Vt. Town's Food Focus Still A Growing Concept The book The Town That Food Saved put Hardwick and its local food community on the map. But small farms can translate to prices too high for many customers. So farmers are focusing on efficiency and new ways to broaden the appeal of local fare.
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Vermont Town's Food Focus Still A Growing Concept

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Vermont Town's Food Focus Still A Growing Concept

Vermont Town's Food Focus Still A Growing Concept

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A town in northern Vermont is celebrated as the scene of a local food revival. Small farms are multiplying around this town, which is called Hardwick. The hard part, though, is making that local food cheap or convenient enough for local people to eat it. They're working on that. And Dan Charles has our report.

DAN CHARLES: Ben Hewitt, as much as anyone, made Hardwick famous. He's a writer. He lives down the road from Hardwick, and what he saw happening there struck him as unusual, even odd.

Mr. BEN HEWITT (Writer): Here's this town, you know, unemployment rate 40 percent higher than the Vermont state average; median income 25 percent lower; and then there was this thing happening around, you know, so-called sustainable agriculture and local food.

CHARLES: This thing was lots of small farms starting up. One local farmer claims the area around town has more organic farms per capita than anywhere else in the world. Also, a thriving local grocery co-op; a busy farmer's market; even a classy restaurant where almost anything you eat grew or grazed on land nearby.

So Hewitt wrote a book about Hardwick, "The Town that Food Saved."

(Soundbite of chatter)

CHARLES: At the local high school, Hazen Union, some students in senior-level English classes have been reading and discussing that book as a class assignment. And they don't like it very much. They don't think Hewett told the whole story. Derek Demers, for instance.

Mr. DEREK DEMERS: He only covers one side of the town. There's the side of the town that is for this local food movement. But there's, I think, even a greater side of the town, with more people, that can't afford the local food movement. I work at our local supermarket grocery store, and I see most of the people in the town there.

CHARLES: That supermarket food is shipped in from far away, but it's mostly cheaper than the local squash and greens and tomatoes on sale at the town co-op.

Ricky Wetherell says that's why people go to big chain supermarkets in Hardwick -and everywhere.

Mr. RICKY WETHERELL: I feel like the whole world is sort of moving towards even more, you know, not local.

Mr. DEMERS: But at the same time, awareness, awareness is going up so much lately, especially around our area. So there's like, there's two sides to this food thing, and both of which seem to be growing, so...

Mr. WETHERELL: Yeah. I totally agree with that.

CHARLES: The students point out that some of their town's successful local farms are selling high-priced cheese and organic tofu in places like Boston and New York. It's not really for the locals. Senior Morgan Worden...

Ms. MORGAN WORDEN (Student): And it's not that people don't want to eat healthy, because they certainly see the benefits of eating locally and healthfully. But we just simply don't have the money to do so. And that's the sad thing.

CHARLES: But this is not the end of the story because some people in Hardwick are trying to change that, and make the town's local food everybody's food.

Pete Johnson, for instance. He owns one of the biggest organic farms in the area, Pete's Greens. From the roadside above his farm, you see seven greenhouses lined up side-by-side. Beyond them lie 50 acres of fields with crops just emerging from brown soil.

Mr. PETE JOHNSON (Organic Farmer): You know, some of this food has been kind of fancy and on the fringes, and perhaps a bit overpriced because the efficiencies of production are low. I mean, a lot of these farms - our farm is small, and it's really diversified, which means that we're not particularly efficient at raising anything.

CHARLES: So Johnson is moving his farm a little bit in the industrial direction - trying to get bigger and more efficient.

Mr. JOHNSON: You want to see our new infrastructure, briefly?

CHARLES: Love to see it.

(Soundbite of door)

CHARLES: He rolls up a door at one end of the greenhouse and suddenly, we're looking at a giant construction site.

(Soundbite of banging)

Mr. JOHNSON: We had a barn fire here this winter, and so now we're rebuilding our facility, and we're doing things like building a very large freezer.

