Town's experiment fixes 'broken' system
Project fosters small businesses that focus on organic, local production
By GAIL OBERST
For the Capital Press
CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Local food and value-added products saved a small town in rural Vermont, and seed grower Tom Stearns believes it can save the world.
Stearns recently spoke to about 450 people attending Regards to Rural, a conference showcasing the innovative projects that promise to keep rural communities viable.
Stearns was among the subjects of the 2010 book, "The Town that Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food," written by Ben Hewitt, a Vermont farmer and author. Hewitt missed the keynote address because his flight was delayed by bad weather.
Stearns said the current U.S. food production and delivery system is "broken." Growing and transporting food relies too much on fossil fuels, pollutes the environment and "ruins" the soil, he said. If the current agricultural system resulted in a healthy and long-lived population, it might be worth the destruction, Stearns said. But instead, he said that his generation is the first to have a shorter lifespan than his parents' generation.
Not everyone at the two-day conference agreed that the current system is "broken."
"It's not all broken," said John Burt, executive director for Farmers Ending Hunger. "The process he said is broken is contributing tons of food to our food banks."
Burt is also on the board of the Rural Development Initiatives, the nonprofit group that organized the Regards to Rural conference held on Oregon State University's campus. The conference included dozens of workshops and panel discussions aimed at revitalizing rural communities.
Stearns told the gathering of people from nonprofits, farms and rural interest groups about the revival of his rural town, chronicled in Hewitt's book. The book summarizes what residents in Hardwick, Vt., did to remake their town from a failed granite manufacturer to a center for small agricultural producers. Cheeses, wines, seed producers, organic foods and dozens of other foods and crafts made from locally grown products in the rural Vermont town have made Hardwick an example of economic success.
Hardwick, a town of 3,000, has added 200 jobs in the past three years to the 400 that existed before. Most of the jobs added were in organic farm and food businesses, and all were in businesses that created value-added products.
Hardwick's model has been further developed at its Center for an Agricultural Economy, founded by soy producer Andrew Meyer. But Hewitt's book has helped clarify the process by which the town was saved.
The system to which Stearns and Hewitt refer is not new. The "Hardwick Model," for example, suggests that growers or producers can earn more from the products if they can add value to it before it leaves the farm or ranch.
"Shipping fluid milk earns you less than if you make something from it," Stearns said.
In addition to promoting value-added production, successful systems will reduce distances to markets and create the means for local production. In Hardwick, for example, everything, from the seeds that grow the food to the plates on which the food is served, is produced locally. The collaborative effort has revitalized the economy and community spirit in a town once divided between old-timers and newcomers, Stearns said.
What remains is for the current investment and governmental infrastructure to recognize the value of supporting a new, healthy system -- one that protects "fragile" small and sustainable companies from being forced to sell to larger companies because they lack creative financiers. The U.S. needs to make "a deep investment in place. We need to be bold, and be ambitious," Stearns said.
"We invented the broken food system and exported it to the world. It's up to us to fix it," Stearns said.
More information about Hardwick's project is at www.hardwickagriculture.org
"The Town that Food Saved" is available online at benhewitt.net