Based on the description of this book, I kind of assumed that author Ben Hewitt was a local food zealot deeply involved in whatever it is that's going on in the "town" of the title, and that it would therefore be a self-congratulatory memoir, more than a careful look at anything. I was wrong.
While Hewitt is a proponent of local food and a (very) small-scale subsistence farmer living just a few miles from Hardwick, Vermont, this book is thoughtful, well-researched, and almost stunningly well-written. I read it in less than 24 hours, captivated not quite as much by the story as by the writing. It's delightful, and worth reading for that reason alone.
That said, the story is pretty captivating, too, but it's a blueprint of how to save a town with food in the same way that John McPhee's "Oranges" is about how to grow oranges. (The writing, btw, reminded me a bit of McPhee.) This is an insightful look into a town and the folks who populate it -- some "agripreneurs", some traditional famers, some true radicals, some completely indifferent. It seeks less to see Hardwick as emblematic of what should be done everywhere than it does to tease out some of the complications with local food that many of its advocates gloss over.
Another reviewer slams this book as being a hippie socialist manifesto. I couldn't disagree more. Hewitt explores that side of the local food movement, but ultimately rejects it, coming out in favor of a very capitalistic view of the whole thing. Sure, this whole thing is about evaluating costs other than those that appear on this year's balance sheet, but it's certainly not about doing away with a market-based system. I'm tempted to wonder if that reviewer actually read the book.
Of course this book made me want to buy a few acres somewhere and live off the grid growing my own food, but more than that it made me think -- really think -- about reasonable scale and the importance of pulling local food down from its elite and expensive status. Hewitt is quite clear that Hardwick has not answered the questions surrounding these issues, and I think that's what's most compelling about the narrative. It's the first local food book I've read that bothers to ask the hard questions, rather than just asserting that if everyone bought local all the time all the world's problems would be solved. Okay, okay, maybe they're not all that simplistic, but I don't see Pollan addressing these problems, whether they're inherent in the model or just transitional.
The one thing Hewitt doesn't talk about much are the ways the government gets in the way of many local food endeavors. I suspect that many of the folks he describes had to deal with some significant red tape to do what they're doing, but he never mentions that. Once he mentions that the local co-op can't sell raw milk, though the farmers can sell it directly to consumers, but he doesn't explain that one of the problems with really decentralizing our food system are the laws that prohibit me from selling you the sauerkraut I've made in my basement. This seems like a pretty big issue to me, since it's a huge barrier for individuals who might want to see how something goes but don't have the capital to invest in a commercial kitchen, but Hewitt never mentions it.
There are others (Salatin) who have written plenty about that, though, so I can forgive Hewitt completely for the omission. I highly recommend this book if you have any interest at all in the local foods movement (even if you've read everything else out there already), or if you just enjoy fantastic writing of a New Yorker-type tone. It's just a pretty amazing book.