Review of “The Town That Food Saved”

The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local FoodThe Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food by Ben Hewitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While in Burlington, VT for a series of meetings and the NOFA-VT Winter Conference, I stopped at the Crow Bookstore to see what I could pick up for background on Vermont’s agricultural movement to understand its emergence as a “direct marketing” flag bearer for the alternative food community.

The book is focused on Hardwick, Vermont a small town (3200 pop.) 30 miles from the capitol of Montpelier and an hour or so from Burlington.
Hewitt starts slowly with the idea of exploring Hardwick’s reputation as a “National Alternative Agricultural Star”, which he acknowledges has been made so by outside media, including Hewitt himself and The New York Times among others.
The book profiles a few of the Hardwick’s ag economy’s “leading citizens” including Tom Stearns of High Mowing Seeds, Pete Johnson of Pete’s Greens (at the time, the state’s largest CSA, along with mucho wholesale and farmers market sales), Andrew Meyer of Vermont Soy Company, and assorted others like Jasper Hills Farms, Tom Gilbert of Highfields Center For Composting, North Hardwick Dairy, Claire’s Restaurant, Buffalo Mountain Coop, Center For an Agricultural Economy, and a few individual farmers and neighbors who take the time to give their opinion on the state of things in Vermont. He lets those interviewed tell him the pros and cons of what they and their neighbors are creating. He finds a couple of schools of thought although all sides seem to agree that this is a revolution of one type or another. Some offer their analysis of the Hardwick story from the point of view of a small, committed group building new components for achieving wealth and knowledge to share while the others believe they show it through their independent but community-connected lifestyle that doesn’t want to “win” over the other guys and exists as the opposite of what American capitalism has weakly offered most places.

This book was helpful to me. I spend my life thinking about alternative food systems and most of that time working among the disciples of it rather than those not yet sure that it serves them. To his credit, that Hewitt includes a few voices critical of this system like Steve Gorelick and Suzanna Jones in Walden is incredibly useful and incredibly rare in books of this kind. Their argument is one that I hear less often but one that I actually agree with: the new system cannot be built on the industrial model: either from its economics, its scale or its terminology. Suzanna points out her loathing of terms like entrepreneurs and food security and gave me the first laugh of the book: “People are always doing stupid things in the name of groovy ag movements.”

Hewitt makes the fair point that much of what is being touted as local food is actually being exported or simply out of the reach for the cash-restricted Hardwick citizen. Those participating will agree but make the point that they are preparing the way for the next wave of farmers and entrepreneurs and boldly testing systems and new relationships.
He also considers the hard work and commitment that these new ag leaders are putting into building their projects. All of them are thinking about how to spread their worth and influence while showcasing their (often dazzling) project success to investors and policymakers.
I found Tom Gilbert to be a particularly effective champion for both sides of the argument, probably in part because he seems to see the holes that yet exist in it.
“We have not created a new system in Hardwick; we’re just rebuilding and utilizing the infrastructure that was already here. I think we let the media get ahead of us. People read all of this amazing stuff was happening and it put everyone’s expectations on steroids…This is a building process, and we’re not ready to put the roof on, because we haven’t put the walls up yet.”
Hewitt also includes one of the most elegant, simple descriptions of local systems that I have seen in recent years in the book. It’s on Page 172 and I could write it out (because I copied it!) but I think everyone should read it within context of the arguments made.
The question of how to measure these systems is also touched upon and since that questions is so near and dear to my own heart, I wish more time had been spent discussing that with the members of the community.
Near the end, Hewitt attempts to unravel the issue of scale, which also proves that he has done his homework because it seems to me to be the Kryptonite of alternative food systems. A comment from Tom Stearns near the end shows the complicated relationship that this community has with the issue: “There is the assumption that big is bad, but maybe it’s just that big is only bad when doing bad things.”
I can only imagine what Suzanna Jones thought about THAT statement.

The Town That Food Saved as the title seems to me to be one of the only under thought-out ideas in this book. Hardwick seems saved by its size, its wealth of shared intellectual capital (sorry Suzanna!) and by being in a state that offers a safety net to all and yet seems to try to leave its citizens alone.
As for food systems, Hewitt hits on the reason why alternative food systems are growing so quickly in Vermont when he talks about the editorial that the Hardwick Gazette printed, linking food system skills to participation in democratic systems, and he himself does it on the aforementioned page 172: the idea of being responsible for your own and your neighbors’ (read community in 21st century speak) quality of life has never gone out of fashion in Vermont.
To finish that argument, my go-to guy in this story (Tom Gilbert) said it very well: ‘One of my missions is to equip people with the tools for community health and sovereignty. I‘m most interested in how whole systems can be used to combat other forms of oppression.”
Amen brother. And pass the local cider.

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