Hardwick, Vermont was down on its luck. Once known as the “Building Granite Center of the World,” the hamlet of 3,000 people in Northern Vermont had been battered by the decline of the quarry industry. Per capita income in the area is less than $15,000. In 2005, a fire devastated one of the finest buildings on Main Street, the historic Bemis Block, leaving a burned-out shell.
Then a kind of renaissance occurred. In recent years, Hardwick has become the epicenter of a thriving regional food economy. Today the area is home to Vermont Soy Company, maker of organic tofu and soymilk, and the Vermont Milk Company, which churns out yogurt, ice cream, and cheese. High Mowing Organic Seeds, a well-respected national seed company, is based there, as is the award-winning North Hardwick Dairy. The Center for an Agricultural Economy, a local nonprofit, is planning to develop a 15-acre “Eco-Industrial Park” near the center of town. The new town diner, Claire’s Restaurant and Bar, serves local and organic fair in the space where the charred building used to be.
How exactly this hardscrabble town revitalized its economy through agricultural commerce is the subject of Ben Hewitt’s The Town That Food Saved. Hewitt is a professional writer and self-described “wannabe farmer.” He brings to the story a mix of insider’s enthusiasm and outsider’s curiosity as he investigates the media hype buzzing around Hardwick’s new “agripenuers” as well as the less publicized community of family farms.
The book is at once personal memoir, reflective essay, and journalistic investigation. It is also, as you’d expect from a book about food and agriculture, down to earth. Hewitt avoids abstraction and rhetoric, and through keen storytelling about his neighborhood reveals what a sustainable economy can look like. He’ll pan out for historical and economic analysis, zoom in to describe in excruciating detail milking a cow, and then pepper the paragraphs with town gossip. The multiple perspectives allow him to comment on the values exchanged from all sides of the system.
Exhibit A might be Hardwick’s Buffalo Mountain Food Co-op, where Hewitt has been a member for years. He volunteers at the Co-op to receive discounted prices on its local food offerings. Yet Hewitt confesses that even he got swept up in the feverish excitement about environmentally conscious food sprouting up and thriving in the middle of an economic crisis. Buzzwords such as “organic,” “local,” and “sustainable” don’t mean anything unless the public can afford them. Many of Hardwick’s food businesses still rely on import, export, and the industrial production model. But the town is on its way to achieving sustainable food justice because every resident can participate in some way in the localized food economy – whether through volunteering at the Food Co-op for discounted groceries, gardening, or working at one of the agricultural businesses in the region.
The Town that Food Saved is the perfect remedy to claims that environmentally conscious food production isn’t commercially feasible. Hewitt says a healthy food system must, before anything else, be based on solar resources – i.e., free sunshine. In practicality, that means rearing cows on grass and locally grown hay and maintaining soil fertility through composting and animal manures. In a healthy food system, a network of small, skilled farmers would need to feed locals and employ them, creating a virtuous economic feedback loop.
Hewitt acknowledges that it will be difficult to integrate a just, sustainable food system with the global economic structure without sacrificing the food producers’ original intention. Even after examining the entrepreneurial innovations of the companies in Hardwick, Hewitt hasn’t found a scale that could match local food systems to the global economy. Are people going to give up coffee? Probably not.
By the end of the book, Hewitt has concluded that farming is hard, complex work deserving of societal acknowledgement and a livable income. He also emphasizes the importance of long-term thinking when it comes to societal and environmental change. It took several generations for people to become detached from their food and the soil that grows it. Similarly, creating an attachment to our food sources won’t happen overnight. But as Hardwick has shown, it can be done, step by step – and the rewards will be worth it.
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