Building the Next Great American Foodshed
Climate change has put the foundations of the US nutritional supply chain in an extremely perilous position. Simply, the weather is changing and our ability to feed ourselves is at risk. Where can we look for our next 100+ years of harvests?
Part 1: The American food system is in near-term peril due to climate change, water instability, and destructive agricultural practices.
- We have two primary agricultural regions: the Midwestern “Corn Belt” and the “Salad Bowl” in California's Central Valley.
- Both the Corn Belt and the Salad Bowl face significantly decreased production over the next 20 years due to ecological collapse.
- We need new eco-agricultural regions, and we need them yesterday.
Part 2: New York farmland is relatively underdeveloped and has the potential to be a national foodshed, but requires a different approach.
- A shrinking dairy industry is leaving vacant farmland in its wake that conventional agriculture systems are not able to put to use.
Part 3: Agroforestry systems are a proven and profitable way to use this land to build a sustainable foundation for the Next Great American Foodshed.
- Agroforestry systems of poly-culture tree and animal crops are a perfect fit for New York farmland.
- In addition to producing food, these systems store carbon, support biodiversity, and mitigate climate disaster.
Climate change has put the foundations of the US nutritional supply chain in an extremely perilous position. Simply, the weather is changing and our ability to feed ourselves is at risk.
Compared to other major climate change contributors like transportation or energy, agriculture is in a unique position. Not only is it a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions, but climate chaos immediately and directly endangers the agricultural system itself. Cars may be able to drive with 2C warming, but corn won't grow if we've lost all our soil down to the bedrock or if it stops raining during the summer.
The Corn Belt
In global measurements taken July of 2014, a NASA satellite reported that photosynthetic activity in the Corn Belt was higher than anywhere else in the world. This was the apex of the Green Revolution dream, and Midwestern farmers tended the largest solar-energy harvest machine the world has ever known – approximately 90-million acres of corn.
The Corn Belt's unprecedented output underpins not only our food system, but also our energy and industrial supply chains. I outlined the defining characteristics of the industrial farming system epitomized by the Corn Belt in my earlier blog, Investing in Regenerative Agriculture: In short, it’s a system focused on increasing the yield of a single crop — usually corn — with intensive input regimes, including massive diesel tractors, high soil disturbance, sterile-seed monocultures, and the heavy application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
This system has a ton of terrible ecological consequences, not the least of which is a vast dead-zone in the once bountiful Gulf of Mexico. But to boil down the problem to a single sentence: The Corn Belt is losing fertile soil at an uncontrolled and accelerating rate.
Corn Belt soil is defined by its amazing quality, and that’s a result of millenia of geological processes. First, glaciers pulverized a vast quantity of bedrock to make very fine and nutritious "loess" soils. Then, after the glaciers receded, tens of thousands of years of the Great Plains presided, with grasses taller than the shoulder of the bison that ranged in vast herds. The bison left fertilizer in their wake and created a huge amount of soil organic carbon and nutrient fertility. This banked soil is the foundation of the amazingly productive system we've built in the Midwest, and we’ve been spending it down by the mountain-full every year.
This soil loss is due to erosion, which occurs most in the spring between snow-melt and planting. When the snow turns into rain, the water starts to move across the landscape and takes a huge amount of soil with it. Erosion is worst when the ground is bare, with no live plants rooting the soil together. Any soil without living roots is vulnerable, and erosion is especially aggravated by cultivation — intentionally turning the soil over with a plow. In 2019, 79% of Corn Belt farms plowed at least once (PNAS study).
Climate change lengthens the time between snowmelt and planting, increasing the erosion season each year:
- Warmer temperatures are bringing the spring thaw earlier, exchanging stagnant snow for fast-moving water sooner in the season.
- Farmers can't plant until after the last frost date, which is getting less and less predictable.
- Farmers can't plant when the fields are too wet, and the Midwest is seeing an increase in spring precipitation. For example, several major corn-producing counties in Illinois could not start their 2019 planting until May 16, a day after the planting is usually finished.
Without soil, you can't really farm outside. The United Nations estimates that we have about 60 harvests left due to topsoil loss, globally. For the Corn Belt, this number is probably between 30 and 40 harvests based on published erosion trends, and the 2021 PNAS study indicates even that is likely an overly-optimistic scenario. But the declining yields associated with soil loss will start hobbling the Corn Belt — and our food system — long before all the soil completely runs out.
