Story of Hardwick, VT
Today I want to share a story of one Vermont town, called Hardwick. Its economic renaissance based on the local food culture was featured in NY Times. Here is the article:
THIS town’s granite companies shut down years ago and even the rowdy bars and porno theater that once inspired the nickname “Little Chicago” have gone.
Facing a Main Street dotted with vacant stores, residents of this hardscrabble community of 3,000 are reaching into its past to secure its future, betting on farming to make Hardwick the town that was saved by food.
With the fervor of Internet pioneers, young artisans and agricultural entrepreneurs are expanding aggressively, reaching out to investors and working together to create a collective strength never before seen in this seedbed of Yankee individualism.
Rob Lewis, the town manager, said these enterprises have added 75 to 100 jobs to the area in the past few years.
Rian Fried, an owner of Clean Yield Asset Management in nearby Greensboro, which has invested with local agricultural entrepreneurs, said he’s never seen such cooperative effort.
“Across the country a lot of people are doing it individually but it’s rare when you see the kind of collective they are pursuing,” said Mr. Fried, whose firm considers social and environmental issues when investing. “The bottom line is they are providing jobs and making it possible for others to have their own business.”
In January, Andrew Meyer’s company, Vermont Soy, was selling tofu from locally grown beans to five customers; today he has 350. Jasper Hill Farm has built a $3.2-million aging cave to finish not only its own cheeses but also those from other cheesemakers.
Pete Johnson, owner of Pete’s Greens, is working with 30 local farmers to market their goods in an evolving community supported agriculture program.
“We have something unique here: a strong sense of community, connections to the working landscape and a great work ethic,” said Mr. Meyer, who was instrumental in moving many of these efforts forward.
He helped start the Center for an Agricultural Economy, a nonprofit operation that is planning an industrial park for agricultural businesses.
Next year the Vermont Food Venture Center, where producers can rent kitchen space and get business advice for adding value to raw ingredients, is moving to Hardwick from Fairfax, 40 miles west, because, Mr. Meyer said, “it sees the benefit of being part of the healthy food system.” He expects it to assist 15 to 20 entrepreneurs next year.
“All of us have realized that by working together we will be more successful as businesses,” said Tom Stearns, owner of High Mowing Organic Seeds. “At the same time we will advance our mission to help rebuild the food system, conserve farmland and make it economically viable to farm in a sustainable way.”
Cooperation takes many forms. Vermont Soy stores and cleans its beans at High Mowing, which also lends tractors to High Fields, a local compositing company. Byproducts of High Mowing’s operation — pumpkins and squash that have been smashed to extract seeds — are now being purchased by Pete’s Greens and turned into soup. Along with 40,000 pounds of squash and pumpkin, Pete’s bought 2,000 pounds of High Mowing’s cucumbers this year and turned them into pickles
For the past two years, many of these farmers and businessmen have met informally once a month to share experiences for business planning and marketing or pass on information about, say, a graphic designer who did good work on promotional materials or government officials who’ve been particularly helpful. They promote one another’s products at trade fairs and buy equipment at auctions that they know their colleagues need.
More important, they share capital. They’ve lent each other about $300,000 in short-term loans. When investors visited Mr. Stearns over the summer, he took them on a tour of his neighbors’ farms and businesses.
To expand these enterprises further, the Center for an Agricultural Economy recently bought a 15-acre property to start a center for agricultural education. There will also be a year-round farmers’ market (from what began about 20 years ago as one farmer selling from the trunk of his car on Main Street) and a community garden, which started with one plot and now has 22, with a greenhouse and a paid gardening specialist.
Last month the center signed an agreement with the University of Vermont for faculty and students to work with farmers and food producers on marketing, research, even transportation problems. Already, Mr. Meyer has licensed a university patent to make his Vermont Natural Coatings, an environmentally friendly wood finish, from whey, a byproduct of cheesemaking.
These entrepreneurs, mostly well educated children of baby boomers who have added business acumen to the idealism of the area’s long established hippies and homesteaders, are in the right place at the right time. The growing local-food movement, with its concerns about energy usage, food safety and support for neighbors, was already strong in Vermont, a state that the National Organic Farmers’ Association said had more certified organic acreage per capita than any other.
Mr. Meyer grew up on a dairy farm in Hardwick and worked in Washington as an agricultural aide to former Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont. “From my time in Washington,” Mr. Meyer said, “I recognize that if Vermont is going to have a future in agriculture we need to look at what works in Vermont, and that is not commodity agriculture.”
The brothers Mateo and Andy Kehler have found something that works quite well at their Jasper Hill Farm in nearby Greensboro. At first they aged their award-winning cheeses in a basement. Then they began aging for other cheesemakers. Earlier this month they opened their new caves, with space for 2 million pounds of cheese, which they buy young from other producers.
The Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese at the University of Vermont is helping producers develop safety and quality programs, with costs split by Jasper Hill and the producers. “Suddenly being a cheesemaker in Vermont becomes viable,” Mateo Kehler said.
Pete Johnson began a garden when he was a boy on his family’s land. Now his company, Pete’s Greens, grows organic crops on 50 acres in Craftsbury, about 10 miles north of here. He has four moveable greenhouses, extending the growing season to nine months, and he has installed a commercial kitchen that can make everything from frozen prepared foods and soup stocks to baked goods and sausages. In addition he has enlarged the concept of the C.S.A. by including 30 farmers and food producers rather than just a single farm.
“We have 200 C.S.A. participants so we’ve become a fairly substantial customer of some of these businesses,” he said. “The local beef supplier got an order for $700 this week; that’s pretty significant around here. We’ve encouraged the apple producer who makes apple pies to use local flour, local butter, local eggs, maple sugar as well as the apples so now we have a locavore apple pie.”
“Twelve years ago the market for local food was lukewarm,” Mr. Johnson added. “Now this state is primed for anything that is local. It’s a way to preserve our villages and rebuild them.”
Like Mr. Johnson, Mr. Stearns of High Mowing Organic Seeds in Wolcott, who is president of the Center, knew he wanted to get into agriculture when he was a boy. His company, which grew from his hobby of collecting seeds, began in 2000 with a two-page catalog that generated $36,000 in sales. Today he has a million-dollar business, selling seeds all over the United States.
Woody Tasch, chairman of Investors Circle, a nonprofit network of investors and foundations dedicated to sustainability, said: “What the Hardwick guys are doing is the first wave of what could be a major social transformation, the swinging back of the pendulum from industrialization and globalization.”
Mr. Tasch is having a meeting in nearby Grafton next month with investors, entrepreneurs, nonprofit groups, philanthropists and officials to discuss investing in Vermont agriculture.
Here in Hardwick, Claire’s restaurant, sort of a clubhouse for farmers, began with investments from its neighbors. It is a Community Supported Restaurant. Fifty investors who put in $1,000 each will have the money repaid through discounted meals at the restaurant over four years.
“Local ingredients, open to the world,” is the motto on restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows. “There’s Charlie who made the bread tonight,” Kristina Michelsen, one of four partners, said in a running commentary one night, identifying farmers and producers at various tables. “That’s Pete from Pete’s Greens. You’re eating his tomatoes.”
Rosy as it all seems, some worry that as businesses grow larger the owners will be tempted to sell out to companies that would not have Hardwick’s best interests at heart.
But the participants have reason to be optimistic: Mr. Stearns said that within one week six businesses wanted to meet with him to talk about moving to the Hardwick area.
“Things that seemed totally impossible not so long ago are now going to happen,” said Mr. Kehler. “In the next few years a new wave of businesses will come in behind us. So many things are possible with collaboration.”