without treatment for contamination. Because of improvements in soil health and precision agriculture, far more rainwater is stored in soils, greatly reducing demand on the river.

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

Environment: While there are still great environmental challenges in the year 2050, some of the worst predictions from 2020 have not come to pass, and merely reflected the inability of people in 2020 to imagine a less industrial approach to agriculture and food. In the year 2050, agricultural research and innovation are coming overwhelmingly from biologists and ecologists, not from chemists and engineers. The most dramatic change in the environment is the extent to which dead and depleted soils have come back to life--not just in the RGV but all over the United States. This happened because landowners and the general public realized that soils could be improved quickly (in a matter of years, not decades or centuries), through the use of cover crops, no-till farming, adaptive multi-paddock livestock grazing, and other methods. It became universally known among farmers and ranchers that these methods were more efficient and affordable, in the long run, than relying on synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. The price of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer also increased because national policies put a price on carbon. In 2050, most soil in the RGV is covered in vegetation year-round, shading and cooling the surface. It is rare to see topsoil blowing away in dust clouds. While water pollution and scarcity are still major challenges, nurturing microbial life in the soil has greatly reduced both problems. Agriculture uses far fewer toxic chemicals, and the American Southwest has implemented a massive soil health effort that has increased the capture of rainwater in soils, doubling annual flows in the Rio Grande River.

Economics: We envision increased incomes and better livelihoods for farmers, ranchers, and rural communities, as markets develop for high-value and local products, including crops produced organically and livestock that are grass-fed and raised without the use of antibiotics or hormones. In 2050, the large cities of Texas need fruits, vegetables, and other foods that are hard to get from distant places such as California. Food imports from other countries are likewise only at 25% of their 2020 level, because all these other countries are facing their own climate, water, and food security challenges. Fossil fuels (now rarely used for transportation) are extremely expensive. Every nation and community is looking inward, asking how it can produce its own food. The 50 million people in Texas 2050 are certainly looking to the Rio Grande Valley for food. And the people of the United States have realized that a narrow band of farmland along their southern border is essential for food production, especially in the winter months. 

Diets: We envision diets improving in the RGV through an influx of fresh, locally-grown fruits and vegetables. Meanwhile, advances in scientific understanding have proven conclusively the essential links between healthy soil and human health, causing a wider re-thinking of the industrial food system. Futuristic visions where we feed ourselves without soil--relying on hydroponic systems and genetic engineering--have turned out to be wishful thinking: mostly discredited and abandoned.   

Culture: We envision communities that continue to celebrate their strong Hispanic character, their food traditions, and their relationship to the Mexican border. One aspect of culture that has proven extremely valuable to the RGV in the year 2050 is the sense of community and the willingness of farmers to join together in cooperatives. Looking backwards, historians in 2050 realize that the willingness of RGV farmers to work together informally was a "natural advantage" over other parts of the country, allowing them to share equipment and operating expenses, and (perhaps most crucially) transport their foods affordably to the large cities.

Technology: We envision the future of farming in the RGV to be more "intermediate-tech" than high-tech: focusing on inexpensive low-input methods that build and maintain healthy soils. A host of new agricultural technologies have been introduced, especially tools and methods related to no-till farming, cover crops, and adaptive multi-paddock grazing. There are labor-saving tools for irrigation, weeding, and harvesting that greatly reduce the difficulty and physical dangers for farm workers. There are also innovations in communication and food transportation, allowing coordinated crop planning among farms, route planning, and shared use of refrigerated truck space by small farms. Inexpensive drones and soil moisture dataloggers are widely used to monitor crop, soil, and rangeland conditions. Smart phones and cameras are used to access technical assistance for organic pest and weed control. Contrary to dire predictions that automation would eliminate jobs, there has been no decrease in the number of agricultural workers in the RGV, since small-scale, diversified organic farming is inherently labor-intensive. There has also been a snowballing effect. Once a few of these technical and logistical problems were solved, markets for local and regional food in the large cities began to grow, creating profits and stimulating creative problem-solving to remove other bottlenecks and road blocks. It became less expensive and more reliable to source foods locally than from far-away places. Most large food delivery companies and services eventually went bankrupt and disappeared, as it became easier for everyone to source foods directly from farmer cooperatives. In 2050, much of the pent-up demand for healthy foods by Texas consumers is being satisfied with foods delivered from the RGV.

Policy: The handful of large corporations that controlled the US food supply in the year 2020 did not give up their stranglehold on power easily, but a series of disease outbreaks and other terrible health crises between 2020 and 2030 shook the public's confidence in the industrial food system, causing massive public pressure to protect farmland, improve soil health, and move towards local and regional food markets. These factors, combined with the soaring cost of fossil fuels, caused the reshuffling of a deck that had long been stacked in favor of large conventional farms transporting food long distances. One of the early casualties of this public pressure was the Food Safety Modernization Act: remembered by historians in 2050 as having tragically impeded the ability of small farms to sell highly nutritious foods locally, while allowing serious food safety threats to continue unabated, such as antibiotic resistance and the use of toxic chemicals in food production. The federal crop insurance system was also overhauled in the year 2035. Skyrocketing crop insurance payments (due to climate disruption) caused a public outcry so loud that conservative and liberal political groups finally joined forces to dismantle the perverse agricultural subsidies that overwhelmingly benefitted large corporate farms. With bipartisan support, a new system of USDA rules and incentives emerged, strongly encouraging organic farming--now seen as an approach that is resilient in times of climate disruption and largely manages its own risks without the need for public subsidies. All of these changes, in the end, worked to the advantage of the RGV: a part of the country uniquely positioned to grow fruits and vegetables organically on small farms, year-round, and deliver them to large urban areas.  

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Website
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Team (7)

Sue's profile
Sue Beckwith

Role added on team:

"Founder and Executive Director of the Texas Center for Local Food, Sue's role is to help us develop markets for locally-grown food, including value-added food products."

Steve's profile
Steve Thompson

Role added on team:

"Executive Director of the National Center for Appropriate Technology, Steve's role is to coordinate our work in the Rio Grande Valley with other NCAT projects related to food, farming, energy, and climate change."

Devona's profile
Devona Bell

Role added on team:

"Director of NCAT's Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Communities Program, Devona's role is to focus NCAT's expertise in sustainable agriculture and local food on realizing our vision for the Rio Grande Valley."

Mike's profile
Robert's profile
Robert Maggiani

Role added on team:

"Drawing on a lifetime of experience as an organic vegetable farmer (in both Texas and Mexico), community organizer with La Raza Unida, and marketing expert with the Texas Department of Agriculture, Robert provides technical assistance on organic farming, marketing, and business development."

Alexis's profile
Alexis Racelis

Role added on team:

"An ecologist specializing in pest and weed control in organic farming systems, Dr. Racelis established and leads the agroecology program at UTRGV. His role is to engage students, faculty, farmers, health professionals, and other stakeholders in food system research and problem solving."

Juan's profile
Juan Raygoza

Role added on team:

"Owner/operator of Terra Preta Farm, Juan's role is to advise us on the needs of a small organic farm in the Rio Grande Valley: keeping our vision grounded and realistic about the community, the challenges, and the opportunities for organic and regenerative farming and local food distribution."

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