The Salad Bowl
The California Central Valley supplies around 30% of the fruits, nuts, and veggies consumed in the American hemisphere, generating $25B of revenue in 2021. Through a combination of long growing seasons, fertile soil, and intensive investment and innovation, California produce is by far the market leader in cost, scale, and availability.
This all hinges on one thing: water.
The salad greens, melons, almonds, etc. that California is famous for all require a lot of water to grow. This has historically been fine, for two main reasons:
First, California is blessed with amazing natural reservoirs that (should) catch and store a ton of water every year. The primary reservoir is the snowpack of the Sierra Nevada mountains. During normal years, snow piles up during the wet season and then slow-releases to farmland down in the valley as it melts through the spring. The second major reservoirs are "fossil water" aquifers, giant underground lakes leftover from previous geological ages where giant glaciers melted. These are an amazing backup when the snowpack is lower than ideal, but they also are hard to refill once drained and they are not a renewable source of water.
Second, starting with the WPA during the Great Depression, the USA has built the most extensive aqueduct and irrigation canal network in history to distribute this natural water abundance through the Central Valley. There are 4,000 miles of canals, 54 major dams, and 5.4m irrigated acres in the vast water management system. There are also more than 600,000 private wells tapping into underground aquifers, with more than 15,000 new wells drilled every year. This infrastructure makes it possible to transport water hundreds of miles very efficiently to irrigate produce during the long growing season in the Central Valley, where it only actually rains 3-4 inches annually.
This is a great system, until the water supply starts to get unpredictable, which is exactly what's happening now. California's agriculture is at increasing risk from both too little water (drought) and too much water (flooding).
Not enough water:
- California has suffered "historic" droughts for 12 out of the last 20 years, with bodies of water like Lake Shasta virtually drying up completely.
- The science indicates that for every 1-degree-Celsius rise in global average temperature, we should expect a 20% increase in the likelihood of a below-average Sierra Nevada snowpack. This is both due to decreasing average precipitation rates, and the fact that much of the remaining precipitation will fall as rain rather than snow, moving directly through to the Pacific rather than sticking around till the growing season to be channeled into irrigation systems.
- With below average snowpack, farmers have to rely more on pumping water from underground wells. The last decade depleted the aquifers at an alarming rate, with water tables dropping an average of 80 feet across the Central Valley.
- In many places, the low amounts of remaining groundwater is too salty for irrigation due to ag-chemical runoff infiltrating the aquifers and concentrating year-over-year.
All of this adds up to a 50-60% decline in water resources available for Central Valley farms over the next two decades. We're already seeing the effects, with farmers switching to crops that are less water intensive, scaling back their yearly production, and abandoning too-dry pieces of farmland all together. With 2C of warming all but assured, that means at least one-half of all California agriculture enterprises will not have sufficient water resources most years. This will create huge shortfalls in produce production, causing shortages of many food items Americans consider kitchen staples today like carrots, salad greens, almonds, and rice (to name a few).
Too much water:
While the overarching trend is towards drought and an over-draw of CA's precious water resources, this trend will be increasingly punctuated by periods of intense flooding.
- The Central Valley is no stranger to mega-storms and floods. The last one was in 1862, and made a body of standing water covering enough dry land to make it comparable in surface area to the Great Lakes. And the geologic record shows megastorms occurred every 100-200 years since the last Ice Age.
- "Extreme atmospheric river events" like the one that caused flooding and land-slides throughout California in 2022 will become more frequent as temperatures rise. The 2022 flooding was nowhere near the likely size of what scientists expect in a "megastorm."
- A 21st-century megastorm would cause flood depths from 10-20 feet across 90% of the Central Valley. It’s "more than likely we will see one before 2060, and possibly two from now until 2100." (ARK Storm Report, UCLA Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Studies, 2018)
- A megastorm would cause an estimated $729B in damages. (For comparison’s sake, Hurricane Katrina caused $129B in damages, and the California state government estimates a massive earthquake would cause ~$200B in damages.)
