A longtime rural resident, I use my 60 plus years of life learning to opinionate here and elsewhere on the “interweb” on everything from politics to environmental issues. A believer in reasonable discourse rather than unhelpful attacks I try to give positive input to the blogesphere, so feel free to comment upon rural issues or anything else posted here. But don’t be surprised if you comments get zapped if you are not polite in your replys.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Revitalization of Rural Economies (part 2 of 3)

A guest article by Nathan Carey

A Rural Revolution.

The revitalization of rural economies through the use of small-scale agriculture is nothing short of a call for a revolution in our food production and distribution systems.”

The Precedent Has Been Set in Hardwick, VT
The best way to conceive of this revolution is by illustrating a place where the challenge of rebuilding our food systems from the soil up has begun in earnest - Hardwick, Vermont (pop. 3000). The town had its best days in the 1920s, as it was a primary source for granite. When Granite was replaced by concrete as a building material, the industry collapsed. Therefore, the town has been in a sort of stasis for generations. 
According to the US Census Report in 2000, the per capita income for the town was $14,813 per year, and about 10.5% of families and 14.0% of the population were living below the poverty line. The town's current unemployment is 40 times higher than the state average in Vermont and its average median income is 25% lower. Like most American towns, the supermarket is peoples’ main connection to the industrial food system. 
However, there's a growing and well publicized movement happening in Vermont that could provide some clues to the rest of us on how to proceed in a systemic process of revitalizing rural economies. There are many small and medium sized agricultural businesses in Hardwick that popped up within a short time frame and have been growing and making their positive influence felt.
The New York Times wrote an article featuring this movement back in 2008, and, despite the worsening financial meltdown that is tearing many communities apart, it still remains a viable and thriving model for Hardwick.
Uniting Around Food to Save an Ailing Town
"This town’s granite companies shut down years ago and even the rowdy bars and porno theater that once inspired the nickname "Little Chicago" have gone.

Facing a Main Street dotted with vacant stores, residents of this hardscrabble community of 3,000 are 
reaching into its past to secure its future, betting on farming to make Hardwick the town that was saved by food.

With the fervor of Internet pioneers, young artisans and agricultural entrepreneurs are expanding aggressively, 
reaching out to investors and working together to create a collective strength never before seen in this seedbed of Yankee individualism. [..]

Rian Fried, an owner of Clean Yield Asset Management in nearby Greensboro, which has invested with local agricultural entrepreneurs, said he’s never seen such cooperative effort.

"Across the country a lot of people are doing it individually but it’s rare when you see the kind of collective they are pursuing," said Mr. Fried, whose firm considers social and environmental issues when investing." 
The bottom line is they are providing jobs and making it possible for others to have their own business."

These businesses include names like "High-Mowing Seeds", "Clair's Restaurant", "The Vermont Soy Company", "Jasper Hill Farm", "Pete's Greens" and "Highfield's Center for Composting". All of these companies and more describe the beginnings of how we take back our food systems and our rural economies in the process. They all carry important lessons for us to take notice of and adopt in our rural communities throughout the upcoming years of both industrial collapse and alternative agricultural opportunities.

Tom Stearns, Vermont local, is the owner and entrepreneur behind one of the few commercial organic seed producers in the country and one of the even fewer focusing on heritage or heirloom varieties. Heirloom varieties tend to pre-date the industrialization of our food supply. They are selected for flavor and nutrition, and adapted to local conditions instead of being selected to fit into a neat, efficient process. Mr. Stearns epitomizes the transition that is occurring in Hardwick, and its emphasis on cooperation and sharing.

NY Times (article linked above): 
"All of us have realized that by working together we will be more successful as businesses," said Tom Stearns, owner of High Mowing Organic Seeds. "At the same time we will advance our mission to help rebuild the food system, conserve farmland and make it economically viable to farm in a sustainable way."

Cooperation takes many forms. Vermont Soy stores and cleans its beans at High Mowing, which also lends tractors to High Fields, a local composting company. 
Byproducts of High Mowing’s operation — pumpkins and squash that have been smashed to extract seeds — are now being purchased by Pete’s Greens and turned into soup. Along with 40,000 pounds of squash and pumpkin, Pete’s bought 2,000 pounds of High Mowing’s cucumbers this year and turned them into pickles."

High-Mowing started out as a hobby for Stearns, who had a lifelong love of seeds, but soon it became a business. It's a $2 million/year concern that employs 30 people at reasonable wages. Besides providing employment, the business of growing seeds really gets to the heart of what it means to be resilient. Seeds and soil are obviously the basic foundations of agriculture and cannot be taken for granted, as most Americans tend to do.

