Vermont Town Tries Sustainable Economy

Young entrepreneurs in the hardscrabble community of Hardwick are trying to create a sustainable economy based on local food production. So far, it's doing quite well.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now, with Day to Day. As Americans cut back on spending across the board, few businesses seem recession-proof, but there are some things we just can't live without including food. In northeastern Vermont a group of farmers and entrepreneurs are trying to build an economy based on local food products. Reporter Kinna Ohman visited them to see how the venture is working.

KINNA OHMAN: It's lunch time at the Buffalo Mountain Club in Hardwick, Vermont. A group of outdoorsy looking 30-somethings sit at a table, they gobble down their food, checks cell phones and talk non-stop about their latest ideas. Right now the conversations turn to milking goats. Andrew Myers heard from someone who thinks there is room for a local goat dairy.

Mr. ANDREW MYERS (Goat Farmer): So let's do it. They need an equivalent 2,000 goats. There's an opportunity for someone to start milking goats right up the hill.

OHMAN: But, Tom Sterns isn't in to it.

Mr. TOM STERNS: You're brothers?

Mr. MYERS: You and me.

Mr. STERNS: No way, dude.

OHMAN: Myers and Sterns are part of a group that meets once a month. Sometimes they mull over what kind of business is the community still needs. They really need a flour mill right now. Other times, they'll figure out how to share things like equipment and marketing. Tom Sterns says during one meeting they realized they could share something else.

Mr. STERNS: Somebody was talking about how they needed $50,000. It was a short term need. Well, the next person said, I've got 50 grand. Since then there's been about $300,000 lent in and around in the group in that way.

OHMAN: Their success is infectious. Other communities want advice for how to start their own local food systems. The group has attracted investors and they've created a non-profit to focus on ideas and funding. But, they're still challenged by the high poverty of the region. Just a block away from the Buffalo Mountain Club, Val Simmons(ph) is hard at work in the Hardwick Elementary School cafeteria. She says more than 60 percent of the children here qualify for free or reduced price meals. And that's twice the average for the rest of Vermont.

Ms. VAL SIMMONS (Employee, Hardwick Elementary School): We can give them breakfast, snack and lunch. We know that when they leave here, they're OK, and we don't have any control once they walk out the door.

OHMAN: The local food businesses donate vegetables and other products for school meals, but the entrepreneurs know they need to do more if they're really going to improve the local economy. Right now, most of them offer jobs with few benefits. They're counting on growth and new opportunities to change this. And their businesses are growing fast.

(Soundbite of engine running)

OHMAN: Today is delivery day at Keith Johnson's(ph) organic vegetable farm just outside of Hardwick. He's been up since 4:30 this morning loading his truck.

Mr. KEITH JOHNSON (Johnson's Organic Vegetable Farm): We have apples from sampling orchards. Bright lights chard, cilantro...

OHMAN: Johnson employs 13 people in his farm and expects to hire more. But he says building up a local food system can do more for the economy than add jobs. He thinks when an economy is based on food, it's resilient because we'll always need to eat and when it's grown by a neighbor, well, Johnson believes that can meet another need of the people in his community during these tough economic times.

Mr. JOHNSON: They look inwards, they look towards home. And they look towards being safe and secure and securing a food supply is a big part of that.

OHMAN: A lot of people seem to agree. Just recently the University of Vermont announced it will provide funding and research for the Hardwick entrepreneurs allowing them to take one big step closer to their dream of building a local and resilient food system. For NPR News, I'm Kinna Ohman.

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