Building a Healthy Food System in Rural America

By David Goodman, "Foodtopia," July/August 2009

How a handful of organic farmers, world-class cheesemakers and a locavore restaurant transformed Hardwick, Vermont—a poor, rural town—into a foodie mecca.

"An inspiring article by the always-inspiring David Goodman. Thanks for running it. Jules Older, San Francisco, CA "

Claire’s might be just another trendy restaurant—and in fact it made Conde Nast Traveler’s 2009 “Hot List.” What sets it apart is its emphatically untrendy location: a rural community 45 miles from the Canadian border where the median household income is $42,000. Yet more than 100 local residents banded together to buy 50 certificates, worth $1,000 each, in this community-supported place (think CSA, the restaurant version) that opened in the spring of 2008. Prices for this “new Vermont cuisine” are relatively modest: appetizers average around $6 and entrees range from $9 for the vegetable tagine to $24 for certain cuts of grass-fed steak from a farm two miles away.

To fans of local food and sustainable agriculture, Claire’s and Hardwick are the sun around which planets are aligning—the planets in this case being a network of innovative food entrepreneurs and organic farmers who are working together to build a new food infrastructure and breathe life into the struggling economy. They want to save the town, and the world, through good food. Community, in all its manifestations, is at once the clientele, beneficiary and by-product of what Claire’s serves.

I didn’t initially come to Hardwick in search of a great restaurant. I came to find a place that offered a glimmer of hope for farmers. I had just spent several months chronicling the lives of the last three dairy farmers in my community, Waterbury, Vermont, just an hour’s drive south. These farmers are putting in 100-hour weeks but are barely staying afloat. Rosina Wallace, a fifth-generation farmer, worries that she may be the last steward of her family’s 143-year-old farm, now teetering on the brink. Third-generation farmer Mark Davis has told me how he lost $15,000 in one recent winter when the price of milk dropped below his costs of producing it. The precarious viability of dairy farming helps explain why the number of dairy farmers in Vermont alone has fallen 90 percent in the last six decades.

Yet 40 miles north of Waterbury, the story is very different. In 1998, the year Jasper Hill Farm opened its cheesemaking operation just north of Hardwick, five local dairy farms had gone under. Today, the local demand for milk—from Jasper Hill, Cabot Creamery, Bonnieview and a half-dozen other local cheesemakers—is helping dairy farms to prosper. Artisanal cheeses from Jasper Hill and Cabot Creamery sell for upwards of $20 a pound and have been named among the top 100 cheeses in the world. And the success story seems to be the same with other local businesses: here in the northeast corner of Vermont—one of the poorest rural regions in America—farmers, cheesemakers, a tofu maker, a composting operation, Claire’s Restaurant and regular townsfolk are all working together to revolutionize the way food is produced and delivered.

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