Neighbors: A Small Town’s Best Investment

If Hardwick, Vermont, can build its economy through food entrepreneurship, can any rural place do so? Two new books say yes, and explain the how of it.

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Book review

The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food
By Ben Hewitt
234 pp., Rodale, Inc., 2009, $24.99

The Call of the Land: An Agrarian Primer for the 21st Century
By Steven McFadden
119 pp., Norlights Press, 2009, $12.95

Nearly two years ago, with major banks and corporations queuing up for rescue during a financial near-panic, Vermont’s Tom Stearns was enjoying a 70 percent annual sales increase at his organic seeds company. 

While a lot of us were shaking in our boots, and still are, Stearns crowed to author Ben Hewitt, “I hope that as this house of frickin’ cards comes crashing down and all these people have lost their shirts investing in distant corporations, they’ll realize that investing in their neighbors is the only way we’ll survive with any shred of dignity.”

Stearns is the most outspoken–bordering on giddy–of the handful of “agri-preneurs” profiled in The Town That Food Saved, Hewitt’s book about the local foods boom in and around the small town of Hardwick, Vermont.  But the others Hewitt features attest to levels of confidence nearly on par with Stearns’s — that they’re onto something promising.

With the book’s title, author Hewitt suggests he agrees. To his credit, journalist and subsistence farmer Hewitt, who lives just down the road from Hardwick, does a book’s worth of scrutinizing before reaching his conclusion. He spends time with Stearns, whose High Mowing Organics seed company is comfortably low-tech even in the midst of double-digit growth and overwhelming demand. He walks Stearns’s plots and attends his workshops, interviews his employees about their working conditions and pay, and explores Stearns’s background to learn what makes for a seed magnate (turns out it was a childhood fascination with seeds and farming more than a drive to succeed at business).


The other principals in this tale get the same treatment from Hewitt, and what emerges is a fairly detailed portrait of a group of young entrepreneurs cooperatively figuring out a system that supports them and provides jobs as well as affordable, high-quality foods to the town and surrounding area.

And it seems that, if it can be done in Hardwick, it can be done nearly everywhere else,  because, as Stearns quips about his own operation, “No one else grows seed in Vermont, and there’s a damn good reason. It snows eight months a year! I mean, how crazy do you have to be?”  

Maybe you don’t have to be crazy.  Maybe you just have to be hungry.

Which is just what many of us will be if this country’s prevailing corporate and highly fossil-fuel-dependent food system breaks down: something entirely thinkable at the time Hewitt was doing his research — and today. “I truly felt, and still do…” he writes, “that the questions I was grappling with will soon become part of our national conversation on a scale and with an urgency we can hardly imagine.”

His book sprang from a story assignment for Gourmet magazine (October 2008). And his wasn’t the only the only piece back then about the Hardwick phenomenon.  The New York Times was intrigued by Hardwick’s newfound economic promise, too, and it has continued chronicling places boosting both their culinary and economic prospects by embracing local foods.

Hewitt’s curiosity ran deeper than a single magazine assignment could satisfy. He wondered if the action in Hardwick was limited to foodies, with a few enterprising small farmers and specialty-food purveyors establishing nice little enterprises for themselves by marketing products at premium prices to a socioeconomic elite  Nothing’s wrong with that, but there’s not a lot of widespread opportunity in it for a town’s or a region’s economy.

Hewitt set himself the task of tracking Hardwick’s hardscrabble past, meanwhile collecting the life stories of people who, he became convinced, will make the town a model — however improbable, given its seven-month winter — of a successful localized food production system.

Most of Hewitt’s subjects come across as elated to be discovering there’s a market for their talents and interests.  Tom Gilbert, owner of a composting operation, for example, tells Hewitt he made compost all over campus at college, against the wishes of the administration, just because he’s fascinated by it. He feels like a man meeting his moment now that more Americans are getting into home gardening and buying compost for those gardens.  He’s energized.

The others share that energy. They’re also sharing workspace, market information, grant money, and employees, turning Hardwick into a hub of sustained small-scale food production. 

And not a moment too soon, Hewitt seems to think, pointing throughout the book to the failures
and vulnerabilities of the dominant food system.  It’s top heavy and too dependent on expensive, dwindling fossil fuels as well as tightening credit, Hewitt contends. He argues that somebody needs to devise a successful alternative pretty quickly if all of us are to continue eating.

How fortunate for Hewitt and his readers that a passel of interesting somebodies seem to be doing just that, right down the road from where he lives.

Now, if you’re inspired or alarmed enough after reading The Town That Food Saved to try saving your own community by becoming an advocate for, or participant in, a local food system, you might turn to another book just out: The Call of the Land: An Agrarian Primer for the 21st Century.


It bills itself as “A sourcebook exploring positive pathways for food security, economic stability, environmental repair, and cultural renewal.” That’s a lot to cram into only 120 pages, but author Steven McFadden manages it.   

He offers loads of information about how to get involved, descriptions of most of the relevant organizations already working on these issues, a pretty good guide to resources offered on the web (with an acknowledgement that information offered there is always changing), and he delivers a strong argument that the work he’s advocating is as necessary as it is satisfying.

That said, McFadden has also included a series of testimonials by individuals who were given, it seems to me, too much space to explain how they came to hear the “call of the land.” Their
testimonies make a short volume start to seem pretty ponderous, especially since the book opens with their accounts. Some veer uncomfortably enough into the metaphysical to provide ammunition for the more cynical among us (book reviewers are often found in this group) — those who might dismiss 21st Century agrarianism as just a lot of warmed-over hippie flapdoodle from the 1960s.

Author Steven McFadden

One source, described as a “seed planter with the scope of a visionary and the skill set of a community developer,” recounts his cultivation of two Indian Blue corn crops in a single season.  On the advice of a Hopi elder, he serenaded one of these crops each day.  The other went songless.  (He said that crop had to be placed “out of earshot” of the other. Pun intended?)

Well, you know which one prospered. The crooned-to stand purportedly matured a week ahead of the unsung corn crop; it produced more ears per stalk “and the ears had transformed from the more typical dull blue to a rich, vibrant purple color.”

That’s a sweet anecdote, but without documentation or objective evidence, it’s  likely to mean something only to those already disposed to believing better crops can come down to how and what you sing to them.

McFadden’s done some admirable work assembling resources, but this is not a book that can withstand challenges from skeptics. In short, he’s singing to the corn and to the choir.

If you’re in that number, you’re already sure modern agriculture needs to be supplanted by a rejuvenated small farm and small town economy, and the details are less important than the spiritual imperative.  But if you wonder if and exactly how, that transition might happen without major disruptions, you’ll want to read Hewitt’s book.

 

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