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