Hardwick, Vermont and the New Frontier of Food | How New England Can Save the World
But we’re used to thinking of local food as more expensive. “Compared with what?” Johnson asks, when a reporter from The Christian Science Monitor raises the price question. “Compared with the absolute junkiest food you can buy in a supermarket? It’s too bad we think we can’t afford the most important thing in the world, when we’re so wealthy.”
Other seed from High Mowing is dispatched a couple of miles in the other direction, to the headquarters of Vermont Soy, in Hardwick. They hand it out to four or five Vermont farmers, who in turn produce the beans that become tofu and soy milk in the small factory here. (Only half the space is used for tofu; the other half somehow turns cow’s-milk whey into varnish for furniture.) The owner, Andrew Meyer, grew up on a local dairy farm, the kind of farm that’s been going under for decades as the milk industry turns into a commodity business dominated by huge Western dairies. So he understands the need for a more regional food economy. “I think Vermont hasn’t even tapped its capacity for growing food,” Meyer says. “Someday the train will come back, and we’ll be sending a refrigerated car once a week right to Chelsea Market. We’ve got two of the biggest markets in the world right nearby: Boston and New York.”
But for now, forget about Boston and New York. A fair amount of the food from Hardwick is going to … downtown Hardwick. To, for instance, a lovely new restaurant, Claire’s, which in its first year of operation won a spot on Condé Nast Traveler’s “Hot Tables” list. Fifty local investors put up a thousand bucks apiece to help get it started, and they’re taking their money back out in the form of dinners.
And what dinners they are: Some weeks, local garlic, tomatoes, eggplant, and basil might combine for a Northeast Kingdom ratatouille; other nights an area apiary might pour its newest mead. Linda Ramsdell, a partner in Claire’s and owner of the uniquely delightful Galaxy Bookshop across the street, often brings in cookbook authors for special dine-and-read evenings; needless to say, the regular live music is as local as the food.
And, needless to say, the evening often ends with a plate of cheese. One of the real foodie highlights of the Hardwick area is the newly opened cheese cave in Greensboro, where many of Vermont’s best-loved artisanal products spend their final few months aging in the climate-controlled rooms.
Proprietors Andy and Mateo Kehler were already making award-winning cheeses at their Jasper Hill Farm, but they knew that many of their small-scale colleagues around the region had trouble storing and shipping their products. So when they were building a facility for their own stuff, they just kept building; it’s now 22,000 square feet, with seven underground vaults: different climates for everything from blues to clothbound cheddars. It can store 2 million pounds at a time, from 39 degrees to 55 degrees; it’s a pungent paradise.
But it’s also part of an economy. It’s a way to take fluid milk, which is currently a drag on the market–selling for less than it costs to produce–and turning it into something that goes for $20 a pound. That means jobs, and everyone on the Hardwick food scene is at least as serious about jobs as they are about flavor. This year, the Vermont Food Venture Center is moving into Hardwick’s industrial park. It’s a place where new “agrepreneurs,” to use a term coined by Ben Hewitt, can figure out how to make that new cheese, that new salsa, that new tempeh, all on a scale that will also let them make money.
“We need businesses that can feed off each other,” says Andrew Meyer. “The waste stream of one would be the feedstock of the next.” And all of it would provide real resilience for a rural economy that would like to depend neither on the boom-and-bust of quarrying nor on the quaint unreality of providing scenic vistas for summer homes.
Over lunch at the headquarters of The Center for an Agricultural Economy, which sits next to Claire’s and serves as the organizing hub for this food experiment, Tom Stearns points out that he’s had 40 job applications in the past week at his seed farm. No wonder: Some of the slots pay $40,000 a year, they come with benefits, and there’s all the produce you can carry away from the test gardens. “We still have to convince the local kids, though,” he says. “They’ve all grown up believing that there’s no future in farming. But now there is.”
To read more about Hardwick, we recommend Yankee contributor Ben Hewitt’s new book, The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food (Rodale, 2010).