Raised on Sunshine

Small Farmer Ben Hewitt on Why We Should Keep Food Local
I had the good fortune to attend the seventh annual Connecting for Change conference in late October in New Bedford, Massachusetts. This is the East Coast version of the Bioneers Conference that’s been held for many years in San Rafael, California.

Each of the three days began with a whole morning of five or six keynote speakers interspersed with cultural presentations, like African drumming and dancing and hip hop performances, and afternoons of dozens of workshops. And there was amazing free, fair trade, organic coffee available all weekend courtesy of Dean’s Beans. So attendees were all pretty jazzed.

One of the keynoters was Ben Hewitt, a small farmer in northern Vermont who wrote The Town that Food Saved, which describes the difficulties of small-scale farming, but also how small-scale agriculture and the local food movement have pumped new life into small towns like Hardwick, Vermont, the subject of his book. His enthusiasm had him practically dancing around the stage as he described his own personal commandments for creating a sustainable local food system.

“Number one is it should feed the locals. Number two is that it should be circular; a lot of people call it a food web, where you have people in different points around that circle in connection with one another: producer to customer to retailer to composting facility to wherever.”

Here he stopped to point out that the average calorie in America travels 1,500 from field to table, and that an astounding 40% of food in this country is wasted — two numbers that are connected to each other.

“Rule number three,” he continued, “is it should be based on sunshine. It’s pretty simple, but right now agriculture as a sector is the leading user of energy in this country, and of course most of that energy is derived from finite resources, so the idea that it’s going to based on sunshine is simply to say we’re going to use renewable inputs to make this system work. And number four, again according to me, is that it should offer viability to the producers. You know, it doesn’t really do anyone any good to create a food system where the producers can’t make a livelihood from it.”

Then he allowed that rules one and four could often contradict each other, because for food production to provide a sustainable living for farmers — without externalizing the environmental costs, as is the case now with industrial agriculture — it often won’t be priced at a point that locals can afford.

Hewitt described his own family’s operation: “We have a small farm, 40 acres, and we do a little beef, a little pork. It’s a turn-of-the-century Vermont hill farm, but not the most recent turn-of-the-century. It’s what I think a lot of farms might have looked like in 1900, which is going back quite a ways. It’s very small; it’s very diversified, and we pretty much sell only direct-to-consumer. If you’re really trying to feed the locals, and the locals are really invested in supporting it, it doesn’t make sense to have five different cheese makers. Another point about diversity is that if you have diversity among producers and they’re producing different products, you really start to step away from this sense that they’re in competition with each other and you create opportunities for collaboration.”

Probably the best known of the local businesses Hardwick supports under this model is Claire’s Restaurant and Bar — praised by Yankee Magazine and Conde Nast Traveler — where local food comes to the table in a mouth-watering (so I’ve heard) assortment of veggies, grains and sustainably raised meat. Haven’t had the pleasure myself yet, but a visit to Hardwick is on my list this year when I visit my favorite state.