The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food Hardcover – Mar 16 2010
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“This book is useful because it raises numerous questions about the practicalities and efficiencies of local food production--but also provides solutions and examples of success in small-scale agriculture. It begins to answer the questions Hewitt poses as they relate to Hardwick, and as they relate to the rest of us.” ―Leah Douglas, SeriousEats.com
About the Author
BEN HEWITT was born in northwestern Vermont and raised in a two-room cabin; his father was a poet and his mother worked on a nearby dairy farm. He now lives with his wife and two sons on a diversified, 40-acre farm in Vermont, where they produce dairy, beef, pork, lamb, vegetables, and berries. His work has appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, including Best Life, Men's Journal, National Geographic Adventure, the New York Times Magazine, Outside, and Skiing.
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One of my favorite quotes comes from an old curmudgeon I once knew. I was sitting with him and an assortment of fellows at a coffee shop in a town where I once worked. We were talking about the changing landscape of the community and the world. This guy was usually very talkative, just like the other guys that were part of this coffee klatch. But, today he sat a little bit removed from the tables we had pulled together to enjoy our dirty jokes and teasing of each other. At age 40, I was by far the youngest of the group, with the oldest well into his seventies. I can't remember his name, so let's call him Ralph. As the the conversation went on, we started arguing about some local political activity until, finally, Ralph threw up both hands, slammed one down on the table in front of him causing a seismic stir among the coffee cups, water glasses and spoons on the table and declared in his loud sonorous voice, "I want progress, it's change I don't like." Whaaaat???
Needless to say, we were taken by surprise and shocked into a very momentary silence until one of the guys broke out in big guffaws, which were quickly followed by everyone else. While the quote is funny, ol' Ralph was dead serious, and he had to think about it for second before he could wrestle a small smile out of the corner of his mouth and laugh at himself as well.
Ralph was experiencing the angst anyone has when they see the world as they know it change. The angst is usually precipitated by an acute change in their environment they don't like. In the `60s, it was the hippies and the peace generation that caused anxiety when the world changed. In the `70s, it was sexual freedom and women's rights that shook up the social order. In the `80s it was--well, I am not sure what it was--M.C. Hammer or Vanilla Ice? Moving through the `80s and `90s and into this decade, the world has continued to change--socially, culturally and economically. Do you want progress, but with very little change? How about "progressive change," or "change that marches towards progress." Ralph wasn't talking about any of that. He was concerned that all the things he understood to be the world were changing for him, and frankly, he wasn't open to it or prepared for it.
The recent changes in the economy have forced us to thank about change and progress. Can Ralph live his life of progress with no change? Can we have "progressive change?" Two books I have recently read talk about this. One book addresses changes to a local economy; the other, changes to our global economy. One is by an author of whom you have probably not heard; the other, by one I have reviewed here before.
In the first book, "The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food" by Ben Hewitt, we learn about Hardwick, Vermont--a small town of 3,200 people -and how the local food movement took hold in that community. The author is a local small farmer and writer who takes time to explore the people, places and nuances that make up a local economy in one small town. The town, like many others throughout the country, has had multiple economic personalities and is currently in the throes of change. Established in March 1795, the town was at one time the center of the Vermont granite industry. Today it is undergoing change and becoming, for better or worse, a town centered on the idea that people ought to buy local food from local providers.
The second book is by Richard Florida, author of "The Rise of the Creative Class" and "Who's Your City?" and well-known among those interested in economics, urban issues and economic development. Florida presents his idea that the economy, at home and abroad, is in a period of change. The title of the book, "The Great Reset," says it all. Enormous changes are occurring in our society and our world that will reshape our economy and our country as we know it. Florida, as he is so good at doing, provides plenty of empirical data to support his argument, whether one wants to agree with it or not.
Ben Hewitt started reporting on Hardwick, Vermont as a reporter for Gourmet magazine in 2008. Prior to this, a number of stories had been written in national media outlets such as the New York Times outlining the changes occurring in Hardwick. As with many stories like this, people became interested and wanted to learn more. What was occurring in this small out-of-the-way town that was so compelling? Was it a model for sustainability for other communities throughout the country who have gone through similar economic problems, perhaps here in the Midwest? Or was it a nice story about a bunch of characters who have stumbled upon a momentary idea and movement that is generating short-lived notoriety for its residents?
Hewitt does a great job developing the story which is really about a cast of characters--mainly, Tom Stearns, an "agrepreneur" (Hewitt's word), founder of High Mowing Seed Company that has become the self-appointed spokesperson and media darling for the food movement that has developed in Hardwick. Stearns is a polarizing figure in Hardwick where half the people love him for what he has brought to the community, and the other half, who just want progress and no change, characterize him as the antithesis of that ideal. Stearns comes from an interesting background. Raised in agricultural boarding schools, he created an organic seed company that provides over 600 types of seeds people can buy and plant in their own gardens. According to Stearns, it all starts with seeds; even the cotton shirt one is wearing starts with seeds.
Other characters in this story include Steve Gorelick and Suzanna Jones, who operate a small farm on 40 acres and live off the grid. Their view on the Hardwick phenomena is less than complimentary. Hewitt describes a dinner he has with the couple whose sole purpose is to dissuade him from being taken in by the movement. Influenced by quasi-anarchical writers and thought leaders, Gorelick and Jones' primary issue is with the fact that business people and entrepreneurs have "taken over" an already existing movement of "farmer-to-farmer" exchanges and sharing. Gorelick and Jones' objections are less about this existing network and more about their primitive view of economics and capitalism.