CHARLES: That's to store his broccoli or berries to sell at markets all winter. He's buying equipment that will cut and wash vegetables, puree squash - anything to make it more convenient for busy people.

Mr. JOHNSON: That's really a key part of reaching a bigger group. And then what's the point of doing this if we're only reaching the 7percent who are already converted, you know?

CHARLES: Johnson says he wants people to rely on local food and local farmers for all kinds of reasons.

Mr. JOHNSON: For me, one of the biggest ones is the cultural aspects. You know, these hills used to be populated by small farms - just cluttered with small farms everywhere. And now, I mean, even with this resurgence we have going on, we don't have the culture that we used to have.

CHARLES: A culture where everybody knows a farmer, and knows what it takes to grow food.

Mr. JOHNSON: When I graduated from college in 1997, and I told my friends I was going to be a vegetable farmer, there was no response. It was just like they didn't know where to go with that, you know? And now I tell people what I do, and everybody has some story to connect to it and is excited about it. And young folks, more and more of them want to stay here. They see being involved in one of these businesses, or starting their own, as an exciting future.

CHARLES: Even managers at the two local supermarkets in Hardwick are now trying to put a few more local vegetables on their shelves.

Lynn DeLaricheliere, at the Grand Union supermarket, says her corporate supervisors took some convincing.

Ms. LYNN DELARICHELIERE (Supermarket Employee): But they're understanding now. Once you make them see, and they actually come to this town and realize how important it is, it does - it's going to happen.

CHARLES: Do you have any concerns?

Ms. DELARICHELIERE: No. I want local. The more the better.

CHARLES: What got you interested in doing this?

Ms. DELARICHELIERE: The people. It's the first question they ask: Where's the corn from? Where's the lettuce from? Where are the cucumbers from? You know, are they local? This is a town that's - it's different. It's special.

CHARLES: And that's what you hear from a lot of people in Hardwick.

Mr. ZACH HARTLING: The community here is so tight. Like, everybody knows everybody.

CHARLES: Zach Hartling is one of the students I talked to at Hazen Union High School. He moved here from Connecticut, and he still has an outsider's perspective on the place.

Mr. HARTLING: So I think that sense of community and knowing like, where the food's coming from...

CHARLES: Really knowing where it comes from - knowing whose hands harvested it.

Mr. HARTLING: That just has a huge impact on the way things work.

CHARLES: The longer these high school students talk, the more they seem to come around to the idea that they, and a lot of people in town, do participate in local food one way or another.

Mr. HARTLING: The farmer's market moved this year to the Atkins Field, and it's getting bigger; like, it's expanding a lot.

Mr. DEMERS: Connie's Kitchen just moved into a bigger location right in town.

Mr. HARTLING: That's true. And Connie's Kitchen isn't organic but...

Mr. FINN KANE (Student): It shows...

Mr. HARTLING: It's local, and it shows the growth of this town.

CHARLES: Junior Finn Kane likes to cook. He dreams of opening his own restaurant here.

Mr. KANE: I think the history of this town has always been, you know, of hard times.

Ms. MEGAN URIE: And we persevere.

CHARLES: That's Megan Urie. She lives on a farm. Her mother is growing all the potatoes for meals at Lakewood Elementary School this year.

Ms. URIE: I feel like it's kind of just one of those places in the world that you have hard times; you have a neighbor; and you, you know, you help each other out. It's give and take, and it's just - it's nice.

Mr. DEMERS: Like I don't think that, I don't think that food has saved Hardwick; I don't think that Hardwick has found the answer.

CHARLES: Derek Demers is the senior who works at the Grand Union supermarket.

Mr. DEMERS: But I think that Hardwick is on the right path, more so than most other places. I think we're headed in the right direction; we have a great start.

CHARLES: Maybe the same thing can't happen in bigger towns or megacities. Maybe Hardwick is different. But in this small town, at least, food is moving from the fringes of local life back toward its heart.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Charles.

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