Literature about local and “real” food production and consumption has amassed into a full-scale genre, with book clubs, universities, and even high schools requiring reading of titles like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.
Many of these titles have focused more on the consumer side of what constitutes “real food” and a return to whole foods, home-cooking, and sustainable living.
Pollan’s work, though featuring artisan food producers such as Joel Salatin (who has his own line of lit with titles such as, Everything I Want to do is Illegal and Holy Cows and Hog Heaven), does so in terms of environmental impacts of production with an eye toward encouraging sustainable choices on the part of consumers.
His last couple of books, In Defense of Food and Food Rules, declare their intended audience through their subtitles: “An Eater’s Manifesto” and “An Eater’s Manual,” respectively.
Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is more narrative than manual, and focuses on one family’s attempt to eat as locally and frugally as possible for a year–focusing on their own farm production and supplementing with other goods from the farmers market and other area producers.
What has been missing from this popular genre is a book that tackles what a local and sustainable food system might look like from a community level–a community that isn’t already a hard-core local foodie haven like Madison, WI or where local food just isn’t as easy as, say, in Berkeley, CA. A small community. Maybe even a struggling community.
That’s what Ben Hewitt’s The Town that Food Saved does, and that’s why it’s such an important addition to the local food discussion.
Hewitt doesn’t spend a lot of time going over the depressing statistics relating to food miles and the obesity epidemic–those facts are present, but they’re a side-line to the main focus–which is how a local food system is built, what it might look like, and how long-time residents of a community might react to it being built on their home turf.
The community is Hardwick, Vermont–a little town of 3,200 in the Northeast Kingdom–which is a luxurious term to describe the state’s poorest region. In other words, put aside any preconceptions you might have about boutique-y, ski-bunny, upscale Vermont when you think of Hardwick.
It’s an old granite-mining town with low wages and high unemployment–but in the last several years the town and immediate region have hosted a number of start-up businesses that focus specifically on local agricultural production–High Mowing Seeds, Vermont Soy, Pete’s Greens, Claire’s Restaurant, Highfields Center for Composting, The Cellars at Jasper Hill, and more.
Hewitt calls the new (most thirty-something) businesses owners “agrepreneurs”–they’re not your typical back-to-the land types who are just looking for a little farmstead and a modest living–they’re in it to make money.
But they’re also in it to “make a difference”–in terms of their community and their sustainable mission. The question Hewitt raises, which is what really makes this book different than others in the genre, is whether the locals will get on board with that difference and that mission.
Hewitt balances the book by talking to a number of Hardwick-area residents who see local food as a means for a much more radical shift in the consumer-and-capital-driven model that the world has moved to, and those discussions are, to me, what constitutes the real heart of this book–is local food about community and supporting our neighbors, or is it about making money and providing jobs–and shipping some of that high-end product (that many locals may not be able to afford) to not-so-local markets?
Or is it both?
I have been asking myself a lot of these same questions as I work with local producers and consumers in this area. My own farm’s output is sold entirely locally, and my methods of production are open for my customers to see. To this point, I haven’t seen the necessity in certifying organic because of this entirely local sales model.
At the same time, the local food movement in this region has expanded to the point that many of our producers are looking to market more widely. Most producers can’t make a decent living off direct sales alone, and we’re seeing the emergence of cooperative enterprises to market more widely–through an East River online network and plans to open a regional (SE SD, NW IA, NE NE) processing and distribution center.
This gets into a discussion of appropriate scale for local and sustainable food enterprises–a question Hewitt puts to a couple of the “agripreneurs” but gets no definitive answer. In a consumer-and-capital model, the appropriate scale answer is simply, “as big as you can make it,” but that answer seems to run counter to a mission of environmental sustainability even as it promises greater financial success.
But it’s definitely something to think about–and along with community support and general neighborliness, that’s what the book is really about–the questions and the problems rather than definitive answers.
Because of this, many reviewers have called the title, The Town that Food Saved, premature, or even misleading. Many of the “agripreneurial” businesses discussed are still working off loans and operating in the red, after all. But, as most people in the lit business know, titles are often the choice of publishers, and publishers pick titles that sell.
And this book should sell because it tackles questions that very much need to be tackled–even if the answers aren’t clear, or aren’t even the same in every community or situation.
Another question Hewitt raises is, what about the Hardwick project can be exported–how much of this local foods vitality can translate or be transported from one area to another? The answer, according to one of the major “characters” from the book, Tom Stearns of High Mowing Seeds, is that the biggest export is “inspiration.”
That might sound pretty lightweight, but I’ve met Tom Stearns–he came to keynote and conduct workshops at the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society’s winter conference–in Aberdeen, South Dakota–in February.
To give you an idea of what that meant–February on the Northern Plains is not a place I’d willingly visit (and I’m a native Vermonter, and I live on the Northern Plains), and nationally-known keynote speakers at conferences in the Dakotas have a tendency to speak and run.
They don’t stick around and man a table in the exhibit hall and gab with the farmers over a beer in the hotel bar, as Stearns did. By the time he made his closing remarks, this “media whore” (as the book somehow manages to amicably refer to him) had inspired pretty much every person who’d shown up to the three-day event. Not bad.
Another strong suit of the book is the writing style–though in the Amazon reviews, there’s a split between those who loved the writing style, and those who hated it.
I guess the dry northeastern wit was lost on some, but I laughed out loud at several points in the book when Hewitt employed my native Vermont dialect, or made pointed and amusing observations like, “You and I don’t get to sprawl across the sofa masticating pork rinds and watching American Idol unless someone else is growing the food.”
Of course, as a local producer–one who doesn’t eat pork rinds and hasn’t figured out why the DTV converter box isn’t working over a year after its installation, I am that “someone else.”
And as a producer, a member of a farmers market board and an engaged citizen in my community, I think a lot about local food issues–not just in terms of what I want to eat for dinner, but how what I and my neighbors eat (and what we produce, and how and where we sell) affects my community, region, nation, and world.
If your interest in local food goes beyond what you’re putting in your mouth, I’m guessing you’ll find much to think about, and to appreciate in this book, too.