Locals, speaker chart course for area food movement
NEW HAVEN — The crowd that packed the space at the Lincoln Peak Vineyard building in New Haven last Thursday night, sipping on wine and nibbling local appetizers, could have been attending a party.
But the event that drew nearly 100 people, including a number of prominent figures in county farming and agriculture, was the annual meeting of the Addison County Relocalization Network, known locally as ACORN.
ACORN President Jonathan Corcoran said that this year the annual meeting was different from years past, when it was conducted like every other meeting of the group, in a room at the Addison County Regional Planning Commission with seven or eight people — mostly board members — in attendance.
This year’s meeting, which Corcoran described as the organization’s “coming out party,” drew an attendance 10 times that of past years. Corcoran presented an overview of ACORN’s successes over the past year, which was followed by a presentation by Cabot writer Ben Hewitt, who chronicles the local foods movement in the Hardwick area in his book, “The Town That Food Saved.”
A BUSY YEAR
Since ACORN’s inception in 2005, it has undergone a series of transformations to arrive where it is today. The group was founded to focus on a community response to peak oil, the concept that as easy reserves of oil are used up, it will become increasingly difficult and expensive to extract it, forcing humans to rethink excessive consumption and to seek other sources of energy.
“The challenge in front of us is systemic,” said Corcoran.
But he said that eventually, he expects that long-term sustainability will necessitate a localized structure of business and agriculture. Thus, he said, the group has developed into something like a networking organization, helping to incubate initiatives that will support the development of a strong local economy and agricultural structure.
The group’s third annual Tour de Farms last September drew an unprecedented 567 riders to bike county roads and explore farms, culminating in the Shoreham Apple Festival. Corcoran said the success of this event, which celebrates local agriculture, has spawned a number of similar bike tours across the state.
“The idea’s kind of gone viral,” he said.
Corcoran cited the organization’s second annual Guide to Local Foods, published in March, as another success — it includes a directory of local growers that has been many years in the making
“It’s one of the most comprehensive directories in the state, with over 200 farms,” said Corcoran.
This month, ACORN hosted the second annual Stone Soup conference, which brought together a number of food services workers, teachers and administrators to talk about bringing more local foods into schools.
And the organization published a strategic plan for growing local food distribution in the county, with the goal of increasing the market for local food from 5 to 15 percent over the next 10 years. The group created an index by which to measure the market for local food, and it will track consumption at a number of area food distributors, including Middlebury College, Greg’s Meat Market and Porter Hospital.
The strategic plan also established the Addison Wholesale Collaborative, which plans to release a report on developing better channels of distribution between producers and large-scale consumers in the county. Corcoran said that the collaborative plans to develop an online market platform for wholesale distribution this year.
Corcoran said that Addison County is uniquely positioned in the local foods movement, since it already has the highest quantity of direct food sales per capita in the state, and since Vermont has the highest amount of direct food sales per capita in the country. This makes him optimistic about the future.
“I love this place we inhabit, between the lake and the mountains,” said Corcoran. “I’m really bullish about our future here.”
Hewitt took the stage, remarking that he is no stranger to the county.
“This is the third time I’ve been here this year,” he said, “which means you guys either have something special here, or you guys are really hard up for entertainment.”
Hewitt, who with his wife runs a 40-acre diversified farm, said he hasn’t always been sold on the possibilities of a local food system.
“I always thought ‘local food’ was for the liberal elite,” he said.
But in 2006, as he watched endeavors like Jasper Hill Creamery and High Mowing Seeds take root and garner media attention both in Hardwick and nationally, he decided to do some testing of the system for himself.
“There hadn’t been a lot of study in it,” he said.
Hewitt developed four commandments:
• “It shall feed the locals.”
• “It shall be circular.”
• “It shall be based on sunshine.”
• “It shall offer viability to producers.”
These criteria, he said, are vital to the system working. While many new agricultural ventures have found ways to turn a profit, it is often on value-added products like artisan cheeses and breads. Those sell on Boston and New York markets at prices that Hewitt said many families simply aren’t able to afford.
And in contrast with the industrialized agriculture widely practiced in the United States, Hewitt said the system can’t rely solely on external resources like diesel and petroleum-based fertilizers, where 40 percent of food produced goes to waste.
Furthermore, he said, a region must produce enough diversity for a complete diet, not just a cash crop. Diversity, he said, also leads to less competition on local markets, so that different types of producers are more willing to collaborate, and build support systems.
Hewitt said Vermont has retained its culture of diversified agriculture, its sense of community, and its “make-do ethos” as the nation has moved toward centralizing its agriculture systems. This has led to community efforts like “Pies for the People,” where High Mowing Seeds donates pulp from its seed pumpkins to a group of volunteers that bakes pies for area food shelves at Thanksgiving.
“It seems like every community has something really cool going on,” he said.
And initiatives like the Food Venture Center in Hardwick, which, when finished, will have a shared use commercial kitchen, are helping to lower the bar for producers to add value to their products. The Cellars at Jasper Hill was designed to age cheese for farmstead cheesemakers, attempting to alleviate high overhead costs that small operations must pay for equipment.
But even when producers have support systems and access to value-added opportunities, he said, there is the issue of making local foods accessible — and desirable — to the consumer.
“We are in a place where we need to think about restoring,” said Hewitt, citing topsoil degradation nationwide, the rock-bottom prices that have plagued the dairy industry, and skyrocketing obesity levels nationwide.
In this environment, said Hewitt, people need to decide for themselves that they want to participate in a system of locally produced foods, even at higher prices.
Especially important, he said, is the 65 cents per dollar spent at a local business that goes back into the local economy, as opposed to 20 cents or less that stays local otherwise.
“When we talk about these things, it’s really easy to keep speaking over and over to the choir — like I’m doing tonight,” he said. “But I think this is a 360-degree issue. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican, a libertarian, a liberal, Al Gore, whatever. You probably get that there is value in keeping money within your community.”
And hard as it may be to shift values, however, Hewitt says he sees it changing.
“I do see people choosing to vote with their dollars in ways that aren’t always easy for them,” he said.
An audience member asked Hewitt what the future holds for Vermont dairies, since they make up 80 percent of Vermont’s economic agriculture base.
“I’m loath to make a prediction,” Hewitt said. “But I think smaller and more diversified is the way of the future.”
Annie Harlow challenged Hewitt, making the point that small producers find it very difficult to survive catering to only a local market.
Hewitt said that despite the diversification of his farm, if he didn’t make money writing the farm would not make up a full income.
“These issues are so incredibly complex,” he said. “I’ve gone back and forth on this myself.”
But he said he does think that as values shift, it will become easier for local farmers to subsist on what they produce.
Then, he said, it’s about continuing to build the local production and distribution systems in every way possible.
“Clearly, you guys are a long way down that path in this community,” he said.
And Hewitt said that the building momentum behind localizing food systems will help with this growth.
“This thing’s up and out of the ground, and it’s percolating,” he said. “If we just keep watering it, it wants to grow.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].