In Rural Vermont, From Famine to Fork

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Carly & Art/flickr


The words local, seasonal, and sustainable have been repeated so often and with so little thought that they have become soothing background noise, feel-good mood-music for any socially conscious eater worth his or her naturally obtained organic sea salt. So it's refreshing to encounter a book that treats the subject intelligently.

Was it Holden Caulfield who said the measure of a good book was one that makes you want to call the author on the phone? Reading Ben Hewitt's The Town That Food Saved impelled me to pay a visit to the author at his home, a raggedy farmstead at the end of a rutted, muddy, unmarked lane tucked among the folds and hollows of north-central Vermont.

Tall and lanky, Hewitt is in his late thirties and grew up in rural, working-class Vermont. His formal education ended before he was able to complete high school. On the morning we met, his red knit cap was flecked with bits of hay, and he wore a faded blue shirt and olive-green work pants dabbed with either mud or manure from the dozen or so cows and sheep in the shed next to his house.

The central character in Hewitt's book is the town of Hardwick, about eight miles from where he lives. A half-burned-out commercial building dominates the main intersection. It's an apt metaphor for the one-blinking-light village. Between 1880 and 1920, Hardwick prospered. It was a major source of granite for the building trade. When reinforced concrete replaced rock as a construction material, the community fell into decay. Today, the town's name is rarely seen in print without the adjective "hardscrabble."

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Rodale Books

But Hardwick may be changing. A band of youthful, boundlessly articulate entrepreneurs are rebuilding the area's economy on a foundation that may be more substantial than the bedrock on which its first boom was based: sustainable, local food production.

On the surface Hardwick's rags-to-not-quite riches story has everything needed to appeal to diehard foodies. As Hewitt writes, "To the enterprising freelance journalist (c'est moi), it presented itself as a gift, neatly wrapped in recycled paper and adorned with a big, fat biodegradable bow."

Whether food has really saved Hardwick is a matter of some debate, which, to his credit, Hewitt airs thoroughly and without bias. But there can be no argument that food has given the town its 15 minutes of fame and then some. Write-ups have appeared in the late Gourmet magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and the New York Times. Emeril Legasse even visited town to film an episode of "Emeril Green."

Hewitt is an amiable skeptic and a storyteller of rare skill who seems incapable of crafting a dull sentence. He calls his tale's key players agrepreneurs. Tom Stearns of High Mowing Organic Seeds is the movement's hyperkinetic mouthpiece. Pete Johnson of Pete's Greens combines unbridled ambition with an entrepreneurial green thumb. Andy and Mateo Kehler of Jasper Hill Farm quietly produce $15-a-pound artisanal cheese that may provide a value-added financial model for dairy farmers struggling under depressed milk prices. A few dozen other well-drawn characters populate this bucolic foodscape. Many came from "away." With their degrees from prestigious liberal arts colleges, most are fond of articulating the philosophical underpinnings of their agrarian ventures. None see any contradiction between doing good work and making money—preferably lots of it.

Presented by

Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.

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