Building a Healthy Food System in Rural America(Printer-Friendly Version) | Eating Well

Building a Healthy Food System in Rural America

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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.

The future of food, I’ve been told, may be found in a hardscrabble town of 3,200 in northern Vermont. But as I walk down the main street of Hardwick, a former granite-quarrying town, there is nothing that would indicate this is the new food utopia heralded by The New York Times. I pass the Chinese take-out joint, catch the charred whiff of a burned-out building and finally stop catty-corner from the laundromat and police station. Then I spot it: a cheery pumpkin-colored building with floor-to-ceiling windows and etched on the glass: “Claire’s: Local ingredients. Open to the world.” I step through the restaurant door, and I am immediately transported.

This locavore haven in an otherwise struggling outpost of rural America is hopping. Young people in jeans hobnob comfortably alongside a clutch of stylish older women and a few men in jackets and ties. A waitress struts purposefully across the bright maple floor balancing a Moroccan vegetable tagine that trails heady scents of cumin and garlic. My head snaps sideways as an aromatic curried soup of sunchokes, carrots and pistachios is ferried to an expectant patron.

Kristina Michelsen, tonight’s casually dressed maître d’ (and a co-owner), motions for me to sit on a bench seat; my wife, Sue, takes a chair across the square cherry table. Our server pours water into small Mason-jar glasses. The place has the folksy feel of a diner, and it seems only natural to greet the people around me. And so I do: the man in the suit at the next table drives a snowplow and owns the gas station in town. Two tables down, an author visiting from Boston is here with his girlfriend. At another table sits Linda Ramsdell, owner of Hardwick’s Galaxy Bookshop and also a co-owner of the restaurant.

Our waitress returns with a delicious appetizer of baked Hartwell cheese with cranberry chutney and sprout slaw. The cheese has a soft texture like Brie, and it melts in my mouth. Kristina explains that the cheese, made in small batches by artisan cheesemakers at Ploughgate Creamery, a few minutes up the road, is typical for Claire’s: much of Claire’s food is grown or produced within 45 miles of the restaurant. In northeastern Vermont, where winter lasts six months, that’s saying something. Underscoring her point, she gestures to two young women who have just walked in, one in a soiled Carhartt jacket. “There are your cheesemakers, Princess and Marisa, owners of Ploughgate,” she says. “And over there is Pete Johnson, one of the farmers who grew your salad,” she adds, pointing to a blond man several tables away. “Here,” she says with a proud smile, “the celebrities are the farmers.”

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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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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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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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Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, has called Hardwick “an important national test-case of the possibilities of relocalizing an economy, a real-world, real-time exploration of the challenges.” Author and activist Bill McKibben says, “Hardwick has all the pieces of a healthy food system connected and ready to fall into place, and is as far ahead in sustainable agriculture as any place in the country. Deep and transformative things are happening here.”

Though there is little data to show whether this model can be replicated, this past spring, researchers from MIT and Columbia University visited to see how the Hardwick experiment was progressing and last year, the University of Vermont signed on to provide technical support to the Center. Stearns and Meyer hope to tap the university’s marketing and agricultural expertise and get its help on issues such as childhood obesity and diabetes. Plans are also moving forward to build an eco-industrial park where many of the food businesses might co-locate so that they can more easily share resources. In April, Honey Gardens Apiaries, a Vermont distiller, announced it was moving its operation for making honey wine to Hardwick. Todd Hardie, founder of Honey Gardens, compared Hardwick to “Amish communities where they build a barn and everyone has a role in it and gathers around to give input and support. We want to be part of that collaborative spirit.”

Local. Healthy. Community-based. Delicious. These themes are at the heart of the Hardwick food community. I am reminded of that as I arrive at Jasper Hill Farm’s gleaming new $2 million cheese cave in Greensboro, eight miles away. The jaw-dropping 22,000-square-foot cave—said to be the finest of its kind in North America—is the labor of love of brothers and farmers Andy and Mateo Kehler. As I walk through the seven vaults, I crane my neck to look at tall racks of aging cheeses that are stacked to the arched ceiling and turned by hand each day. Jasper Hill’s own cheeses are here—they make a mouthwatering slow-ripened soft cheese they call Constant Bliss, as well as Bayley Hazen Blue, a spectacular natural-rinded blue cheese that landed the brothers on the NBC Today show. Wine Spectator recently named two of Jasper Hill’s cheeses among the top 100 cheeses in the world. Also making that list were Cabot Creamery’s Clothbound Cheddar, Vermont Ayr and Grafton Clothbound, which are all aged at Jasper Hill.

