Editor’s Note: In March an interesting new book on local food will hit the shelves. Author Ben Hewitt’s, The Town That Saved Food: One Community Found Vitality in Local Food details the changes that have taken place in blue-collar Hardwick VT. This article from the Rutland Herald looks at the many fascinating and difficult issues that happen when ‘agrepreneurs” began to turn Hardwick into “a natural foods Mecca.” To learn more about the book and the important issues, please read the article.


Author finds complexities in town's food 'renaissance'

Writer Ben Hewitt and his family raise sheep, cows, pigs and chickens at their off-the-grid homestead in Cabot. He has a book coming out in mid-March about the rise of organic- and specialty-food producers in the Hardwick area and the repercussions for residents.



Staff Writer - Published: February 28, 2010

A trifecta of organic seeds, organic vegetables and organic compost ignited a food revolution in an unlikely place: Hardwick.

With a population of just over 3,000, Hardwick was a community once dominated by hard-living granite industry workers and rumored to have more bars per capita than any other community in the United States.

It is now a largely blue-collar town trying to balance the perks and pressures of a new industry of high-priced, high-quality food growers and producers.

Hardwick finds itself the new media darling, with everything from The New York Times to TV chef Emeril Lagasse's program "Emeril Green" going gaga over artisan cheese produced at nearby Jasper Hill Farm, the meals made from local products served at Claire's Restaurant and Bar, and the other value-added organic food grown, produced, cooked and sold from the area.

In this community, where Hewitt says the median income is 25 percent below the state average and unemployment is 40 percent higher, residents surely welcome the jobs. Yet many can't afford the very food coming out of their neighbors' fields and small production facilities.

Author Ben Hewitt, from nearby Cabot, tries to capture this odd tension in his new book, "The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food," due out in mid-March. He chose a provocative title to spark hard thinking about the narrative that has developed around the Hardwick local-food movement.

"Maybe (the national media) imagined the same storyline I had: a trendy movement bringing salvation to a hard town," he writes in the book. "It seemed an obvious and easy story, without the complications of controversy or any measure of true, investigative journalism. …

"That local foods could rebuild communities, economies, souls? It seems so compelling, so simple, so right," Hewitt continues. "But was it true? I didn't know, but if I wanted to learn, Hardwick would be the perfect classroom."

The 38-year-old lives with his wife and two sons off the electric grid on a small farm (he was raised in the St. Albans area by "back-to-the-land" parents, with no electricity or running water until age 6, when they moved to Calais). Jersey-Devon cows, Jacob sheep and lambs, pigs and chickens provide food and milk; 100 blueberry plants are the family's cash crop.

Sipping freshly pressed coffee at his kitchen table recently, Hewitt explained how he moved from a successful freelance career writing for magazines such as Popular Mechanics, Outside and Men's Journal to tackling this book.

"I never thought about writing about food. My connection is more to the animals," he said. "This is more of a character study. I like writing about people, and that's what drew me to the story."

"The Town That Food Saved" is part textbook, outlining the crises that many see threatening our national and global food system, and part colorful commentary on the characters who make up this unusual community and its story.

"I loved the juxtaposition of this gritty little town becoming a natural foods Mecca," Hewitt said. But he soon discovered a tension between the longtime residents of the area and the "agrepreneurs," whom he described as young, with "six-figure educations."

"I don't want to overstate the problem – most people feel very positive about what's going on," he stressed, referring to the relative success and national popularity of these value-added companies that have established themselves in the Hardwick area. "Some don't even know what's going on."

But, he said, not everyone who chose the quiet life in Hardwick is happy with the changes. "All of a sudden their little town is getting splashed all over the map," he said.

Hewitt's tale is told primarily through stories about the people involved, including entrepreneurs like the exuberant Tom Stearns of High Mowing Organic Seeds, the Kehler brothers who run the artisanal cheese-making operation at Jasper Hill Farm, and Andrew Meyer from Vermont Soy.

Also included are stories of the Hardwick-area organic and conventional dairy farmers who do everything from logging to bartering to avoid bankruptcy in the face of low milk prices, and resent the movement that "threatens the low-key, neighbor-to-neighbor food system that has long defined their lives as farmers and Hardwick residents."

"But there was something nagging at me," Hewitt writes. "How many Hardwick residents actually eat soy products? A few, no doubt, but certainly not the majority. And how many of them can afford to buy cheese that costs upward of $20 a pound? … These people are not lining up for organic milk lattes and tofu smoothies."

Still, Hewitt acknowledges, "Hardwick needs good jobs at least as much as other communities, and the jobs at Vermont Soy and Jasper Hill pay better than many and provide safe, pleasant working conditions (and, if you're one of the 17 employees at Jasper Hill, you'll get two cords of firewood and a butchered hog as an annual bonus)."

And, he reflects, these newcomers aren't the first to discover the local-foods movement, noting that many farmers in the area have long been producing quality food – including organically grown varieties — and the town's Buffalo Mountain Food Co-op and Café is among the state's oldest cooperatives.

Hewitt repeatedly stressed that those who object to the new industries are the minority. He said they don't define a community's wealth by income.

"When the median income is below the state average, we assume the community is impoverished," Hewitt said. But in Hardwick, some people have chosen that lifestyle because they value something more than income – caring about one another, living in a tightly knit community. By that measure, Hewitt said, "Hardwick is in better shape than most of the U.S."

There is no right or wrong determined in Hewitt's book. Instead, he simply reflects the struggle of a small rural community to come to grips with change – inevitable in his opinion – much as Hardwick residents did after the granite companies "packed up their bags and left," as he writes.

"Ultimately, it's my hope that people will feel empowered by this book. Maybe that empowerment is in the shape of the garden they turn over in their back yard, or maybe it comes in the form of resolve to support the local farmers, businesses and citizens of their community," Hewitt said.

"If this book can in any way inspire people to become more engaged in their food and community, I'll be really, really happy."


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WHO WE ARE: Foodforethought is an information service that encourages dialogue and exploration of innovative trends in the global food system. The service is managed by James Kuhns of MetroAg Alliance for Urban Agriculture in collaboration with Amber McNair of the University of Toronto in association with the Centre for Urban Health Initiatives (CUHI), and Wayne Roberts of the Toronto Food Policy Council.