12:01am

Fri July 15, 2011
Food

Vermont Town's Food Focus Still A Growing Concept

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 11:41 am

The town of Hardwick, Vt., has been celebrated as the scene of a local food revival. In recent years, lots of small farms have started up nearby.

Tom Stearns, president of a local organic seed company called High Mowing Seeds, says there are more organic farms per capita within 10 miles of Hardwick than anywhere else in the world. There's also a thriving local grocery co-op; a busy farmer's market; even a classy restaurant — Claire's — where almost anything you eat grew or grazed on land nearby.

But it was Ben Hewitt, as much as anyone, who really put Hardwick and its local food scene on the map. He's a writer and a back-to-the-land activist himself. He lives on 40 acres near Cabot, down the road from Hardwick, with his wife, their two home-schooled children, and an assortment of pigs, cows and a very friendly dog named Daisy.

Hewitt saw what was happening in Hardwick, and it struck him as unusual, even odd. "Here's this town: Unemployment rate 40 percent higher than the Vermont state average; median income 25 percent lower; and then there was this thing happening around so-called sustainable ag and local food!" Hewitt says. So Hewitt wrote a book about Hardwick: The Town That Food Saved.

Students Weigh In

But did food really save Hardwick? At the local high school, Hazen Union, some students in senior-level English classes have been reading and discussing Hewitt's book as a class assignment. They don't think it tells the whole story.

"He only covers one side of the town," says Derek Demers. "There's the side of the town that's for the local food movement, but I think there's an even greater side of the town, with more people, that can't afford the local food. I work at our local supermarket grocery store, and I see most of the people in town there."

That supermarket food is shipped in from far away, but it's mostly cheaper than the local squash and greens and tomatoes on sale at the town co-op.

Another student, Ricky Wetherell, says that's why most people end up buying their food in big chain supermarkets, whether it's Hardwick or anywhere. "I feel like the whole world is sort of moving more in the direction of even more not local," he says.

Derek Demers jumps back in: "But at the same time, awareness is going up so much lately, especially around our area. It's like, there's two sides to this food thing, and both seem to be growing."

The students point out that some of their town's successful local farms are selling high-priced cheese and organic tofu in places like Boston and New York. It's not really for the locals.

"It's not that people don't want to eat healthfully, because we do see the benefits of eating locally and healthfully," says Morgan Worden, another senior. "But we simply don't have the money to do so. And that's the sad thing."

Yet this is not the end of the story. Because the situation in Hardwick is still evolving, and some people are working to make the town's local food everybody's food.

Bigger And More Efficient Organic Farming

Take Pete Johnson. He owns one of the biggest organic farms in the area — Pete's Greens.

"You know, some of this food has been kind of fancy and on the fringes and perhaps a bit overpriced because the efficiencies of production are low," he says. "Our farm is small, and it's really diversified, which means we're not particularly efficient at raising anything."

So Johnson is trying to get a little bit bigger and more efficient. Essentially, he's moving a little bit in the "industrial" direction.

He rolls up a big door at one end of the greenhouse we're standing in, and a giant construction site comes into view.

"We had a barn fire here this winter," he says, without a hint in his voice of the drama of that night, when flames consumed most of the stored produce that he planned to sell through the winter.

"Now we're rebuilding our facility, and we're doing things like building a very large freezer." The freezer will store broccoli, berries and other produce to sell at markets across Vermont through the winter.

Johnson is also buying equipment that will cut and wash vegetables, puree squash — anything to make it more convenient for busy people to eat his food.

"That's really a key part of reaching a bigger group," he says. "What's the point of doing this if we're only reaching the 7 percent who are already converted?"

Johnson wants people to rely on local food and local farmers for all kinds of reasons. "For me, one of the biggest ones is the cultural aspect. These hills used to be populated by small farms," Johnson says. "Just cluttered with small farms everywhere! And now, even with this resurgence that we have going on, we don't have the culture that we used to have."

It was a culture where everybody knew a farmer, and knew what it took to grow food. But Johnson says he's starting to see signs of it coming back. "When I graduated from college in 1997 and I told my friends I was going to be a vegetable farmer, there was no response," he says. "They didn't know where to go with that. And now, when I tell people what I do, everybody has some story to connect to it and is excited about it. And young folks, more and more of them want to stay here. They see being part of one of these businesses, or starting their own, as an exciting future."

Even managers at the two local supermarkets are now trying to put a few more local vegetables on their shelves. Lynn DeLaricheliere, at the Grand Union supermarket, says her corporate supervisors took some convincing, "but they're understanding now. Once they actually come to this town and realize how important it is — it's going to happen."

