How organic food saved a hard-luck, Vermont town

Here and Now

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All aspects of the organic, local and sustainable foods movements are converging on a tiny New England town.

Over the last decade, Hardwick, Vt., has become an organic and local foods mecca for cuisine enthusiasts. From artisanal cheeses, fresh vegetables and even eco-friendly furniture varnish, this former granite-mining town has become a beacon for good produce.

“A lot of these agro-preneurs are young, they’re in their 30s and they’re ambitions,” said Ben Hewitt, using his portmanteau for “agricultural entrepreneurs.” Hewitt is a journalist and Vermont native who has chronicled Hardwick’s farming renaissance in his book “The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality In Local Food.”

Before its move toward organics, Hardwick was better known as a struggling town coping with the loss of industry — like so many other small American communities. The juxtaposition of Hardwick’s industrial past with its sustainable future posed an intriguing combination for Hewitt.

“I became really struck by this wonderful, delicious irony,” Hewitt said. “This town was being held up as the savior of our food system, the bastion of local food. It had always, you know, growing up blue-collar, seemed to me that the local food movement had this whiff of elitism.”

That elitist bent is what puts off many of the long-time locals of Hardwick.  Farmers living in Hardwick for generations only see the cost of land rising, and the amount of land available for expansion diminishing. Also, few residents can afford the exorbitant organic food prices.

“Yes, these goods are probably beyond the means of many of the people in the region, but I think there’s also something to be said of the fact that [the agro-preneurs] are creating jobs that, by and large, have been resilient to the economic malaise in this country,” Hewitt said.

What food critics and going-green supporters seem to love most about Hardwick and similar organic farming communities is how they stand for a very American paradigm shift for farming.

“The industrial food system is predatory on our land base. It’s predatory on our environment. It’s not sustainable,” Hewitt said.  “We really are going to have to change how we feed ourselves.”
Hewitt noted that nothing we own is made by hand. Clothing, cars, computers — the average citizen has no idea how to fix or make them.
“Food is really one of the few things that we have the potential to do for ourselves, and I think there is an incredible sense of empowerment that comes from that,” he said.


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