A Real Life Local Food Economy

May 18, 2010

The Town that Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food was the perfect follow-up to Inquiries Into the Nature of Slow Money (previous post).  Both books work to answer a critical question: how can a local food economy be viable? In The Town that Food Saved, investigative journalist Ben Hewitt sheds some ethnographic light on the local food movement in Hardwick, Vermont. As the town received press due to successful, what Hewitt calls agrepeneurial, local food ventures, Hewitt turned to the long-time inhabitants of the region displayed in the media as a local food utopia.

Could Hardwick really serve as a model for local food economies across the country?

What is a successful local food economy?

Hewitt proposed these 4 principles:

1. It must offer economic viability to small-scale food producers.

2. It must be based on sunshine.

3. It must feed the locals.

4. It must be circular.

With a composting facility, a growing relationship between High Mowing Organic Seeds (read: squash flesh post seed-extraction) and Pete’s Greens (read: large kitchen), and a pig herd to eat expired cheese from Jasper Hill Farm, Hardwick’s food system is a closed one. The region has a high percentage of organic farms that steer clear of chemical fertilizers and rely instead upon careful farming techniques and the energy from the sun.

20-dollar-a-pound cheese from Jasper Hill Farm, $748/CSA share at Pete’s Greens, and heady home-state tofu, these new agrepeneurs are hanging in there. Much of that money undoubtedly stays in the region (there is a local food Community Supported Restaurant [!] called Claire’s and the Buffalo Mountain Food Coop in Hardwick), but the majority of the residents can’t afford to eat at Claire’s and would never dream of buying cheese from Jasper Hill.

How can this be reconciled?  These are great local food enterprises that are successful, and yet the people who live down the road from them cannot afford to buy their products.  Well, these enterprises have created about 100 much-needed jobs in the area.  The more food ventures the more jobs.  It is unfortunate that many people in Hardwick are left out, but only if these new businesses are successful will the money trickle down.

Unlike most businessmen, the agrepeneurs in Hardwick are trying to connect with the folks that live there and make locally produced food available to them. The Center for an Agricultural Economy is an organization in Hardwick.

The vision and mission of the Center for an Agricultural Economy (CAE) is to ensure that consumers have access to healthy, secure, affordable and locally-grown food within our region, and that farmers and agricultural based businesses have reliable and efficient access to local and regional markets.

Our bold vision is to build upon local tradition and bring together the community resources needed to develop and sustain a food system that is holistic in its approach. We recognize and support a healthy food system that encompasses soils, seeds, farms, transportation, processing & storage, distribution, consumers, enterprise and waste.

We support the desire of rural communities to rebuild their economic and ecological health through strong, secure, and revitalized agricultural systems to meet both their own food needs locally as well as to determine and build the best opportunities for value-added agricultural exports.

Is Hardwick the perfect model?  Well, no. But it is on its way. I guess a more important question is: Will there ever be a perfect model? There will always be work to be done making our food system more sustainable.  We must also keep in mind that any good local food system is place-based.  It is true that part of Hardwick’s recent success is due to the young businessmen that have hopped under the limelight, but it is also because of the long-standing commitment to simple, agricultural lifestyles that have given the region a community-based vitality that many places have lost.

This was a fantastic book that examined local food through a lens of economic viability and cultural importance.  Anecdotal evidence from living in the area combined with interviews with many community members, Hewitt comes from an anthropological perspective and says: We know local food is where we need to go. How can we get there?

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