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Hardwick, Vermont and the New Frontier of Food | How New England Can Save the World

Hardwick, Vermont and the New Frontier of Food | How New England Can Save the World
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Photo/Art by Tim Zeltner
How New England Can Save the World, Part III in a series
Part I: The Maine Way: Aroostook County
Part II: Vermont Neighbors
Part IIII: A Bang for Your Buck in the Berkshires

When you think of Vermont–white church on the tidy green–you’re not actually thinking of Hardwick, which in its days as the “Building Granite Center of the World” used to boast a dirty-movie theater and a lot of bars. And those were the good times. In November 2005 an enormous fire wrecked the historic Bemis Block in the middle of town. (It has since been reconstructed.)

Likewise, when you think of “compost,” you may imagine a healthy-looking gardener spreading the loamy remains of his erstwhile vegetable soup on the raised beds where he’ll grow next year’s carrots. That’s not Tom Gilbert.

He’s healthy-looking enough, but he’s standing in a dusty parking lot high on West Hill Road, overlooking town. “You’re surrounded now by three decomposing carcasses,” he says, pointing proudly to a trio of brown mounds. Tom Gilbert runs the Highfields Center for Composting, which introduced “livestock mortality composting” to Vermont. On a dairy farm, 5 percent of the herd is likely to die each year, so knowing what to do with the remains is important.

“You don’t want to just haul it out to the field,” Gilbert explains. “That’s a lot of blood and bone that will go to waste,” when it could be improving the soil. So here’s one recipe: an 18-inch base of woodchips, a 6-inch layer of sawdust, a thin layer of fresh corn silage (or haylage, or horse manure), the animal, and then a cap of silage–24 inches of material on all sides of the carcass. Done correctly, with proper siting (away from surface and ground water) and air flow, the process inactivates pathogens and produces a rich compost.

“There’s a full-grown Holstein in there–I put him in two weeks ago,” says Gilbert, who sticks a 2-foot-long thermometer into the pile. “One hundred forty-five degrees. If you go in with a shovel, you’ll find nice clean bone. We’ll leave it a while, and the skull and the pelvis will still be there, but now they’ll be brittle enough that you’re not going to pop a tire if you drive the tractor over it.”

Gilbert composts more than cows; in fact, he’s pioneered a rural composting system that gathers up much of the food waste from the surrounding area, including schools, farms, and restaurants. The collection truck drives a 76-mile route; some of the stops are 15 miles apart, which reduces the economies of scale. Even so, once the workers have the garbage up on the piles, where they can roll it with a backhoe every few days, it doesn’t take long before it turns into fertilizer. “If you assume that every cubic yard of compost offsets an equivalent amount of synthetic nitrogen (chemical fertilizer), and accounting for mitigated landfill emissions,” Gilbert calculates, “our little operation here is offsetting greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to not burning some 26,000 gallons of gasoline a year.”

If you want to change the world, or even a corner of it, compost helps a lot. If Vermont as a whole recycled all of its food waste, it could compost 20,000 acres of vegetable fields. Together with good cover crop practices, that could be enough to grow most of the produce its citizens consume. And Vermont is a little place. Imagine New York City composting; it’s comparatively easy to collect food waste when there are more households in Manhattan alone than individuals in all of Vermont. The resulting fertilizer would be enough to make New Jersey the Garden State once more. “Soil is the frontier of where we need to be going,” Gilbert declares.

But forget New York–Hardwick is interesting enough on its own. And compost is just, literally, the beginning. Almost everything here is conspiring to produce a produce renaissance, a (soy) milky way toward the future. In fact, it may be the single most interesting agricultural experiment on the continent. In a lovely new book, The Town That Food Saved, journalist Ben Hewitt declares that its residents “are more able to sustain themselves on food grown by their neighbors than perhaps any other community in the U.S.” To understand why, follow the local food chain.

Some of Tom Gilbert’s compost gets trucked about a mile down the road to Wolcott, to the gardens where High Mowing Organic Seeds grows its product. High Mowing is one of the country’s biggest organic seed companies, which means it isn’t all that big–a couple of million dollars a year in revenue. But it sure is beautiful.

“People say it’s hard to grow organic broccoli and cauliflower,” says Tom Stearns, the ebullient proprietor. “We try to find the ones that really crank–like these,” he says, pointing to specimens approximately the size of beach balls. “Organics need to be really vigorous to out-compete weeds. And they tend to need more root hairs, because their fertility is widely distributed instead of being intravenously injected. These guys here are perfect if you like radishes; I don’t much like radishes. This is spicy ‘Golden Frill’ mustard greens, a new variety we added in 2009. Here’s an Asian green, hon tsai tai–just eat, eat. We have two fields up here, and we keep them a mile apart to prevent crossing. We have zucchini in one and pumpkins in the other. Or else you get pumpkinis. Or maybe zuckins.”

The High Mowing warehouse is down the hill–metal shelves are filled with the beginnings of a million meals. Quinoa … spelt … a big bag of ‘Tom Thumb’ popcorn … Italian flat-leaf parsley. But not just flat-leaf: double-curl, triple-curl. Two young women are hunched over a cutting board, examining onions. “We have a new favorite,” one reports. ” ‘Rossa di Milano.’ It really stood out. It beat ‘Red Baron.’ High, blocky shoulders.”

Stearns is gushing on about his business–the fast growth, the network of small growers, the sterling germination rates–but I’m dizzy from the sheer fertility. “That bag over there has 30 pounds of cuke seed,” he says. “That’s 60 acres.” Orders come in by the hour: “People who used to get five or ten packets are suddenly getting 20 or 30. The 10-by-10 garden is becoming 20-by-30. People are trying to put food up. I love high oil prices.”

Lots of Stearns’s seed goes a few miles north, to Craftsbury, where Pete Johnson of Pete’s Greens has been pioneering year-round organic farming in northern New England. Johnson built a solar greenhouse as his senior project at Middlebury College, and then started thinking bigger. By now he’s figured out how to move his greenhouses on tracks, so that he can cover and uncover different fields, and as a result grow greens 12 months of the year without any extra heat. And that lets him run his CSA (community-supported agriculture) operation, dubbed “Good Eats,” year-round.

Say your family wants the spring share. You’d pay $748 for a weekly basket from February to June; in mid-April–a tough time of year for local farming–you’d be getting maybe a half-pound of mesclun, a bunch of parsley and some scallions, three pounds of carrots, some early radishes, two pounds of beets, two pounds of fingerling potatoes, a half-pound of oyster mushrooms, a loaf of local bread, a half-gallon of local cider, and a half-pound of local feta cheese. You can add a meat share if you like ($199 for monthly delivery): a five-pound chicken, some pasture-raised hamburger, a couple of locally farmed trout, and a pound of bacon cured without nitrates. By Johnson’s calculation, it all comes to 20 percent less than buying the same stuff at a supermarket.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Friday, June 11th, 2010

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2 Responses to Hardwick, Vermont and the New Frontier of Food | How New England Can Save the World

  1. Betsy Hays Gatti August 2, 2010 at 6:00 pm #

    As a life-long resident of “The Garden State”, NJ, I was inspired by this article to plan a visit to Hardwick this fall. As an environmental writer and avid home gardener, this town’s diverse sustainable activities are of great interest. If Hardwick can do it, can Camden be far behind?

  2. Robert Platt August 6, 2010 at 9:49 am #

    So much modern produce continues to lose more of its nutritive content, particluarly vitamins, so it’s important to keep promoting different varieties, and more diversity in the diet.

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