The Town that Food Saved (Rodale, $25) is among the most engaging, thoughtful, and manure-stained-honest appraisals of local agriculture and edibles since Michael Pollan rocketed to cult fame with a seven-word manifesto about plants.
The town in question is an otherwise unremarkable little dogpath called Hardwick, Vermont, which popped up on the national foodie scope a few years back after author Ben Hewitt wrote a magazine piece about its happy convergence of iconoclastic producers, food-related non-profits, cafes, doers, and dreamers. The New York Times followed suit, as did assorted other buzz-makers.
Why the fuss? It turns out that Hardwick hosts a wide range of innovative agricultural businesses and thinktanks, a semi-cohesive spontaneous community of “agrepreneurs.” The mix includes salt-of-the-earth farmers, publicity-hungry eNGO executive directors, and values-driven business people who are accomplishing a great deal with minimal fuss. While many small-town Americans still get groceries from Buy N’ Large, Hardwick has cooked up an almost-sustainable honest-to-god local food system of CSAs, co-ops, value-added geniuses, and everything in between.
Could a relocalizing revolution be afoot here? Will historians pinpoint this blue-collar former quarry town of 3,100—and not Berkeley, or Seattle, or someplace else with better restaurants—as the place where America reinvented its food system? Is this where Monsanto finally meets its maker? And further, does all this ferment have legs? Can it scale up and out and across? Should it?
In attempting to answer these questions, Hewitt takes us to a seed business, the kitchen of an organic restaurant, and to the home of a pair of cranky take-no-prisoners off-the-grid quasi-revolutionaries, who feed him organic lasagna. He also gets his hands bloody. In the most entertaining chapter of the book, Hewitt rides shotgun with Ralph and Cindy Persons, a very likable couple who run a two-person mobile abattoir operation. Hewitt joins them on their morning rounds, eviscerating pigs and lopping off chicken heads from one end of the county to the other:
They simply do not care that what they do fits within the framework of the local foods trend. They don’t tailor their message, or attempt to somehow soft pedal the grisly nature of their work. They carry pig livers home for dinner in the bed of their pickup; they keep a bag of chicken feet for the dogs on top of the woodpile just outside their front door, right under the wind chimes. They were curious that I was curious about them, but no more, really. If a healthy food system is one that’s built from the ground up, on trial and toil and the humble willingness to do what needs to be done, even when what needs to be done might be difficult and dirty, then the Persons are as much a model of inspiration as anything that’s happening in Hardwick. And they don’t even know it.
Here Hewitt finds his groove and Town delivers hope—by giving voice to the people who aren’t working from a mission statement and answering to a board, but are just doing what they do because it’s what they do. Some of them are mighty pissed off about the new wave of groovy-ag advocates, who blather into mobile phones about “capacity building strategies” but have never once risen at 4:30 to tend livestock.
Hewitt doesn’t fall into the trap of romanticizing family farm life, he goes out of his way to show it as back-breaking work that is about as economically viable as, say, freelance journalism. Local food thrives here because of a set of mostly invisible and unheralded connections between people. While so much of what we eat is the product of agribusiness lobbyists, federal regulations, subsidies, and global supply chains with massive petroleum inputs, Hewitt finds that food politics is ultimately very local.
Hewitt doesn’t lay out all the answers, but he asks the right questions without deluding himself that we, the heirloom-tomato enthusiasts, are even scratching at the surface of change.
The fact is we need to rethink our entire food supply chain, for reasons of economic security, health security, and even social security. We need to reinvent how we grow and distribute food; we need to re-scale and decentralize.
It is hard to grasp the enormity of this task on a national scale. It is no less challenging or important than wrenching our economy and way of life from the clutches of petroleum. And yet there has been no consensus on the issue; indeed, there has been little in the way of serious debate beyond the growing-but-still-very-much-in-the-minority community of locavores, bouncing around farmer’s markets with their reusable organic cotton satchels.
To be sure, they are an important part of our agricultural renewal. But between them and a healthy national food system lie thousands and thousands of acres of corn and soy and wheat, sown into depleted soils and coaxed to life with chemical fertilizers, waiting to be harvested, amalgamated into shelf-stable concoctions, packaged, and trucked across a nation of people who have already forgotten it wasn’t always like this. And can’t imagine that it won’t always remain so.
This is what I love about Town. It celebrates the possible and the necessary, it reveals the wonderful relationships and connections borne of an almost-complete local food system, but doesn’t shy from the enormity and messiness of the task. It reveals the rough outlines of how we might “take back” our food without descending into over-simplified strategies and pat advice about starting community gardens. What’s happening in Hardwick is less a conscious movement, and more a set of historical precedents embraced by a handful of eccentrics that happen to line up in the same direction. It’s an almost accidental critical mass, flailing its way forward.
Town will resonate with those of us who grasp the enormity of our challenge, those of us who turn soil and try to embrace change, but who still have one foot firmly planted in the cereal aisle at Safeway. An impressive debut.
The Town That Food Saved can be purchased from The Galaxy Bookshop in downtown Hardwick, Vermont, and everywhere else fine books are sold.
Disclosure: A number of years ago, I had an occasional business relationship with the author. cmp.ly/1/pll5ud