Fresh & Local
The Town That Food Saved: Industrial Agriculture and Sustainability
Column #43, Published July 13th, 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.

Last week, I wrote about being out at Paul Hutcheson’s greenhouses and a discussion we had about a book that he had just finished titled, “The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food.” 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.

I dropped by the Culpeper library and checked out their copy. It is an interesting book. According to author Ben Hewitt, “ . . . 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.”

What I call “huge, far away mega-farms” in my columns, Ben Hewitt in his book calls “industrial agriculture.” On that subject, Mr. Hewitt writes, “It is no great secret that over the past century, America’s food system has become increasingly industrialized and centralized. It has served us well, at least in strictly economic terms.” He goes on to point out that in 1930, the average American family spent 24.2 percent of its income on food. In 2007, it had fallen to 9.8 percent.

But the book argues that there are now serious problems with industrial agriculture, and it uses examples from Hardwick, Vermont to explore some of these issues and possible solutions.

One of the big problems that Mr. Hewitt and others see with industrial agriculture is “sustainability,” which is the ability to grow food with a minimum of off-farm inputs. But he doesn’t like to use the word “sustainable” because he believes it is an easily corruptible concept. He prefers to call it, “lower-impact, low-input food production.”

His point is that high-input food production is more vulnerable to sudden price and supply disruptions. He includes energy-supply disruptions, widespread outbreaks of food-borne illness, and terrorist attacks as potential disruptions and writes, “We have become utterly dependent on a supply chain that is entirely beyond our control, in no small part because it typically starts a half-continent away.”

I don’t agree with everything that the Ben Hewitt says in the book, but then I didn’t expect I would. As he points out, if you were to ask a 100 people in the local food business a question, you would get 500 different answers. But the book does do a respectable job of discussing the benefits and problems of locally grown food over industrial agriculture.

The book does discuss the issues of farm size and viability. The business plan for our farm came largely from a guy named Eliot Coleman. Eliot Coleman is quoted in the book as saying, “I happen to be a big fan of small. It’s important for democracy to have certain percentage of people feeding themselves so they can tell the government to [get lost].”

This book is full of surprises. For example, you would think that the economic success of these locally grown food producers – and the large number of jobs that success created – would make everyone in Hardwick happy. But the reality is that there are a lot of people unhappy about it. I will talk about that 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