The seed supply has become as inefficient and brittle as our money system and we risk more than we know by concentrating the breeding, growing and distribution of seed into the hands of a few. With men like Stearns at the forefront, who is more than willing to cooperate with other businesses in the community, the movement is in excellent hands. We enthusiastically buy our own seed from High-Mowing for some of our gardens.

Claire's Restaurant (Community Supported Restaurant)
CSRs are an adaptation of my farm's business model - Community Supported Agriculture. A group of five people started the restaurant and the funding model is as unique as the dishes you will find there. A holding company was created who bought the lease for the restaurant's building twelve years in advance. It turns out that pre-paying your lease for twelve years is a great way to negotiate a sweetheart rate!

NY Times: 
"Mr. Tasch is having a meeting in nearby Grafton next month with investors, entrepreneurs, nonprofit groups, philanthropists and officials to discuss investing in Vermont agriculture. Here in Hardwick, Claire’s restaurant, sort of a clubhouse for farmers, began with investments from its neighbors. It is a Community Supported Restaurant. Fifty investors who put in $1,000 each will have the money repaid through discounted meals at the restaurant over four years.

Local ingredients, open to the world," is the motto on restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows. "There’s Charlie who made the bread tonight," Kristina Michelsen, one of four partners, said in a running commentary one night, identifying farmers and producers at various tables. "That’s Pete from Pete’s Greens. You’re eating his tomatoes."

The equipment that is needed to run a restaurant, and typically put a heavy burden on start-up capital, was purchased by the same holding company for use by the restaurant and any future food business that would take the place of Claire's Restaurant, should it fail. In this atmosphere of financial and social support, the chef, Steven Obranovich, is able to focus on cooking and, perhaps more importantly, the sourcing of ingredients.

That focus has led him to source an unheard of 80% of these ingredients from local farmers and businesses (it’s not just the garnish that is local). Here is both an outlet for the food being produced locally but also a place where people can meet, talk and spend time becoming ensconced in the spirit and vitality of eating food grown close to their homes.

This company provides a necessary service for any agrarian community. Good quality compost is in short supply and for many reason most new farmers take on market gardening as their initial venture into the world of agriculture. Without on farm fertility gardeners need a good non-chemical source of nutrients for their gardens. Thomas Gilbert, executive director and founder, is a composting guru and has a deep respect for what compost and fertility can mean to an agricultural community.
These are just three of the business’s that make up the incredible, unfolding story in Hardwick. Each enterprise is exciting on it's own but having so many agricultural business's so close together both in proximity and mission has the makings of big time change. As the NY Times article makes clear, the unprecedented level of cooperation between these businesses provides an atmosphere of economic stability and social cohesion.
NY Times: 
"For the past two years, many of these farmers and businessmen have met informally once a month to share experiences for business planning and marketing or pass on information about, say, a graphic designer who did good work on promotional materials or government officials who’ve been particularly helpful. They promote one another’s products at trade fairs and buy equipment at auctions that they know their colleagues need.

More important, they share capital. They’ve lent each other about $300,000 in short-term loans. 
When investors visited Mr. Stearns over the summer, he took them on a tour of his neighbors’ farms and businesses."

The recently started Center for an Agricultural Economy is another organization in our community that will give shape and push this vision forward in a more organized and transparent way. Since the NYT article was written, this organization has remained strong and committed to Hardwick’s revitalization through small-scale agriculture, and the town’s residents, from farmers to business people to students, have benefited greatly as a result.

NY Times: 
"To expand these enterprises further, the Center for an Agricultural Economy recently bought a 15-acre property to start a center for agricultural education. There will also be a year-round farmers’ market (from what began about 20 years ago as one farmer selling from the trunk of his car on Main Street) and a community garden, which started with one plot and now has 22, with a greenhouse and a paid gardening specialist.

Last month the center signed an agreement with the University of Vermont for faculty and students to work with farmers and food producers on marketing, research, even transportation problems. Already, Mr. Meyer has licensed a university patent to make his Vermont Natural Coatings, an environmentally friendly wood finish, from whey, a byproduct of cheesemaking."

Hardwick's access to local food is unparalleled. It is likely that Hardwick could feed itself and the surrounding environs without any outside input. And while that may seem like a small thing, as all of us have become so used to the ubiquity of food, it bears remembering how incredible brittle our long food supply chains are. Most cities have about four days worth of food on hand at a time without constant delivery. A food system based on resilient parts - i.e. people and businesses - will itself be resilient as a whole.

This is the second part of a 3 part article by Nathan Carey, see part 1 here.
Nathan raises a variety of animals and grows organic vegetables in a sustainable manner on his 'little piece of heaven' near Neustadt, Ontario. Visit http://www.greenbeingfarm.ca/

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