Food With A Sense Of Community

DeLaricheliere, who grew up in Hardwick, has no concerns about the ability of local farmers to deliver what the store needs, she says. "I want local; the more the better!"

And what got her interested in supporting local farmers? "The people!" she says. "It's the first question they ask: 'Where is the corn from? Where's the lettuce from? Where are the cucumbers from? Are they local?' This is a town — it's different! It's special!"

That's actually what you hear from a lot of people in Hardwick.

"The community here is so tight; like, everybody knows everybody!" says Zach Hartling, one of the students at Hazen Union High School. Hartling moved here from Connecticut and still has an outsider's perspective on the town. That sense of community, where the food's coming from, really knowing where it comes from, knowing the people who harvested it, "that just has a huge impact on the way things work," Hartling says.

The longer these high school students talked, the more they seemed to come around to the idea that for all their skepticism about food "saving" Hardwick, they and a lot of their fellow Hardwickians really do participate in local food, one way or another.

"The farmer's market moved this year to the Atkins Field, and it's getting bigger, it's expanding a lot," says Hartling.

"Connie's Kitchen just moved to a bigger location right in town," adds Derek Demers.

"And Connie's Kitchen isn't organic, but it's local," says Finn Kane, a junior who likes to cook and dreams of opening his own restaurant in Hardwick. "It's local and it shows the growth of this town. I think the history of this town has always been hard times."

"And we persevere," interjects Meg Urie. She lives on a farm. Her mother is growing all the potatoes for meals at Lakewood Elementary School this year. "I feel like it's kind of just one of those places in the world where, you have hard times, you have a neighbor, and you help each other out. It's give and take."

"I don't think that food has saved Hardwick; I don't think Hardwick has found the answer. But I think that Hardwick is on the right path, more than most places," says Demers, the senior who works at the Grand Union supermarket. "I think we're headed in the right direction; we have a great start."

Maybe the same thing can't happen in bigger towns, or major cities. Maybe Hardwick is different. But in this small town, at least, food is moving from the fringes of local life back toward its heart.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A town in northern Vermont is celebrated as the scene of a local food revival. Small farms are multiplying around this town, which is called Hardwick. The hard part, though, is making that local food cheap or convenient enough for local people to eat it. They're working on that. And Dan Charles has our report.

DAN CHARLES: Ben Hewitt, as much as anyone, made Hardwick famous. He's a writer. He lives down the road from Hardwick, and what he saw happening there struck him as unusual, even odd.

Mr. BEN HEWITT (Writer): Here's this town, you know, unemployment rate 40 percent higher than the Vermont state average; median income 25 percent lower; and then there was this thing happening around, you know, so-called sustainable agriculture and local food.

CHARLES: This thing was lots of small farms starting up. One local farmer claims the area around town has more organic farms per capita than anywhere else in the world. Also, a thriving local grocery co-op; a busy farmer's market; even a classy restaurant where almost anything you eat grew or grazed on land nearby.

So Hewitt wrote a book about Hardwick, "The Town that Food Saved."

(Soundbite of chatter)

CHARLES: At the local high school, Hazen Union, some students in senior-level English classes have been reading and discussing that book as a class assignment. And they don't like it very much. They don't think Hewett told the whole story. Derek Demers, for instance.

Mr. DEREK DEMERS: He only covers one side of the town. There's the side of the town that is for this local food movement. But there's, I think, even a greater side of the town, with more people, that can't afford the local food movement. I work at our local supermarket grocery store, and I see most of the people in the town there.

CHARLES: That supermarket food is shipped in from far away, but it's mostly cheaper than the local squash and greens and tomatoes on sale at the town co-op.

Ricky Wetherell says that's why people go to big chain supermarkets in Hardwick -and everywhere.

Mr. RICKY WETHERELL: I feel like the whole world is sort of moving towards even more, you know, not local.

Mr. DEMERS: But at the same time, awareness, awareness is going up so much lately, especially around our area. So there's like, there's two sides to this food thing, and both of which seem to be growing, so...

Mr. WETHERELL: Yeah. I totally agree with that.

CHARLES: The students point out that some of their town's successful local farms are selling high-priced cheese and organic tofu in places like Boston and New York. It's not really for the locals. Senior Morgan Worden...

Ms. MORGAN WORDEN (Student): And it's not that people don't want to eat healthy, because they certainly see the benefits of eating locally and healthfully. But we just simply don't have the money to do so. And that's the sad thing.

CHARLES: But this is not the end of the story because some people in Hardwick are trying to change that, and make the town's local food everybody's food.

Pete Johnson, for instance. He owns one of the biggest organic farms in the area, Pete's Greens. From the roadside above his farm, you see seven greenhouses lined up side-by-side. Beyond them lie 50 acres of fields with crops just emerging from brown soil.

