Background image of Jasper Hill Cheese, aging on a shelf

The Reach ofLocal Foods

Photo courtesy of Jasper Hill Farm

The acclaimed local food economy of Hardwick, Vermont is not an island, which is actually a good thing.

Hardwick, Vermont has been an attractive poster child for the local food movement. In the past two decades, this charming, rustic Vermont community—rolling New England hills that light up each fall, Victorian B&Bs, bustling food co-op, mooing cows, and all—has become a magnet for young farmers and mission-driven food entrepreneurs. Ben Notterdam of Snug Valley Farm, who raises pumpkins, grass-fed beef, and pastured pork, explains the appeal: “Friends moved here from another part of Vermont and were blown away by the amount of support from other farms… If something goes wrong, we can borrow equipment or get extra help. There’s a pretty free-flowing sharing environment.”

While collaborative agriculture has existed in the Hardwick area for centuries, this energetic economic revival is fairly new to the area. In the late ’90s and early ’00s, four savvy, mission-driven food businesses made Hardwick, population 3,010, and the surrounding area their home: Jasper Hill Farm, a dairy farm with a creamery and an aging cellar; High Mowing Seeds, an organic seed company that now markets over six hundred seed varieties; Vermont Soy, a soymilk and tofu producer; and Pete’s Greens, a four-season organic meat and vegetable farm. All four like-minded businesses boomed, and their tremendous success in such a concentrated geography attracted the national spotlight.

In the fall of 2008, an article by Marian Burros ran in the New York Times about Hardwick, colorfully praising its ‘agri-prenueral’ spirit and movement toward a closed-loop food system, where “Internet pioneers, young artisans and agricultural entrepreneurs are… working together to create a collective strength never before seen in this seedbed of Yankee individualism.” Two years later, Ben Hewitt’s The Town that Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food hit bookshelves, singing Hardwick’s praises. In the last chapter, Hewitt writes, “In a society that’s trying to find its footing on many, many fronts, Hardwick, Vermont, with all its scruff and authenticity, feels like an island of security and sanity.”

man standing in very tall cheese cave

Jasper Hill

In the cellars at Jasper Hill Farm, cheese from their own creamery and others around the area ripen. The shared space, equipment and collaborative ethos allow many cheesemakers, large and small, to exist in the community.

While Hardwick may be harnessing a wealth of collective strength, and is, quite literally, a seedbed for one of the nation’s largest organic seed producers, it is far from an island. Its economic powerhouses are all export-focused businesses, serving urban metropolises in addition to local communities. Hardwick’s local food economy is, in a sense, subsidized by larger-scale export operations like Jasper Hill Farm and Vermont Soy. The diversity of existing producers fused with the high level of collaboration between the variously sized businesses and the web of connections between food producers and institutions, including food pantries, schools, and non-profits, has allowed Hardwick to flourish even as its dairy and granite industries have faded.

But does this convivial spirit and economic growth correspond to better livelihoods and quality of life for all Hardwick residents? Many within and outside of the community have been working to shed light on what is really going on there. The community itself has been assertive in questioning the overwrought attention garnered by the media and examining what their success means and how it can continue to evolve. If, as Hewitt wrote, food is their savior, how can its benefits reach the most disadvantaged community members?

The pastoral images of a local food system obscure the true innovation and malleability of communities that make it work.

Economic researcher Kathryn Olson is contributing to this process, bringing an academic approach to understanding what the data shows about what is working in Hardwick’s food system, what isn’t, who it’s benefiting, and what lessons might apply to other communities. As part of the Future Economy Initiative to better understand economic models intended to support environmental health and social equity, she undertook interviews and data-analysis to investigate this acclaimed paragon of the local food movement. (Read the case study, Growing in Place: Building a Local Food Economy in Vermont.) What she found is a more nuanced picture that, while challenging the rosy vision of a local food system as the ticket to environmental, socially equitable, and economic resilience, shows a process in motion that is trickier but also more promising than island life.

