“How Now Shall We Eat?”
A review of
The Town that Food Saved:
How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food.
By Ben Hewitt.
Review by Dave Swanson.
The problem with reading books about sustainability, ecology, and responsible agriculture, is that the authors seem irresistibly drawn to recitation of “the litany”: that long, horrible, tragic list of ways that we humans are destroying things on our world. It’s as if reading this litany one more time will push readers over the edge to finally admit that, “Yes, western industry and the lifestyles that make it necessary are doing so much harm in the world that I am NOW determined to make a change (trumpets please)! I fear the litany has become a dirge, inspiring nobody.
Thankfully, Ben Hewitt has resisted the list! In his book The Town that Food Saved about the burgeoning food economy in Hardwick, Vermont, Hewitt gives us a story both timely and laden with import for our food crisis. I say story because that is what it is. The book, instead of introducing readers to issues, introduces us to people. The cast of characters involved with the food economy in Hardwick and the narrative outlining the evolution of the dynamics between them captured my attention and created a human context in which Hewitt could explore the questions about the food economy. Of course, some of the statistics and issues frequently appearing in the litany do appear in his book but it is as a contextual aside to the primary task he pursues: Finding out if the changes in the food economy in Hardwick are as beneficial to that community as those driving the movement claim.
After introducing us to the hard-bitten, post-industrial (granite), post-industrial-ag(dairy), hard-luck town of Hardwick, Hewitt focuses on a small group of Hardwickers he dubs the “agrepeneurs” – a group of mostly young business people who are changing the face and the substance of the agricultural economy in this Vermont hamlet. The companies they run include a restaurant, a non-profit, and many agricultural businesses producing seeds, compost, vegetables, cheese, soy, milk, meat and other farm products that utilize local sourcing and markets. These operations are distinctive for their dedication to lowering fossil fuel inputs into their operations and eliminating it as a direct input into the soil through fertilizers and pesticides. He highlights the idea that they are trying to create circular patterns of resource usage from seed to field to compost, creatively utilizing what could be waste to power growth.
The person who gets the most attention throughout the narrative is one who relishes it: Tom Stearns, owner and loudmouth visionary of High Mowing Seeds. His sometimes vague, always effusive, expletive-laden soapbox speeches provide much comic relief while simultaneously supplying the ideological backdrop behind the agrepeneurs’ efforts. Hewitt spends much time trying to ascertain if the new ag endeavors in Hardwick are living up to Stearns’ expansive claims.
Near the beginning of the book, Hewitt sets some criteria which, in his estimation, would constitute a “healthy decentralized food system” (43). They were remarkably helpful to one who thinks about these things a lot: 1) It must offer economic viability to small-scale food producers, 2) It must be based on sunshine, 3) It must feed the locals, and 4) It must be circular. These four tenets are about as didactic as Hewitt gets. The heart of the story is multiple visits and interviews with various folks in Hardwick which take place over the course of about a year (43-50).
The most enjoyable aspect of the book for me was that, although the title points to the author’s answers to his queries, the vast majority of the book leaves it an open question whether the agrepeneurs are actually doing something positive in and for their community. He interviews and visits with the new movers and shakers, but also with Ralph and Cindy Persons, a husband and wife mobile livestock slaughtering team who have been doing that work for a quarter century. He spends time with various folks who moved to Hardwick in the seventies pursuing the good life as part of the Back to the Land movement. He interviews people who have been farming in Hardwick for generations. Through these dialogues, it becomes clear that there is not yet a consensus regarding the impact of the new businesses on the rest of the community.
Hewitt highlights the suspicion with which some of these folks view these new endeavors. He also brings to light failures of the agrepeneurs to communicate well with the folks who were already there farming, working, and living and makes the connection between these two factors. He brings in questions of scale, and markets, and value-added “artisanal” products and the problems associated with them. The locals cannot afford $20/lb. cheese from Jasper Hill Cellars.
Besides chronicling the past development and ambitions of the new food businesses, Hewitt looks to the future and to the efforts of the agrepeneurs to engage their community around food issues. He makes it clear that for the movement to be a success over the long term, the people of Hardwick will need to be aware of and buy into, literally and figuratively, the new food economy. That being said, the final two chapters of the book make the case that in real and tangible ways, despite mistakes and struggles, the agrepeneurs are in-fact benefitting Hardwick and providing a viable model the world can look to as it finds a way toward feeding itself without killing itself.
By weaving his colorful and interesting story with this detailed treatment of the issues and dynamics, Hewitt illustrates the complexity of trying to change food production and the necessary changes to our communities that it will require. Without sounding at all like a “how-to” book, that’s what this is. It is a humor-filled, narrative case study that provides tools for the rest of us to utilize as we make the necessary changes in how we do food.
Dave Swanson is a farmer, carpenter, and soon-to-be divinity school student from central New Hampshire.