- Under megastorm conditions, the vast water-management system would break, bursting dams, destroying levies, and generally making the vast network of irrigation infrastructure unusable.
While at first, it may seem like these two problems — drought and flood — might balance each other out, the result is fewer and fewer "normal" years for California agriculture. The State's water resources are increasingly volatile, and that will lead to poor harvests.
Where Can We Build Another Great American Foodshed?
We need to try to mitigate the damage facing our two core foodsheds, but we also need to be looking for opportunities to invest in different agricultural regions. We need to find regions where:
- Agricultural climate will maintain or even improve with climate change
- High, regular precipitation (good water availability)
- Not already over-invested in extractive farming practices
- Close to major markets
The vast state of New York fits all four of these criteria:
- New York will see more frost-free days as climate changes, going from a growing zone range of 7-3 to 9-5 in the next 20 years. This means more chances for great harvests every year with fewer late and early frosts.
- New York is projected to maintain 40-60 inches of precipitation per year, fairly evenly distributed throughout the entire year, even after 2C of warming.
- New York dairy is in freefall, "but it's still king of NY ag;" there is need for a new economic land-use model.
- New York State is close to the ~100-million people in the Northeastern Corridor food market.
New York is an amazing place to build a regenerative agriculture powerhouse to "feed the world" in the face of climate chaos.
Following Behind King Dairy's Demise
The dairy industry in New York is the single largest agricultural revenue producer by far, with a gross revenue over $2.7B in 2020, 3x the next largest agricultural product, meat and poultry at ~$900M. Over the decade from 2007 - 2017, farms in NY increased milk production by 22%, but, as consumers drank less milk, that production increase only increased revenue for farmers by 6%. That’s why, also over the 2007 - 2017 decade, 18.2% of dairy farms shut down (CADE Vision 2050 Report).
Unlike in the Corn Belt and Central Valley where big farm companies compete to buy land for $10-20k (or more) per acre whenever a field goes on the market, much of this land in NY goes for less than $5k/acre, and is often sold out of agricultural production altogether.
There is not currently a profitable, scalable model for using a lot of this land in agriculture. New York is not suited to row-crops and tillage because much of it is too hilly and rocky. Also, the soil is not necessarily prime arable land everywhere. That’s why hay fields have predominated, where dairies harvest hay 2-4x per season to feed to the cows in the milking barns. This keeps a consistent sod cover to prevent too much soil erosion on the hilly fields, but these are the hay fields going on sale now, and the market needs to find a new use for them. The answer is trees.
Trees and hay fields have one major thing in common: they're both perennial crops. Unlike annuals that you have to plant every year to harvest, perennials are plants that persist year to year and — ideally, if well selected and tended — generate a consistent harvest once established.
While annuals offer a great turnaround on investment — only one year from planting until harvest — perennials generate a high-quality long-term return, if you can wait 5-10 years for your first real harvest. The Corn Belt is built on annual crop cycles of finance, plant, spray, harvest, but Central Valley orchards are perennial tree-crop enterprises. Almonds, for example, produce starting 3 or 4 years after being planted, but they don't reach their peak until year 8. The key to a huge and profitable food-production economy is to choose the best crops for the land, and for New York, they have to be perennial. The hilly, rocky, clay soils means that you need consistent plant coverage, and dragging giant plows and planters across the fields multiple times a year is often impractical, making grains much less attractive.
But, New York can't just copy what California has done with perennials. Obviously, citrus and almonds won't grow in the temperate ecosystems of the Northeast. So let's look at what’s already happening, starting with those dairy hay fields.
New York agriculture is already reliant on perennials: the grass hay fields. The problem with the current fields is not really one of ecological but economic sustainability. We know that mowing hay to feed dairy cows is a shrinking economic opportunity going forward. So, what can we add to the hay fields to make them productive nutrient-producing assets?
The next level up is to add animals to the field, rather than bringing the plants to the animals. A lot of great New York grass-fed beef farms have focused directly on that opportunity. Also, pastured poultry, sheep, and pigs all have a place in a diverse grazing strategy that mimics natural ecological nutrient cycling and pest reduction patterns. This model has gotten plenty of farms to a nice "break-even-plus-a-bit" kind of level, but that currently relies on direct-to-consumer marketing. Getting this type of protein on grocery-store shelves to achieve scale and start competing with industrial meat is a whole different ball game.