The Vermont Food Venture Center provides the staffing and space necessary for processing large quantities of food, like these locally grown potatoes, into storable goods and valuable donations.

Hub for Innovation

The Vermont Food Venture Center sits in an industrial park on the outskirts of Hardwick. The muted heather green building houses processing facilities, a rental kitchen, cold storage space, and classrooms for nutritional and educational purposes. On an early fall day, the building is humming. Here, Vermont’s up-and-coming food entrepreneurs are learning their business chops, and local farmers have a place to have their product processed and stored, often for distribution at local schools, food banks, and the Buffalo Mountain Co-op, which stocks food and goods from 188 local producers.

The Vermont Food Venture Center, which is located at the nonprofit Center for an Agricultural Economy (CAE) represents the heart of Hardwick’s outsized strategic collaboration. Alongside the four powerhouse agri-preneurs, who helped found the Center, more than two hundred farmers and producers in the surrounding areas make up the diverse, interdependent, and highly collaborative system. They share equipment, storage space, knowledge, and even by-products. Andrew Meyer of Vermont Soy has patented a natural wood finish product, Vermont Natural Coatings, made with a byproduct of cheesemaking that he often procures from local cheesemakers. The Notterdams of Snug Valley Farms raise pigs on produce from neighboring farms, vegetable seconds that cannot be sold at markets. They also are buying bulls, the expensive by-products of dairy farming, from nearby dairies, and raising them locally for quality beef.

Olson’s research shows that the Hardwick economy has fared better than the Vermont average. Since 2000, 285 jobs have been created, more than half of them due to the four area agri-businesses, the CAE, and the Food Venture Center. It has made a big difference in this town of just over 3,000. Unemployment has fallen in Hardwick since 2000 in spite of the 2008 recession, and the mean household income in Hardwick has increased by 18%, a remarkable rise compared to the decrease in the statewide mean income of 2.3% over the same period of time.

Sarah Waring, executive director of the CAE, reports restored vibrancy in the downtown area: “You go downtown on Friday night and the restaurants are filled with young farmers and people who work at ag businesses in the area. Things don’t sit empty as much as they used to.”

While these numbers point to better livelihood for some, the wider impacts of the local food economy and the agriculture renaissance of the past fourteen years have not yet been enough to shrink the proportion of families below the poverty line, which, Olson explains, has remained basically flat between 2000 and 2012. Many of these families lack access to healthy food, even in the midst of a humming export economy featuring high-value artisanal products.

This paradox is evident to members of the Hardwick community. In fact, in some cases, the export of high value products is allowing businesses to support community organizations that feed the town. Pete Johnson of Pete’s Greens says, “Part of what I see is that if we can ship some food to New York in a pretty straightforward, efficient manner and make a profit on that, that only helps us to do a better job with local schools, where we don’t really make a profit.”

In a number of ways, Waring and her team at the Food Venture Center and CAE are capitalizing on the collaborative system built by the network of farms and the agri-businesses in the Hardwick area to expand the connections to food pantries and the Vermont Food Bank, thus incorporating those with limited food access into the local food nexus.

“If something goes wrong, we can borrow equipment or get extra help. There’s a pretty free-flowing sharing environment.”

The CAE is working with the Hardwick Food Pantry to manage donations, apply for grants, and purchase food directly from farmers within a thirty-mile radius at market price. Farmers don’t have to discount their prices, and, Waring says, the grant program establishes a relationship between pantry and farmer, such that farmers will be more willing to donate excess food and will understand the process for donation.

Another grant-based project came in response to interest from the food pantry in promoting food sovereignty among its clients. In collaboration with Waring and the CAE, the food pantry wrote the “Growing Your Own” grant that now funds gardening and processing workshops that are open to the whole community. After polling food pantry clients to better understand their needs, the food pantry organized workshops dedicated to learning the ins and outs of gardening, such as succession planting, and processing methods, such as canning. High Mowing Seeds donates the seeds.

