Building Healthy Farms and Healthy Communities: An Interview with John Steven Bianucci

From foodtank.com, by Caitlin Troutt
Building Healthy Farms and Healthy Communities: An Interview with John Steven Bianucci

One of the greatest challenges for young farmers and for farms transitioning to organic is finding the capital to make sustainable agriculture a reality. Iroquois Valley Farms (IVF) is an investment company addressing that challenge through long-term investment in family farms and young farmers. Food Tank recently discussed the work of IVF with Director of Impact John Steven Bianucci.

Food Tank (FT): What is the vision of Iroquois Valley Farms?

John Steven Bianucci (JSB): Simply, we’re a business that was built to support the business of farmers who want to grow healthy food and steward healthy soils for a biodiverse ecological system, so we’re antithetical to the industrial agriculture that is so harmful to the earth and to us as human beings.

The co-founders of IVF grew up in farm towns in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, and they saw an industrial agriculture system that created a monoculture of large farms. There wasn’t support for small family farmers. If they didn’t get big and work with the industrial agriculture system, they had to get out. Supporting the family farmer to stay on the land is critical, and supporting a strong family farmer and strong family farm businesses supports rural redevelopment and strong rural communities.

We don’t treat the land like it’s a trade to buy and sell. We support the multi-generational time frame of farming. Farm families want to farm the land their whole lives, and they want to pass it on to their families. One of the things we’ve had to do is transition investor capital. It’s important that investors get away from short-term thinking and invest for the long-term. Our favorite holding period is forever. We are happy to hold on to the farmland or sell it to the farmer after seven years. It takes seven years before an investor can redeem their stock.

Our business model is not to go out and look for the best farm land, purchase the land, and then look for a farmer. Rather, the farmers bring us land opportunities that they want to farm, and our relationship starts there—with the farmer. When people ask me what IVF is, in a nutshell, I say that we grow organic farms.

FT: What is the Young Farmers Land Access Program?

JSB: We take a majority of our investor income, and we place it with millennial farmers to provide them land access. Overall, 66 percent of our farmers are millennial farmers. Since 2012, 80 percent of the new farms that we’ve purchased for farmers have been for millennial farmers. That’s the program—targeting young farmers and providing them land access.

FT: Why is empowering young farmers so important for agriculture in this country?

JSB: Because farming is the backbone of a country and an economy. Because farming is a critical role for all of us on earth today. It’s always been a sacred trust and a sacred role in the community, but it has been skewed since WWII. It actually started before that with industrial development in the late 19th century. We’ve seen what happens to agriculture when community and environmental concerns aren’t considered alongside financial concerns. IVF has been a Certified B Corporation since 2012. B Lab selected us as a Best for Farming Communities in 2014.

Empowering young farmers is so important for agriculture. Compared with applying the industrial system to farming, farmers today have much more opportunity to be good stewards of the land, conserving and enhancing biodiversity. It’s important to empower young farmers because it’s such a critical role, and there’s so much good that farmers can do. Young farmers are becoming leaders in their communities, facilitating connection to the land.

There are new and awesome opportunities for farmers today to explore the practice of farming coupled with a much greater degree of ecological stewardship. New challenges and opportunities exist today within agriculture. Young farmers today understand and embrace all of these.

FT: How does Iroquois Valley Farms create positive impact through the triple bottom line—social responsibility, environmental soundness, and economic viability?

JSB: Economic viability is a key part of a sustainable, strong agriculture, where there are roles for everyone—farmers, millers, bakers. That connection has been broken, and it’s being rebuilt now. Environmentally, we are transitioning and maintaining all the land we purchase to United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Certified Organic. Socially, we are supporting family farmers to stay on the land, supporting farm families and strengthening rural farm communities. As an agricultural-based B Corporation, we have a very humbling and potent role to maximize the triple bottom line impact and create a ripple effect in the larger community.

FT: What can Food Tank readers do to support a healthy and sustainable agricultural economy?

JSB: Sound the alarm! Proactively seek out, support, and invest in healthy food production in your community. Divest from food production that is part of unhealthy, industrial agriculture. It is profoundly important to support healthy food that nurtures communities and the biodiversity of the earth.

Our company is one of many great ways to do this. For example, if one invests in IVF, one buys into a diversified, decentralized portfolio of organic, family-farmer agricultural production; diversified by regions, crops, and farmers.

All of the social issues that are important for human freedom and human health—they’re all at the table. Food is such a magnetizing force for social change. It brings people together, and everybody agrees on and knows what good food is; that it comes from good, healthy living and good, healthy practices throughout the system. We should all practice an awareness of our relationship to the earth and to each other.

Become spherical in your activism, linking food rights to a healthy and just economy, to a healthy and just governance. The power of the people is stronger than the people in power if we the people don’t leave it as only potential power. Become strident about protecting your family’s health and human rights. Tell elected representatives you’ll fire them if they take away or prevent your right to know what is in your food and to have healthy food available. If we don’t have those rights, we’ve lost our connection to the land, which is at the core of meaningful freedom.