Fresh & Local
The Town That Food Saved
Column #42, Published July 6th, 2012)
There is currently a food revolution going on. Locally grown food is making permanent inroads into the food we eat, and the way we think about food.
There is one question that I get asked over and over again. There are many variations of the question, but it is essentially, “Can small farms selling locally grown products really be economically viable?” In previous columns I have written about how intensity – not size – is the key to viability. Apparently there are quite a few people who have a hard time believing me.
I was out at Paul Hutcheson’s greenhouses this week buying up late-season heirloom tomato plants. (Long-time 4-H extension agent Mason Hutcheson also owned Ebenezer Heights Greenhouses in Culpeper. His grandson Paul is now running the operation.) Paul told me about a book that he had just finished titled “The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food.” I was unfamiliar with the book and the author Ben Hewitt, but my interest was immediately piqued in part because of “The Question” I keep getting asked.
Paul and I had a long conversation about the book. I was intrigued, so I dropped by the Culpeper library and checked out their copy.
The book is about the northern Vermont town of Hardwick, which has attracted a large number of locally grown food producers and support businesses, and become an important economic hub for local food in the region. As Ben Hewitt writes, “ . . . Hardwick, Vermont, just might prove what advocates of a decentralized food system have been saying for years: that a healthy agriculture system can be the basis for communal strength, economic vitality, food security, and general resilience in uncertain times.”
I have been writing this column for almost a year. In all that time, when talking about the benefits of locally grown food, I have intentionally never used “it benefits the local economy” as a reason to buy locally grown food. It is not that the benefits are not real. They are real. It is not that the benefits are not substantial. They are substantial. The problem is that I don’t think “it benefits the local economy” is a very persuasive reason to buy something.
In private, I refer to this as the “pity party” argument. I do not think it is effective, so I have never used it. My feeling has been that locally grown food will have to succeed on its own merits. There are so many much more persuasive arguments for locally grown food, and so many other interesting topics, that it is not worth spending time on a weak argument.
This book, though, makes a strong case for the economic benefits of locally grown food, and considers some issues that I have never thought of. It also considers the issues of size and farm viability. So after my conversation with Paul Hutcheson, I have decided that this might be a good time to consider the impact of locally grown food on a local economy.
In his book, Ben Hewitt continues, “Indeed, the sudden growth in Hardwick’s ag infrastructure has been nothing short of explosive with numerous food-based businesses and organizations settling in the region, seeking to become a part of the town’s answer to the vexing question of what a healthy food system should look like.”
I will continue this topic next week.
Bryant Osborn and his wife Terry own Corvallis Farms in Culpeper County. His column on fresh and locally grown food runs every Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org