What is the potential of locally-focused food enterprises for economic and community revitalization? That question is at the heart of an endearing, if sometimes rambling, book by Vermont farmer Ben Hewitt. The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food (Rodale Press, 2009) examines the role of food-based enterprises in the rural community of Hardwick, Vermont.
For centuries an agricultural community in one way or another, in the early 2000s several new food-based enterprises took root in and around Hardwick. These new ‘agrepreneurial’ ventures differed from their forebears primarily in their level of financial backing – which, in itself, was enough to produce a bounty of both press coverage and community tension. Although they built on the same fertile soil, rural resource network, and idealism as all the other dairies and vegetable farms, in a scrappy rural community, a well-funded neighbor with a big megaphone is enough to produce some resentment. The Town That Food Saved follows the growth of three such new ventures over the course of a year, incorporating the stories (and opinions) of the men at their helms as well as those of several farming families of an older vintage.
These conversations revolve around several common themes: the pride of a rural community in surviving, thriving, and living out ideals in the midst of adverse circumstances; resentment against newcomers who haven’t yet ‘proved their chops,’ yet garner lots of attention for their still-nascent projects; the structure of local food economies, a subject about which all of the book’s subjects have strong feelings; and a shared deep love of land, soil, and labor. Hewitt’s interviews bring out the idealism of each of his subjects and a common commitment they all have – old and new – to stick with their projects and create something of value through thick and thin. If the older farmers’ resentment had any ground, it was that the new players did not include them – or ‘the community’ – in any discussion or planning whilst setting out their visions of what their new projects would do for or with ‘the community.’ No community likes to be spoken for. A lesson, perhaps, in just how important inclusive planning is.
However, despite mistakes and challenges (including that of starting new businesses in the midst of the 2008 recession), the food enterprises described in The Town That Food Saved have been large successful. High Mowing Organic Seeds, a primary focus of the book, was scrappy startup at the time. It has since grown to a major supplier for Northeast farmers and a financial supporter for many educational initiatives for organic farmers. The Center for an Agricultural Economy has also seen success with its shared commercial kitchen space and revival of a ‘commons’ area for public recreation, community gardens, and farm incubation space. Ben Hewitt’s neighbors are still slaughtering livestock and his garden still produces blueberries.
Although published nearly a decade ago, the same themes are still highly relevant today. As a farmer and member of a strong local food community in New Jersey, I was frequently a part of discussions about about the viability of local food enterprises and how new players in the food scene should interact with the community were common. In fact, these concerns were at the forefront of our minds. Many of us working on farms, at land trusts, and with supporting nonprofits do so out of a love for and desire to reunite land, food, and community. We were often willing to work long hours for little pay, hoping we can last that way until our ventures become stable both in their impact – and in their balance sheet.
In doing so, we faced the challenge of doing enough outreach to situate our ventures within community – while also staying true to the core mission that brought us as individuals to this work, and that got us out of bed at 4 am each morning. Farmers and nonprofit workers alike need to incorporate community (whether local or defined in broader terms) into our ventures, yet can struggle with ‘scope creep’ – taking on concerns of community members that may distract from our core mission. The push-pull inherent when we involve community in our ventures is exhausting – yet it’s essential. As High Mowing and CAE found in The Town That Food Saved, skipping over the time-consuming work of being an active member of community (and letting neighbors be an active part of one’s venture) has consequences for one’s business. It can be easy to dismiss the importance of community involvement, thinking that time at town hall meetings and dinner-table conversations doesn’t pay – but it does. Input from neighbors, old-timers, and the unexpected guest can have remarkable impact on one’s venture, and good community relationships are closely tied to a good customer base or to potential business partnerships. And it’s important to remember that good community relations are not the same thing as newspaper coverage or a good Instagram. Locally focused food enterprises are powerful agents in the food system and community revitalization – as long as they do it.
For curious readers: Hewitt has since published three more books, blogs prolifically, and somehow manages to keep his farm going at the same time. Read about his activities at http://www.benhewitt.net