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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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.
The main thesis of this book is: Don't Take Food for Granted. Oh, and... Don't Take Your Neighbors for Granted Either. If you care about food or about eating in the years to come: read this book.
I read it as if I was gobbling up the first greens of the spring garden: total joy that the book, the people in the book, the work and ideas in the book, are alive. Hewitt documents, discusses, and dissects how the town and the towns that surround Hardwick, Vermont are reinventing the circle of food. You know, the circle that has happened since the beginning of time where we grow food, eat food, compost food and grow more food from the remains of the old food--all in our own backyard.
I admit, before I read this book I was already well versed in the critical reasons why this country needs to change how we grow, deliver, eat, and engage in the food system (if you don't know already, read the book and find out.) So Hewitt didn't need to convince me, and he isn't really setting out to convince you either. If you think broccoli grows at the supermarket and you are content to think that, this book isn't for you. But if you suspect something is wrong with the whole system where food grown under corporate foot is shipped thousands of miles to feed your family, but you can't really envision another workable system or you can't imagine a workable transition from one system to another--well then, this book is for you.
As much as this book is about food, it is about community. And it turns out local food systems are only local food systems because of community. Without one you can't have the other. Not in any real, long term, meaningful way. And most of us don't even know how good community or food can be. But this book will point you in the right direction.
I stayed up all night calling Amazon to see if they would let me give the book six stars, but I kept just being told to push various buttons and I could never get to a human being. Alas, a little like where most of our food comes from: somewhere without a face or a name that doesn't really care about who we are or what we think!
Hewitt's a good writer, but the book is a little short of personality, and it fails to live up to its grandiose title or many of the ideas presented early on. There's no real proof that food has "saved" this town. It's brought some jobs into the area and helped spur many community activities, but most of the benefits from those active in this "movement" have not yet been fully reaped. Some of the most promising concerns, such as the seed company and the cheese producers, are heavily in debt and their success is not fully guaranteed. Most of the town still earns very low pay for the work they do, and suffer the many anxieties of small-town produce and dairy farmers without any huge improvement in their lifestyles. And because many of these promising start-ups are geared towards "export" to big cities where there is a concentration of people who can afford (say) $20 a pound cheese, using this town as a model for local food security - something Hewitt touts - is exaggerated at best.
That aside, there is room for thought in the book. I especially liked the section with the couple who are dead-set against what's going on in town and see it as a sort of betrayal of the town's long-standing traditions. They make some excellent and well-articulated points which contradict the main thrust of the book. Hewitt includes them in an unbiased and fair way, to his credit.
The book's biggest fault is in putting the horse before the cart. I'd love to check back in five years and see what's become of all the activities and goals of the people here . . . this book feels a little premature.
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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