Farm to school connections have expanded with the support of the CAE, which oversees both the necessary garden space and the Food Venture Center, where larger donations can be processed before being donated or sold to the schools. A common roadblock in the farm to school process is just that—processing. Often, schools don’t have the facilities or equipment to process large raw food donations and farmers lack the time and money to do it themselves. From processing raw carrots into cut and frozen carrots to turning 4,000 pounds of cheese donated by Jasper Hill into pre-made macaroni and cheese, the Food Venture Center provides the necessary middle piece in a resilient and equitable local food system.

To date, the CAE and the Food Venture Center have processed and sold 46,000 pounds of local fruits and vegetables for Vermont institutions and markets. These efforts require the willing and careful attention from the full range of diverse collaborators, whose broad-ranging activities keep the center well utilized. Johnson of Pete’s Greens says, “You really need a mix of all the different scales. For example, we’re doing all kinds of dicing now for schools in our kitchen, and we can only do it because we have a huge quantity of seconds that we can’t sell as firsts—carrots, beets, turnips—because they are cosmetically blemished. But over the course of a winter we have 80,000 to 100,000 pounds of these things. For us, they go right into our kitchen, we dice them up on a machine and they go right to the schools. You need an operation of a certain scale to do that.”

farm houses under a blue sky
The "Green Machine" at Jasper Hill Farm gleans value-added compost, clean irrigation water, and heat energy from what would have been waste material.

Beyond food miles

Local food is sometimes discussed in terms of “food miles” and one of the most promising things about localism, early on, was that greenhouse gas emission would be cut significantly by reducing the distance food would travel from farm to plate. But some have suggested that only 11% of greenhouse gas emissions are due to transport of food; the majority, 82%, are attributed to production, which is where practices such as grass- versus grain-fed, and input-intensive versus agro-ecological come into play. Eating a local cut of beef versus an imported one does not necessarily or drastically reduce the overall environmental impact of its production. This means that localism, by itself, is not a sign of environmental health.

Instead, many in Hardwick tend to measure environmental success by how well they protect and enhance dynamic farmlands. As Andy Kehler of thriving creamery Jasper Hill explains, “Our business is aimed at preserving the working landscape and agricultural soils in Vermont. All of us have an economic goal aimed at figuring out how to make agriculture the highest and best use of the land. If you can’t crack that nut, the highest and best use is going to be development.”

The model that Hardwick presents is one that is based, by way of planning and distributing resources, on locality, but is executed on a larger, non-local scale. The broader reverberations of this case study point to a redefining of local food. Olson says, “Perhaps we need a definition of local that is not so literal… People often talk about local food economies as if communities ought to be islands, growing and exchanging every input and output within their borders, however they are defined.” Yet, export agriculture has been present in Vermont since 1792, first with surplus grain that was sent north, then with wool sent south. “The exports in an economy then should not be considered a failure or irony or even hypocritical feature but rather a long-necessary mechanism for transferring wealth from other places into a community,” Olson says. She concludes that manifesting “success” in Hardwick’s food economy “is about encouraging the growth of complementary farms and businesses, local infrastructure, and new institutional relationships in ways that are regenerative to the social and ecological context.”

The organizational features of the Hardwick food economy that have been crucial to its economic success are replicable. Olson lists the diversity of enterprises, including the right balance of local and export, a highly-networked and collaborative business community, and a non-profit hub. As Olson writes, “This is not a vision for an economy that is local in an absolute sense of imports and exports, but rather one that is local in inspiration and motivation. It is a vision for an economy that grows from its roots, building on the particular assets of its community and combining local and export enterprises for the benefit of that community.”

What the Hardwick case reveals is that as economies continue to evolve in the global age, the pastoral images of a local food system obscure the true innovation and malleability of communities that make it work, qualities we will need both to measure success and feed our communities in the future.