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 "

Leading the revolution is the Center for an Agricultural Economy, which was launched in 2004 by Andrew Meyer, a 38-year-old former staffer to retired Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords. Meyer’s family owns a dairy farm in Hardwick and when he returned from Washington, D.C., Meyer founded Vermont Soy, which produces small-batch tofu, and Vermont Natural Coatings, which makes nontoxic wood finishes derived from dairy whey. He conceived of the nonprofit Center as a way for businesses to lead the charge in forging a locally based healthy food system, in Hardwick and beyond.

If Meyer is the mild-mannered brains behind the movement, Tom Stearns, president of the Center, is its evangelist. With his bushy red beard, wool vest and muck boots, Stearns looks the part of the hippie farmers who began quietly migrating into the poor, rural Northeast Kingdom of Vermont as part of the back-to-the-land counterculture of the 1970s. But Stearns, the son of classical musicians, is no laid-back flower child. He dreams big, and has a track record of success. He fashioned his college hobby of growing and selling organic seeds into a multimillion-dollar business that now employs 30 people.

In the cavernous warehouse of High Mowing Organic Seeds, four miles from downtown Hardwick, Stearns holds forth like a hellfire preacher. He swears that the solution to the woes of Hardwick, and the country, is healthy food, in all its dimensions: “In a thriving food system, there is healthy food available to all, so it’s not a class issue. Second, food is produced, processed and distributed in ways that enhance rather than degrade the environment. There must be appreciation for local food traditions. And food must be fair—from the standpoint of those who are growing and processing the food, all the way to those who are purchasing it.”

Stearns landed in the Northeast Kingdom in the mid-1990s in part because there was already a community of farmers and a sustainable food ethic. The Buffalo Mountain Co-op on Main Street in Hardwick, one of the oldest food co-ops in the country, has more than 1,000 members (in a town of 3,200!). “There’s been an amazing community here for a long time,” observes Annie Gaillard, who has worked at the co-op for 24 years. “So the infrastructure was here. These guys,” she says of Stearns and the Center, “are taking it to the next level.”

The Center was born out of the sharing and collaboration that had been going on informally among food-based businesses. For several years, Stearns had been going out for beers with Andrew Meyer and Pete Johnson, the namesake of Pete’s Greens, an organic farm in nearby Craftsbury. The three young, idealistic and ambitious entrepreneurs began sharing ideas about how to run their new businesses, and this quickly evolved into sharing employees, equipment and even loaning each other money. The collaboration kept taking on new dimensions, new participants and spawning new business ventures.

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