Mr. PETE JOHNSON (Organic Farmer): You know, some of this food has been kind of fancy and on the fringes, and perhaps a bit overpriced because the efficiencies of production are low. I mean, a lot of these farms - our farm is small, and it's really diversified, which means that we're not particularly efficient at raising anything.

CHARLES: So Johnson is moving his farm a little bit in the industrial direction - trying to get bigger and more efficient.

Mr. JOHNSON: You want to see our new infrastructure, briefly?

CHARLES: Love to see it.

(Soundbite of door)

CHARLES: He rolls up a door at one end of the greenhouse and suddenly, we're looking at a giant construction site.

(Soundbite of banging)

Mr. JOHNSON: We had a barn fire here this winter, and so now we're rebuilding our facility, and we're doing things like building a very large freezer.

CHARLES: That's to store his broccoli or berries to sell at markets all winter. He's buying equipment that will cut and wash vegetables, puree squash - anything to make it more convenient for busy people.

Mr. JOHNSON: That's really a key part of reaching a bigger group. And then what's the point of doing this if we're only reaching the 7percent who are already converted, you know?

CHARLES: Johnson says he wants people to rely on local food and local farmers for all kinds of reasons.

Mr. JOHNSON: For me, one of the biggest ones is the cultural aspects. You know, these hills used to be populated by small farms - just cluttered with small farms everywhere. And now, I mean, even with this resurgence we have going on, we don't have the culture that we used to have.

CHARLES: A culture where everybody knows a farmer, and knows what it takes to grow food.

Mr. JOHNSON: When I graduated from college in 1997, and I told my friends I was going to be a vegetable farmer, there was no response. It was just like they didn't know where to go with that, you know? And now I tell people what I do, and everybody has some story to connect to it and is excited about it. And young folks, more and more of them want to stay here. They see being involved in one of these businesses, or starting their own, as an exciting future.

CHARLES: Even managers at the two local supermarkets in Hardwick are now trying to put a few more local vegetables on their shelves.

Lynn DeLaricheliere, at the Grand Union supermarket, says her corporate supervisors took some convincing.

Ms. LYNN DELARICHELIERE (Supermarket Employee): But they're understanding now. Once you make them see, and they actually come to this town and realize how important it is, it does - it's going to happen.

CHARLES: Do you have any concerns?

Ms. DELARICHELIERE: No. I want local. The more the better.

CHARLES: What got you interested in doing this?

Ms. DELARICHELIERE: The people. It's the first question they ask: Where's the corn from? Where's the lettuce from? Where are the cucumbers from? You know, are they local? This is a town that's - it's different. It's special.

CHARLES: And that's what you hear from a lot of people in Hardwick.

Mr. ZACH HARTLING: The community here is so tight. Like, everybody knows everybody.

CHARLES: Zach Hartling is one of the students I talked to at Hazen Union High School. He moved here from Connecticut, and he still has an outsider's perspective on the place.

Mr. HARTLING: So I think that sense of community and knowing like, where the food's coming from...

CHARLES: Really knowing where it comes from - knowing whose hands harvested it.

Mr. HARTLING: That just has a huge impact on the way things work.

CHARLES: The longer these high school students talk, the more they seem to come around to the idea that they, and a lot of people in town, do participate in local food one way or another.

Mr. HARTLING: The farmer's market moved this year to the Atkins Field, and it's getting bigger; like, it's expanding a lot.

Mr. DEMERS: Connie's Kitchen just moved into a bigger location right in town.

Mr. HARTLING: That's true. And Connie's Kitchen isn't organic but...

Mr. FINN KANE (Student): It shows...

Mr. HARTLING: It's local, and it shows the growth of this town.

CHARLES: Junior Finn Kane likes to cook. He dreams of opening his own restaurant here.

Mr. KANE: I think the history of this town has always been, you know, of hard times.

Ms. MEGAN URIE: And we persevere.

CHARLES: That's Megan Urie. She lives on a farm. Her mother is growing all the potatoes for meals at Lakewood Elementary School this year.

Ms. URIE: I feel like it's kind of just one of those places in the world that you have hard times; you have a neighbor; and you, you know, you help each other out. It's give and take, and it's just - it's nice.

Mr. DEMERS: Like I don't think that, I don't think that food has saved Hardwick; I don't think that Hardwick has found the answer.

CHARLES: Derek Demers is the senior who works at the Grand Union supermarket.

Mr. DEMERS: But I think that Hardwick is on the right path, more so than most other places. I think we're headed in the right direction; we have a great start.

CHARLES: Maybe the same thing can't happen in bigger towns or megacities. Maybe Hardwick is different. But in this small town, at least, food is moving from the fringes of local life back toward its heart.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Charles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.