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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.


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

For example, High Mowing Organic Seeds was growing organic squash and pumpkins to extract seeds, but it had no use for thousands of pounds of pumpkin meat. So Johnson, who had just set up an industrial kitchen to offer prepared food as part of his growing farm CSA, took a half-ton of free pumpkin puree, got Cabot Creamery to provide butter, a local farmer to provide eggs and a local baker to help out. Thus was born “Pies for the People,” a project that donated hundreds of pies to the local food shelf last fall and looks to become an annual event. Unused crops from the various businesses get composted at the Highfields Institute in Hardwick, which promotes community-based composting as a way of improving soils, and that compost is then used to fertilize fields at High Mowing, Pete’s Greens and other area farms.

Ultimately, it may be the cross-fertilization of ideas that has been one of the most fruitful by-products of the collaborations. “The sheer number of organic and sustainable farms in our area is higher per capita than anywhere else in the U.S.,” says Stearns. “And all this is happening in a region that has some of the highest unemployment in the state, the lowest incomes, where over half the local students qualify for free school lunch. People are hungry for opportunity. And the opportunity is in agriculture.”

The Center for an Agricultural Economy is now generating projects faster than a summer garden produces zucchini. The Center recently acquired Atkins Field, 15 acres of land and a former granite shed in downtown Hardwick, which the Center hopes to transform into an education and resource center, a year-round farmers’ market, plots for new farmers and community garden plots for townspeople, all within walking distance of the elementary school. In addition, the Vermont Food Venture Center—an incubator for small food-based businesses—will soon relocate its industrial kitchens to Hardwick. The picture starts to come into focus: healthy food takes its place in the center of the community, local farming is strengthened, the local economy is revitalized and the seeds for future businesses are sown.

These ventures are beginning to yield results. Hardwick Town Manager Rob Lewis estimates that the “hippies who became yuppies” and their businesses have, so far, generated about 100 decent-paying jobs in town. “It’s an exciting thing for us to be looking at opportunities for growth, rather than stagnation,” Lewis told me as he sat in his cluttered Town Hall office, noting with amusement that he has gotten calls from around North America inquiring about “the Hardwick model.”



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