In the end, Hewitt did an excellent job outlining and describing the characters that make up Hardwick. Furthermore, he clearly outlined through the descriptions of these characters the conflict and tension between those who have conducted the "back-to-basics" farming so revered by the local food movement for years and those who have purported to have discovered it and are now using it for financial gain. The descriptions of each player in the Hardwick play is vivid and provides a sense that one is really there and witnessing the conversations, the smell of the wood fires, the smell of the compost piles, the rich turned earth and the slaughter of pigs and chickens.
Hewitt's book is a tome on the conflict that occurs when any system is upended or deconstructed. Living in the Midwest, we are so often led to believe that the fields of corn and soybeans right outside our windows are growing food, when in fact they are really producing an input for a large industrialized system of producing products that is sold as food in our local grocery stores. I have a magnet on my refrigerator that says, "Try Organic Food--Or as your grandparents called it, `Food.'" This is the true seed of the local food movement. Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, says we ought to eat food our grandparents or great-grandparents would recognize, or in his words, "eat food, not so much, mostly plants"--a cure for the obesity problem in this country, maybe--but a solution to local economies on a small scale, probably. This conflict between food systems is evident, as is the conflict between those who want progress (or perhaps not) but little change.
Hewitt's description of what is going on in Hardwick is the type of change that Richard Florida describes in his book, The Great Reset, but on a more macro level. Using history as his guide (as most social scientists are apt to do), he looks at critical times in the past 150 years--the 1870 economic meltdown and the 1930s' Great Depression--as predictors of our current times. Reading Florida's book on the heels of reading Hewitt's, I was struck by the model Hardwick provided for a micro reset occurring before our very eyes.
If one is familiar with Florida's work, one knows that his books are filled with well-researched data and analysis. This book is the first of his books that is void of tables and charts, but amply footnoted with information supporting his theories. Fans of creative class concepts have been quick to criticize Florida's new thought pattern in this book and his previous book in abandoning the idea that cities can be revived by attracting a new creative class and building a new innovation economy. Florida doesn't spend too much time on these topics and, instead, spends more time looking back at what has happened over the past 100 years that has brought us to the current day. He appropriately suggests that we quit pointing fingers and move forward with the huge investments and creation of social compacts that will propel us into the future.
Comparatively short for a Florida book, he delves into issues like consumerism and how there may be new pattern emerging that suggests the era of "ownership" of cars and houses may be on the wane, quite a reversal of a mere 10 years ago at the beginning of the Bush-led "ownership society." He also describes the idea of transforming service workers into a new wave of innovators; in other words, engaging our maids, fast-food workers and others to develop new and innovative ways to provide cleaner hotel rooms and better-tasting hamburgers. Of course, no forward-thinking economist worth his salt would leave out a discussion of high-speed rail and its potential on our economy. Finally, Florida reaches back into his last book to discuss the idea of "megaregions" such as "Bos-Wash," the megaregion that stretches from Boston to Washington D.C. and includes New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and everything in-between. The closest megaregion to Central Illinois would be Chi-Pitts, the second largest in the country with over 100,000 square miles, 46 million people and $1.6 trillion in economic output.
Florida's book is actually a pretty fast read. It started from an essay he had written in The Atlantic Monthly and turned into this book which, frankly, is an opinion piece on his views of all the new ideas that are currently "hot" and being talked about. This is mostly evident in the very last part of the book called "A New Way of Life," where he discusses new migration patterns (covered in Who's your City?), green and sustainable trends, high-speed rail, renting versus owning and new jobs.
How does Florida's book reconcile itself with Hewitt's story about Hardwick? Florida talks about massive changes occurring in our landscape and society. He discusses how megaregions are going to drive the growth of economies and how in the new reset, people will be drawn to these areas more and more. We will create new urban centers in suburbs which were once examples of sprawl, but now must be connected by investment in new infrastructure like high-speed rail and high-speed fiber for easy communications. Florida talks about change as does Hewitt. For those folks living off the grid in northern Vermont hoping for an anarchical revolution where we all migrate back to the rural areas, grow our own food and trade a pig's belly for some chickens with our neighbors, I am afraid there is bad news if you read Florida's book. However, in some strange way, the people in Hardwick are living and experiencing a local economy that can't be found in an economist's study. They have created their own reset, as Florida describes. On a very local level they have changed and moved their own economy forward through innovation, hard work and dedication to common age-old principles that stand the test of time. Perhaps this is a more sustainable approach to jobs and economic development.
Whether one identifies with the agrepreneurs of Hardwick or gets excited about the ability to travel on high-speed rail within the Chi-Pitts megaregion and enjoy the idea of outsourcing your business to global locations, one would have to agree that change is upon us. The economic bubbles of the past 12 years (technology and housing), globalization, energy security, terrorism and banking meltdowns have people looking at the cost of progress and the value of all their possessions. These are two excellent books that look at the macro and micro changes that are occurring and impacting this view.
Sorry, Ralph (if you still get together for coffee with the old boys)--progress will always occur, and it can't help but result in change. You may not like it, but it's time to adapt.
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.
It gave me an appreciation for the wonderful process of growing and producing food for others. There is a love and devotion to those farmers and others involved in this movement. Sure, not everyone in the town shares the author's enthusiasm and hopes for local produce production, and I'm glad that opposing viewpoints were presented, also.
Ultimately, whether this "experiment" will be successful remains to be seen, and the book's title certainly doesn't do that aspect justice (the town is far from "saved" at this point in time). However, this book is a must read as a road map for individuals and communities to possibly implement some of the business practices in their own region. Plus, for me it provided a different way of thinking about buying food. I never go to a farmers market - I don't think I've ever been to one in my life. I buy everything by price alone. But this book (and my foodie friend) have made me much more interested in supporting locals, and small-scale food producers, even if there is a higher associated cost with doing so. The quality is so much better, and healthier. And I know that I am often supporting hard-working individual families trying to maintain a natural balance with the earth. ~~RECOMMENDED~~
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