But what if you stack another layer onto the pasture, like trees? That's called silvopasture, where you graze animals in a forestry (tree) system. For chickens, a forest-floor is the "natural" environment of their wild ancestors, and they are excellent bug-to-fertilizer machines. Many varieties of ruminants can be happy eating foliage and tree-fall. Silviculture is a great system for the animals, but it is also great for the farmer because it produces a staple crop from the trees.
What staple crop? These aren't the citrus and almonds of California, which grow in monoculture orchards — no animals allowed, heavily sprayed, entirely dependent on irrigation. These are crops adapted to local climates and ideal for systems designed around organic, regenerative farming that leans on biodiversity (rather than off-farm chemical inputs) to provide fertility, pest management, and yield. Because they thrive without much help as part of a native ecology, they are great candidates for the new foundational crops for our national food system.
A very quick Northeastern Agroforestry tree foods section:
- Chestnuts: A rich, healthy carbohydrate that you can eat fresh roasted, put into hot soup-like dishes, process into a gluten-free flour, and more. Breeding native chestnuts with Chinese and European chestnuts has produced some blight-resistant, northern hardy, great yielding local cultivars ready for scaled up plantings.
- Hazelnuts: A rich protein & healthy fat source, already well loved in the world, mostly as Nutella, but also as cooking oil. Crossing native filberts with European hazelnuts is starting to show real promise for high yielding and easy-to-harvest varietals, but they have not yet reached commercial scale for planting.
- Apples: There are big opportunities to plant heirloom local cider varieties to feed the growing number of cideries in the region. Cider orchards can be organic because minor aesthetic blemishes are acceptable (unlike waxy grocery store fresh-eating apples).
- Hickories: An amazing nut-and-oil producer, hickory makes up a significant portion of the wild forests from Alabama to the Adirondacks. These are earlier-on in breeding and cultivar development, but they present huge upside opportunity.
- Shrubs and perennial vegetables: There are many lower canopy perennials you can include in these systems, including currants for cider and jam, elderberries for medicinals, mulberries for animal fodder, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries as fresh produce, pollinator habitat as cut flowers, and many more potential under-story enterprises.
By planting one of these perennial cash-crop systems, you can upgrade the productivity of these pastures to be premium agricultural productivity systems on par (or better) with the best orchards of California – but much more resilient to climate change, and producing a much more complete nutrient profile on every acre.
Land Equivalency Ratio
Why does stacking trees on top of pasture make it a more viable enterprise? That can be explained by an ecological concept called Land Equivalency Ratio (LER). The LER is a number that indicates how much gain you get from adding complexity to a land-use system. You look at two planting systems, one a monoculture of two crops, and another of those crops inter-planted on the same land, and analyze their productive efficiency. You'll get a number between 0 and 2:
LER <1 means a less productive land-use than monoculture
LER >1 means more productive land-use than monoculture
LER = 1 means no difference between systems
Below it is used in an example to compare a two land use systems (here measured in hectares):
System A: a monoculture apple orchard and a monoculture grain field
System B: inter-cropped apples and grain.
In this example, System A produced a higher per-acre yield of that crop (5 t/ha of grain, 15 t/ha of apples), but an intercropped system is able to achieve the same output on less land used by each crop. Thus, LER = 1.4, which is >1 indicating a more efficient use of the acreage than the monoculture.
The main reason agroforestry systems that stack trees on top of pasture (or other crops) tend to score LER >1 is solar energy capture efficiency. This is all about increasing energy capture per acre by maximizing photosynthetic surface area. Having plants of multiple heights, rather than one flat surface, increases the overall photosynthetic surface area per acre, thus increasing the amount of solar energy harnessed per acre. Thats why more complex polycultures are usually more efficient solar harvest systems than monocultures.
Stacking Ecological Functions
Another efficiency advantage of complex sylvopasture / agroforestry systems is stacking ecological functions. This is about making farm ecologies that are self-sufficient and do not rely on expensive off-farm chemical inputs. For example:
- Native insect habitat increases fruit and nut harvests through pollination and predation and parasitism of pests.
- Intercropping of different cash-crop species adds genetic diversity to the landscape and dilutes the risk of transmissible disease.
