The Issue Of Sustainable Agriculture

by Caterina Borg, Good Food Gourmet on March 14, 2010

hardwick, VTA few years ago, I had the opportunity to attend one of Al Gore’s lectures on the topic of global warming. He had just embarked on a tour of the USA and presenting this very controversial information to anyone who was willing to listen. It was a real eye opening experience, and one that I have come to believe is more fact than fiction.

Upon leaving, I admit that I was frightened by the information. As I exited the building, I was faced with protesters passing out flyers condemning the ‘lies’ about global warming. Is this really a threat to our world as we know it or is this just Mother Nature’s way of re- calibrating herself, after the many years of physical abuse we’ve imposed on her?

Wherever you stand on the topic, you can’t dispute the fact that the overwhelming information is compelling. This looming global crisis that was on a collision course with humanity, but who do you believe and how do you even begin to address the topic?

I left there feeling as though I was handed a double edged sword, whose consequences were going to be hard to escape regardless of what path we chose. Perhaps we may not have the chance to completely avoid the collision, but we might still have time to lessen the impact. The point is, do we take it seriously?

I rolled the data and images around in my mind and tried to come up with a very simplified way to share it with others. This list of indisputable must haves is what we all need for basic survival and long term health. Things like,

1. Clean Environments (soil, water air)

2. Organically grown fruits, vegetables, livestock with little or no pesticides, preservatives, growth hormones, antibiotics, etc

3. Comprehensive plan on how to get food to market (maximum nutrition, minimal environmental impact)

4. How to maintain a comprehensive food plan on a long term basis (perhaps locally, utilizing new techniques like hydroponics) as the population grows

5. Comprehensive recycling programs on how to utilize waste from the food manufacturing industry

It all seems simple enough, but the truth is, that somewhere along the line we’ve really managed to screw it up. The issue is complicated and one that requires knowledge in environmental science and policy in order for it to be discussed intelligently, but what I do know is that each of us has the power to influence policymakers to make better decisions by requiring them to make better choices for their communities.

Some legislation is being passed to provides tax incentives for companies to build green office/school spaces. Others believe that steps required for a cleaner environment include cleaner sources of energy. Some states (on both the state and local level) believe in and promote the recycling of both food (into compost) and other materials (such as aluminum) –  but this is not a wholehearted effort that is embraced by everyone across the country.

My question is…how does it all fit together?

Are these new pieces of law just huge monoliths floating out there in one big green sea, bobbing about with other green projects that will ultimately be mired in bureaucracy and red tape, and ultimately go nowhere?

Can we turn these efforts into meaningful changes that will influence and encourage a united and positive impact in our communities and our world?

On both counts, I think the answer is yes.

Recently, I happened to come across a documentary on a little town of 3200 people in Hardwick, Vermont. This small town just south of the Canadian border was an industrial driven locale that was hit hard by the recent downturn in the economy. The median income was 25% less than the State average and the area was one of the poorest ­rural regions in America.

In the last few years the area shifted towards sustainable agriculture and eco friendly farming practices. Without realizing it, they had become an active participant and role model for other States and countries who were interested in their new farming practices. Along the way, they also became an unlikely food mecca for all things organic.

The town has been transformed into a community wide farming circle by designing a fully integrated 21st century food system to lessen their carbon footprint. They believed that by taking advantage of the area’s natural environment, they could build a self sufficient community that would provide everything they need. This ideology was built on the belief that the global food system is killing our planet, communities and people. Processed products are shipped on airplanes, are contaminated with chemicals, grown in bad soil with poor seeds and are stored for long periods of time, losing much of their nutritive value.

So what is the secret to their success?

Collaboration unlike anything you have ever seen.

First on the agenda involved an investment from 50 people from the town of Hardwick to build a restaurant that agreed to source all of its ingredients locally. The concept was developed through something called community supported agriculture (CSA) where each invested $1,000 of their own money to set up the restaurant. The restaurant called Claire’s, was now at the center of this revolution as the town continued to add new businesses that supported each other.

As Claire’s became successful, the townspeople encouraged the setup of another restaurant called The Bee’s Knees, and various other co-ops in the area that would source and sell the locally grown products. High Mowing Organic Seed Company slowly became one of the country’s largest purveyors of organic (and non-gmo) seeds, and provided seeds to Pete’s Greens, who began to grow organic produce. A subsidiary of Pete’s Greens, called Butterworks Farms, produces yogurt along with cornmeal and other grains which it bakes into bread and uses the leftover grains to feed their livestock.

The creation of Vermont Soy Company provides soy products of all kinds. It also set up a subsidiary company which uses the whey from the dairy farms in the area to develop non toxic paint and stains. Other area businesses that support the effort are Buffalo Mountain Co-op, BonnieView Farms, Ploughgate Creamery, Cabot Creamery and Jasper Hill Farm.

A good example of their committed level of collaboration took place when the High Mowing Organic Seed Company had a surplus of pumpkin seeds. They contacted the folks at Pete’s Grains and had them grow the pumpkins, and then Claire’s baked them into pumpkin pies to donate to the local food bank.

Two agricultural education centers complete the circle with Sterling College sending many of its students to work on farms and the Highfields Institute which picks up leftover food from residents and local restaurants and composts it in huge landfills for the farmer’s next growing season.

So, a squash seed provided by High Mowing Organic Seed Company is grown at Pete’s Greens and might be harvested by a Sterling College student and then served at Claire’s restaurant. Claire’s leftovers might be composted at Highfields Institute then returned to fertilize the land at High Mowing Organic Seed Company. Now that is a meaningful and cohesive system that has come full circle.

Hardwick is a shining example for all things sustainable. I hope their efforts continue to evolve and endure for many years to come. For us, they exist as an example of how vulnerable we all really are, yet their efforts have shown us that with a few changes and a new perspective supporting local farming and other businesses entrenched in sustainability, we may be able to turn this all around — and one day, save our lives.

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