The Kehlers intend their cheese cellar to be a center for a budding artisanal cheese industry that serves the whole region, providing opportunities for local dairy farmers to become cheesemakers. For those new to cheesemaking, Jasper Hill will provide technical expertise as well as cave space to get them started. I mention to Andy Kehler the plight of the dairy farmers in my community, noting how dairy farmer Rosina Wallace bemoaned how she must ship her milk hundreds of miles away to be processed. Andy listened and replied, “That’s exactly the kind of farmer we need. Have her call me.”

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Just up the road in the rolling hills of Craftsbury, I find Pete Johnson of Pete’s Greens and his girlfriend, Meg Gardner. They are inside one of four movable greenhouses, hunched over trays of bright green sprouts, delicately slicing shoots with a razor knife. Pete’s Greens is a four-season organic farm that until six years ago provided food to fancy restaurants in Boston and New York. But Pete, a raffishly handsome man with a shaggy crop of blond hair and five-o’clock shadow, tells me he no longer wants to send his food far away. In the past three years he has flipped from selling three-fourths of his produce out of state to selling that same amount in state. Most of his business now is his Good Eats CSA, which combines offerings from his farm with those from a number of different farms and food producers. Good Eats has about 250 local members. A 17-week share of vegetables and locally produced goods, such as yogurt, milk, tofu, bread and fruit, costs $44 per week. Is there interest? Good Eats makes up half the farm’s business, and Pete says his farm and most other local producers can barely keep up with the demand for local food.

“It’s gratifying to know and please the people who are eating our food,” he says as he slices off a pinch of radish sprouts and hands them to me. “Try it,” he urges. A spicy, zingy sensation lights up my tongue. Pete chuckles as I pucker in pleasant surprise. His farm is renowned for its specialty and heirloom vegetables, from numerous varieties of kale and fingerling potatoes to dandelion greens and garlic scapes. Claire’s Restaurant chef and co-owner Steven Obranovich is a regular customer.

Pete insists that thinking local is thinking big. “I think we are just at the beginning of what I hope will be a revolution in how we feed ourselves,” he tells me from among his sprout beds. “My vision is of a village- or multi-village-based food system where most of what the people here eat is from here, with some key local trading. I think it has the potential to be really efficient, create a lot of good jobs and small businesses, and create incredible community, which is something we’ve lost.”

How will Hardwick measure success? Andrew Meyer, who still looks the part of a preppy Senate staffer, considers my question as we stand next to a vat of soy curd that is being slowly and rhythmically stirred by a bearded young man with a giant paddle. Meyer suddenly pipes up, saying, “Success will be determined by the number of jobs we create in this area, the increased awareness of where your food comes from, the amount of land that’s being productively worked, and also the trail of your local dollar. The more times that money can stay within the community, the more it supports the local food system.”

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It is a midweek night and Claire’s is packed. Some of it can be chalked up to Chef Steven Obranovich’s “New Vermont Cooking”: “It’s what the farmers want to grow and what I want to cook and what people want to eat,” the wiry, bespectacled chef tells me.

But the Hardwick story is bigger than food. It’s about how a struggling town has helped to launch a restaurant that has become a local gathering place. It’s about how townsfolk showed up at the new restaurant last summer with fresh-picked blueberries for Steven to put up, so that Claire’s—their place—would have what it needed. It’s about community, vision and perseverance, something this gritty town knows plenty about. The blueberry upside-down cake I savor tonight is its sweet reward.

Jenifer Vaughan, a local salon owner, recently made a point of stopping by Claire’s to thank them “for what they’re doing and what they’ve brought into town. They’ve generated a buzz. It’s not just another cool restaurant. There’s genuineness. There’s love there.”

Fixing the food system is a daunting task. And Hardwick, with its quirky character and history, may or may not be a model that is readily exported. There are numerous obstacles: the tanking economy, tensions within the community between the new haves and the old have-nots. But the bold vision and efforts of these farmers, thinkers and entrepreneurs has generated momentum.

Tom Stearns is convinced that the farmers of Hardwick can change the world. “People can be inspired by what they see here. Then they do things like this in their own community, and it could crescendo,” he flings his arms wide, “into a wave of food-system change around the country.”
With that, another dinner at Claire’s is served, a celebration of great possibility renewed with each course.

Vermonter David Goodman’s most recent book is Standing Up to the Madness: Ordinary Heroes in Extraordinary Times (Hyperion, 2008).