- Native plant species have evolved to associate below-ground in an inter-species mycological economy of energy and chemical signals.
All these ecological benefits (and more) make farms more resilient to climate disruption, but replacing off-farm inputs with on-farm ecosystem services also makes farms more profitable.
The Future of New York Food Production is Agroforestry
Agroforestry systems with staple perennial crops and grazed animal protein is the most efficient use of the fields comprising much of New York farmland. The opportunity is ripe to build a new American agricultural powerhouse in the face of climate change, based on the best agrarian and ecological knowledge we have.
Building the Next Great American Foodshed
A whole foodshed meant to feed a nation can't be just one company, it's going to need an ecosystem of enterprises.
- Farmers that plant, tend, and harvest agroforestry systems
- A skilled and knowledgeable workforce
- Expert consultants and service-providers that plan and execute plantings
- Nurseries that sell young trees for planting agroforestry systems
- Processing and logistics cooperatives and aggregators
- Brands to market the nuts, fruits, and proteins
- Fund(s) that finance the transition to agroforestry
- New software, hardware, and science to realize the full potential of the above
An ecosystem of different enterprises also requires all different types of people coming together to work towards the same goal. Please reach out to me will @ rollingregenerative.org if you are already working in this area, or want to do more!
Standing on the shoulders of giants...
While we still have a ton of work ahead of us, but there are so many people who have already contributed critical ideas and work to this mission. My job here has really just been curating and re-packaging so much of what is already happening into a digestible blog. If you're interested in diving into this stuff even deeper, here are some of the key movers & thinkers you should know about.
I first heard the idea of a New American Foodshed in this TEDx by the Center for Agricultural Development and Entrepreneurship (CADE) Phoebe Schreiner. Highly recommend watching this and checking out CADE!
There are lots of sources about American farming's sustainability problem, but Tom Philpott's Perilous Bounty is the most comprehensive and engaging I have found. To quote from the introduction:
Perilous Bounty offers a big-picture view of what corporate-dominated industrial agriculture is doing to our land and water resources and what it means for our food supply as we plunge into an era of climate chaos.
Mastodon Valley Farm School
The first time I was introduced to this type of silvopasture / agroforestry polyculture system was taking the Regenerative Farm Design Course offered by Peter Allen (Mastodon Valley Farms) and Lindsay Rebhan (ecologicaldesign.land). Its a comprehensive course taught by two amazing life-long regen ag experts.
Trees of Power
Akiva Silver of Twisted Tree Farms is a huge inspiration and innovator of New York tree crop systems. I higly recommend his book for understanding what amazing "technologies" we have to partner with in trees.
A quickly growing chestnut-focused farm that epitomizes the type of enterprise I hope will hold up the foundations of our next 100+ years of harvests. My personal gratitude goes especially to Noah for always responding to my texts with crazy ideas, and always pushing me to think more deeply about what we're doing.
Yellowbud is a leader in growing young trees ready for planting out into 100+ year agroforestry systems (they're an awesome tree nursery). Special thanks to Jesse Marksohn for re-introducing me to the Land Equivalency Ratio concept recently.
Long Future Farms
Huge credit and gratitude to Keven Maher of Long Future Farms (and other endeavors) for really fleshing out the investment opportunity to build the Next Great American Foodshed, and being one of the first finance-types to really commit their lives to making this whole thing happen.
New York Tree Crop Alliance (NYTCA)
NYTCA has been saying "the future is nuts!" for a long time now. Their members like Brian Caldwell and Jeff Zarnowski (and others) have been working to improve tree crop genetics and support the farmers growing them for decades. Of all the shoulders we are all standing on, NYTCA is bearing as much of the weight as any.
Catskills Agrarian Alliance
The folks at the CAA have been working on developing farm enterprises in the depressed ag country of the Western Catskills / Mohawk Valley for years. Huge appreciation and gratitude is owed to Tianna Kennedy for giving everything to the project for so many years and keeping it alive despite lacking financial resources.
Also owe a huge debt of gratitude to the team at the Savanna Institute for putting together their awesome Chestnut Impact Investment Report. I've printed out 10 physical copies to send to people! Though they are focused in the Mid-West, their information is super valuable.