While global markets crater, a Vermont town unites around food
The effort to revive global credit markets has devolved into farce. Every day, U.S. authorities announce some earth-shaking new measure — a $700 billion bailout, the Fed’s extraordinary move into the commercial-paper business, a coordinated global set of rate cuts — and every day, investors continue acting as tweaky as meth heads when the dope has run out.
Why should this matter to anyone who doesn’t have a pile invested in the stock market? Because we’re in what’s known as a credit crunch. When banks stop lending for a long period, economic activity slows to a crawl, and the economy craters. The jobs that evaporate could include your own.
But are there not other forms of credit, other visions for how economies could function? Hasn’t the Wall Street model of finance — wherein multimillionaire b-school wizards "innovate" such wondrous "risk-spreading" instruments as mortgage-backed securities and credit-default swaps — gone, well, bankrupt?
The front and business sections of Wednesday’s New York Times brought plenty of alarming financial news. For an unexpected bit of financial cheer, dig back to — of all places — the Dining In/Dining Out section. There, you’ll find a great piece by Marian Burros on the small, once-depressed Vermont town of Hardwick, where people are working together to build a thriving economy around food.
Like many towns in rural America, Hardwick — once a granite-mining center — had fallen on hard times.
Usually in such cases, food cultures wither. Restaurants and diners shutter, farms consolidate in search of larger, far-away markets, and food expenditures become a sieve draining any remaining wealth out of the community and into the pockets of distant shareholders in fast-food chains and retailers like Wal-Mart.
Something different is now happening in Hardwick. Here’s Burros:
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.
The activity Burros describes is dizzying:
In January, Andrew Meyer’s company, Vermont Soy, was selling tofu from locally grown beans to five customers; today he has 350. Jasper Hill Farm has built a $3.2-million aging cave to finish not only its own cheeses but also those from other cheesemakers. Pete Johnson, owner of Pete’s Greens, is working with 30 local farmers to market their goods in an evolving community supported agriculture program.
The area is also home to High Mowing Seeds, a leading national purveyor of organic fruit and vegetable seeds — which, according to Burros, is intimately tied into the Hardwick scene.
All of these entities work closely together to share resources and create synergies. One way they do so is through the non-profit Center for an Agricultural Economy, one of whose projects is to roll out an "eco-industrial park" for agriculture-based businesses.
According to Burros, the Center also "recently bought a 15-acre property to start a center for agricultural education," and run a a year-round farmers market and a community garden (complete with greenhouse and a "paid gardening specialist").
There’s even a community-owned restaurant called Claire’s, described thusly by Burros:
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 payoff of all this activity has been considerable — and not just culinary. A town official told Burros that local-food enterprises have already created somewhere between 75 and 100 jobs to the area — a substantial number in a town with a population of 3,000.
What we’re talking about here is something I’ve been yammering about for years: serious investment in food processing and distribution infrastructure.
How did the town pull it off? Not by relying entirely on globalized credit markets. According to Burros, the town’s ag pioneers have "lent each other about $300,000 in short-term loans" over in recent months.
And they’ve rejected the tired homilies of hyper-capitalism, opting for cooperation over ruthless competition. Burros:
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.
I realize that Vermont is a unique place. Few people make fortunes there; but folks with money made elsewhere flock to the state. As Burros puts it:
These entrepreneurs, mostly well educated children of baby boomers who have added business acumen to the idealism of the area’s long established hippies and homesteaders, are in the right place at the right time. The growing local-food movement, with its concerns about energy usage, food safety and support for neighbors, was already strong in Vermont, a state that the National Organic Farmers’ Association said had more certified organic acreage per capita than any other.
Like any community, Hardwick has assets, challenges, and needs. Sounds like its citizens are mobilizing in creative ways to harness its assets and treat its problems.
What they’re doing is by no means unique — or limited to communities with plenty of wealth.
Look at what Growing Power — whose founder, Will Allen, just snagged a MacArhur genius grant — is doing in low-income areas in Milwaukee and Chicago. Or what People’s Grocery is doing in West Oakland, and Added Value in Red Hook, Brooklyn, one of New York City’s lowest-income areas. Look also at what’s going on in Carrboro, N.C, and Woodbury County, Iowa. The list is long and growing.
What these programs need to grab a foothold and start really building robust, job-creating economies is investment cash. Government at the federal, state, and local levels can either continue to neglect these efforts, or learn to support them, leverage them, and help them multiply.
The global financial system has plunged into deep crisis. Its architects — including former Goldman Sachs chief Henry Paulson — evidently have no idea how to revive it, even with full command of the public purse.
Rather than throw hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars into that dubious project, why not focus on diverting credit to the sort of initiatives happening in Hardwick?