Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Town that Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food

The Town that Food Saved by Ben Hewitt takes a look at how the small, rural community of Hardwick, Vermont, has been reinvigorated by the introduction of a number of food businesses – from a composting business to a seed company to various farms.

It’s an enjoyable read as Hewitt paints vivid descriptions of the farmers and business owners. In addition, the book examines some of the issues that must be considered if we are to create a long-lasting, equitable, and ultimately local, food system.

Do We All Need to Become Farmers?
Hewitt’s book discusses a rural community with rich farming land and several small towns in close proximity. Many of the people have a garden and some livestock. A number of young entrepreneurs are developing strong new food businesses, and it’s not difficult to imagine this area becoming self-sufficient.

But how does that equation translate to a large city or to a province such as Saskatchewan with far more land than people?

Some of the Hardwick entrepreneurs have been criticized for establishing large-scales operations. But what is the appropriate scale for agriculture? “An operation that’s too big for its locality will find itself needing to exploit other, more distant markets in order to off-load its product. And in doing so, it will compete with operations in these markets, forcing them to lower their prices and then extend their reach in order to survive. It becomes a race to the bottom.”

If we are to feed ourselves locally, will we need to revert to an earlier way of life where every family had a garden and preserved fruits and vegetables for the winter?

There are no easy answers, and I was frustrated that Hewitt presented such a rosy, idealistic picture of life in Hardwick, Vermont, because it’s not translatable on a larger scale or in a different locale.

Value-Added Farming
It is heartening to see local farmers and producers revitalizing the Saskatchewan prairies. It is no easy task to establish a fruit orchard or a market garden or a flower farm. And yet, all of the owners emphasize the importance of identifying value-added products in order to make a sufficient profit to survive. And so shoppers at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market are fortunate enough to be able to buy locally-made ice cream, jams and preserves, cut flowers and wine.

I wholeheartedly support that. But I’m also aware that these are extras. Can local farms produce either the quantity or the types of food that could independently feed the population of Saskatoon and surrounding area?

A Community of Producers and Consumers
Many of the Hardwick food producers support and help each other. They hold monthly meetings and are very familiar with each other’s enterprises. Once the seed business has harvested squash seeds, another entrepreneur explores ways to harvest the flesh and turn it into pies or other food.

A similar support network is available to some degree amongst the various vendors at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market. The Prairie Pie Company uses lentils from Living Soil Farms; Saskatoon Sous Chef buys potatoes from Wally’s Urban Market Garden. But this is extremely limited in scope. Ultimately, each of the vendors, as well as the Market itself, are promoting their own individual efforts. There is no collective body providing economic or marketing support to all the vendors.

Hewitt optimistically believes that the “participatory nature of local food systems holds tremendous power, not merely to secure and understand the cycle and source of our nourishment, but to reawaken a sense of responsibility for and toward the communities in which we live. To assume accountability for our food is to assume responsibility for our lives.”

However, Hewitt acknowledges how few people are actually supporting the local food businesses in Hardwick and how all the residents rely on the local supermarket for a good portion of their food. And while it is heartening to read about producers who are giving food to the needy and offering various kinds of community support, I question how far that would reach. Communes tend to fail because it is human nature to be individualistic and to put personal needs ahead of the interests of the community as a whole.

I recommend reading The Town that Food Saved by Ben Hewitt. It may not provide all the answers, but it certainly asks some valuable questions. And it paints vivid portraits of the food producers and the town itself.

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