The Town That Food Saved

Hardwick’s economic future was dim, until a chain of events turned it into one of the most important food towns in America.

If you come into the town of Hardwick, Vermont, from the east, you’ll come in on Route 15, weaving through a series of curves that begin as gentle sweeps and get progressively sharper. Route 15 becomes Main Street, and Main Street lasts for about a quarter mile before it hits the town’s only traffic light, which consists of a single, flashing orb at the junctions of Routes 14 and 15. If you turn right, continuing on 15, you’ll immediately pass the Amatuer [sic] Boxing Club (it’s for sale), a garage, a gun shop, a pizza place, and a lumberyard, in that order. A bit farther out, there’s a bank and a tractor-repair business. A Ford dealership. A gas station. If you go straight through the light onto 14 South, you’ll pass two auto-parts stores, a school, a cemetery, and a series of residences, many of which are in disrepair. In either direction, you’ll be through Hardwick in two minutes or less, pushing on the accelerator as the speed limit rises again to 50 and the road unfurls across the lush Vermont countryside, helping you forget about the forgettable small town you just left behind. In this way, Hardwick is not unlike scores of other small, hard-bitten towns scattered throughout the American landscape, still clinging to the vapors of whatever industry brought the population together in the first place. In Hardwick, it was granite (Hardwick granite is built into the Pennsylvania State Capitol and Chicago’s City Hall). But the granite industry in Hardwick slowed decades ago, and the town of 3,000 languished. The village developed a reputation as little more than a gallery of rogues; the local drinking establishment, Benny’s, was known throughout northeastern Vermont for its cheap beer and frequent skirmishes. The town earned the nickname “Little Chicago.”

Hardwick softened over the years, as its affordable real estate and pastoral beauty (within town limits, there are 37 miles of paved road and 51-miles of dirt) lured a small clutch of white collar workers willing to brave the 30-mile commute to the state capital of Montpelier. But the economy still suffered: In 2003, the per capita income was a mere $14,287, twenty-five percent below the state average; and last year, Hardwick’s unemployment rate was nearly 30 percent higher than the state average.

But something’s happening in Hardwick, and it’s happening because of food. It could have started with the Buffalo Mountain Food Co-op and Cafe, a small, earthy joint on Main Street that’s been active since 1975. The co-op serves the multitudes of left-leaning back-to-the-landers scattered through the surrounding hills and provides a market—a modest market, but a market—for the local farmers eking out a living from the land. Or maybe it started before that, with Hardwick’s topographical good fortune to be located in a region of ample, fertile farmland and a culture of working the soil. Perhaps it would have happened anyway, the only rational response to a global food system on the brink of crisis and a town desperately needing something on which to hang its future. While the beginning might be hard to identify, the present is not. That’s because, during the past two years, Hardwick has developed a local food infrastructure that is unlike anything to be found in North America. It is at once an amalgamation of a stunning number of food-based businesses in the region (Vermont Soy, Jasper Hill Farm, Pete’s Greens, Patchwork Farm & Bakery, Apple Cheek Farm, Claire’s Restaurant and Bar, and Bonnieview Farm to name only a few) and the keen business savvy of the (mostly) youthful entrepreneurs who spend their days tending livestock, fields of lettuce, and racks of cloth-bound Cheddar. In the evenings, they convene to quaff beers and brainstorm the next step forward for this little settlement, which just might become one of the most important food towns in the United States.

Tom Stearns has a carnival huckster’s energy and a self-confidence that never seems to bleed into arrogance. He is of medium height, with wavy, dirty-blond hair and a long, angular face. He wears thin-rimmed glasses and has a habit of scrunching his nose, which flares his nostrils and makes him look momentarily unhinged. He laughs loudly and often. Thirteen years ago, when Stearns was 19, he started High Mowing Organic Seeds, an organic vegetable, flower, and herb seed company that’s now located in Wolcott, one town west of Hardwick. Today, the business has 30 employees and does between $1.5 and $2 million in annual sales. Because of his energy, charm, and drive, Stearns has become the de facto mouthpiece for Hardwick’s rapidly evolving food scene and the president of the recently formed, nonprofit Center for an Agricultural Based Economy, whose mission is to nurture and promote a sustainable local agricultural economy. I first met with him at a potluck dinner party at Heartbeet Lifesharing, a residential community for special-needs adults, who participate in all aspects of farm operations on the sloping 150 acres of field and forest. There was drumming and a bonfire and small children running across the sunlit lawn clutching rabbits to their chests. A herd of cows grazed on a pasture below the house. Stearns’s vision is to provide the world with a model food system that serves the local population while enriching its producers in ways that range from the cold, hard tangibility of cash to the less precise metrics of social improvement and regional pride. Stearns is not a dogmatic locavore; he believes it is economically and environmentally justifiable to ship products that are financially dense (a pound of liquid milk wholesales for about $0.20; a pound of Jasper Hill’s Bayley Hazen Blue cheese wholesales for $9.75). He sees Hardwick as an antidote to a global food system that’s teetering beneath the weight of energy prices and the capriciousness of nature. “Who’s the biggest user of energy? Agriculture! Who’s the biggest user of land? Agriculture! Who’s the biggest user of water? Agriculture! Who’s the biggest polluter? Agriculture!” He stabbed a finger in the air for emphasis. “All we have are models of broken plans to look at.” He sipped his beer and turned to face me squarely. “In five years, we will have people from all over the planet visiting Hardwick to see what a healthy food system looks like.”

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