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Stoddard: Will Raap, Global Vermonter

Business man, farmer, global thinker Will Raap calls himself a “restorationist”, one who restores degraded and eroded lands, from backyard gardens to international watersheds.   It all began in his native California where, as a young man, he was disturbed by the changing landscape.

(Raap)  What I saw was these places that had a legacy, a history, a community of agriculture, strong local economies all being depleted by essentially pressures outside of themselves coming to bear… so they all ultimately became suburban development communities and mall communities…

Spurred on by the oil crisis of the 70’s that rejuvenated an interest in self- sufficiency and organic food, Raap founded Gardener’s Supply Company.

(Raap)  I saw an interest and a need for selling products that weren’t so much back to the land but help people grow food wherever they were, number one. Number two; I saw a real opening for how do you help people think environmentally or ecologically as they grow food and that was sort of the opportunity that we jumped on. Garden anywhere, garden organically.

Rapp eventually located the company in Burlington’s Intervale, a dangerous part of town back then.

(Raap) You know there was a garbage dump there, drug deals happened there, it was absentee corn farmers who didn’t take care of the land, but it was this sort of great river bottom land.

That major restoration project worked.

(Raap) The Intervale developed farms, which had to practice organic methods which then was restorative of the land, which then created demand for that organic food which was a cycle of self-restoration.

Restoring land has continued to be a passion for Raap, who has started enterprises in Central America that have planted thousands of trees, reclaiming watersheds devastated by a beef cattle industry that has since moved on.  As a businessman, he links such restoration projects to a different economic approach.

(Raap) A core question I hope Vermont begins to address is what would our economy look like if well-being of people was the primary criteria of success as opposed to growth of the production of stuff. And Vermont has the capacity to ask that question. Costa Rica has the capacity to ask that question. They are the first country that committed to becoming carbon emission neutral in 2020 is what they’ve committed to… can you change the economic system fast enough so that it begins to self restore? That’s what the Intervale did. So that’s what we’re trying to do in this watershed in Costa Rica as well. Is figure out how the economy becomes the driver of positive, not negative for the environment and for communities in that watershed.

Raap sees places like Vermont and Costa Rica as incubators, where development of innovative solutions to long-term resilience and the complex environmental and energy issues of our time, will continue to emerge.

(Raap) …my perception of Vermont is it’s like this fringe area of America that’s breeding possibilities that are going to be needed when America wakes up and discovers that consumption to the max is not going to work and paving good farmland to the max is not going to work, and consuming energy to the max is not going to work.

Vermont and Costa Rica continue to be fertile ground for Raap to explore alternatives to business as usual.

Fran Stoddard was the co-host of Switchboard.
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