Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

With peak oil, farming needs to be cool again

Drive through Hinesburg and parts of Monkton these days and you’ll see one feature of Vermont’s new economy: suburban-style houses for people who work in greater Burlington.

Drive the opposite direction, through Orwell and Whiting and Leicester, and you’ll see the state’s old economy: ancient dairy farms, so long-abandoned that there’s not even a rotting barn in evidence. Fields so long neglected they’re transitioning to third-growth forest.

The paradox – and one of the great challenges of the next half-century – is that if Vermont is to prosper as we transition away from oil, the new must become old, and the old must again become new.

With gas at $4 a gallon and surely heading higher, the “new economy” -- based on long commutes from country to city -- simply won’t hold up. At some point, living in Monkton and driving every day to Colchester just becomes too expensive.

The same high prices for oil will be reflected in what we pay for food.

Instead of costing, say, $5 a quart, January strawberries that are shipped from Modesto, Calif. to Middlebury, Vt. will cost double that – and who’s going to pay a ten-spot for fresh strawberries when you can grab homegrown berries out of the freezer for free?

As for the “old” Vermont economy in those seemingly barren stretches of southern Addison County --- well, that’s where our food’s going to have to come from. We won’t be able to rely anymore on produce flown in on 747’s from Chile.

Which is where my niece Clara comes in.

Just out of high school and headed for college, Clara has been spending her summer volunteering at two local farms. Having been raised in the burbs of Boston, she’s an unlikely candidate to get up at 5 a.m. and feed the chickens, weed a long row of carrots, and harvest garlic.

But like a few Baby Boomers before them, Clara and some of her contemporaries have come to see that farming and living closer to the land can be cool.

And if there’s any hope that Vermont can again grow much of its own food once it’s too expensive to import it – well, then, farming is once again going to have to been seen as a cool thing to do.

Clara started out at Singing Cedars Farm in Orwell, the expanding enterprise run by Scott Greene TK and Suzanne Young. Like organic farmers in many countries, Scott and Suzanne rely in part of WWOOFers – young people volunteering through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF.

The organization began in Britain in 1971. Now, under the banner of “living, learning, sharing organic lifestyles,” WWOOF affiliates host volunteers at farms on six continents. (Similar programs are sponsored by the Northeast Organic Farmers Association, www.nofavt.org).

Earlier this month, Clara joined several WWOOFers at Singing Cedars, which lies near the end of several miles of dirt road in Orwell. The farm encompasses organic vegetables, chickens, turkeys, a few cows, and Scott and Suzanne’s two healthy young children.

This summer Scott and Suzanne had so much demand from WWOOFers that they were able to accommodate Clara as a volunteer for only 10 days.

She loved every minute. She even seemed to relish sleeping in the haymow, in a tent that protected her from the mosquitos, where she read herself to sleep each evening by the light of a headlamp.

From Singing Cedars she transitioned to Blue Ledge Farm, in Leicester along another lengthy stretch of dirt road. There she’s been learning to milk goats, feed pigs, and help make nine varieties of cheese.

The result of years of hard work by Hannah Sessions and Greg Barnhardt TK, Blue Ledge is a relatively small but impressive operation – especially the new “cave” where the cheese is made, in a cool, partly underground setting that is wired for the good rock music that reverberates from an iPod through its several rooms.

Both Blue Ledge and Singing Cedars say a lot about how to make the new economy of local agriculture work.

Except for a little bit of cow’s milk bought from another farm for one of their cheeses, Blue Ledge doesn’t rely on the dairy industry that is so rapidly dying in Vermont. (Organic milk holds great promise, but that’s a subject for another time.)

Instead, Blue Ledge has created especially tasty niche products that sell not just locally but also to urban outlets in southern New England. Moreoever, Blue Ledge helps preserve open space by grazing their goats while also respecting the nearby wetlands.

And as attested to by a unique beer and cheese tasting event that was held three years ago at Otter Creek Brewery, lots of other mom-and-pop operations are also making terrific Vermont cheeses.

Blue Ledge itself relies on mom and pop, too. Hannah’s mother, Abi, works the Rutland Farmers Market every Saturday and milks the goats on Sunday morning. Bill Sessions is a fixture at the Middlebury Farmers Market -- which surely makes him the only federal judge who sells cheese in his spare time.

Singing Cedars, too, uses grazing to preserve a bit of bucolic farmland. Like Blue Ledge, they’ve reclaimed old farmland and put it back to use in a part of the county where land is more affordable.

These operations rely heavily on farmers markets, community-supported agriculture arrangements, the organic and “slow” food trends, and the emerging localvore movement. (The outta-state media has taken to referring to them as “locavores,” but to me, that sounds too much like a bunch of crazy binge eaters.)

We eat as partial localvores because it tastes so good, of course.

But – and here’s the coolness factor again -- we also eat this way because of the romance of local food, its resonance of simpler times, an expression of honest values and hard work. Eating locally, we also savor the knowledge that our neighbors have labored through the overly warm, dry spring and an epically wet summer to bring these salad greens and garlic scapes, this venison stew meat and cheese and goat chops to our table.

Do we pay a premium for this food? You bet we do. It’s often cheaper to buy blueberries trucked in from North Carolina than those grown on Lower Notch Road.

But more and more of us are willing to pay that premium.

It’s a form of investing in a future of partial food independence, as Ripton’s Bill McKibben pointed out in his excellent article in the July 23 Seven Days.

Unless we support the new back-to-the-landers and their altruistic WWOOFers, we’ll never create a sustainable infrastructure of local and regional agriculture, for that inevitable day when the oil runs out.

And in the meantime -- as we contemplate how and what we will eat when it will have to be loca -- the process of buying and eating locally is also a wonderful way of that saying we love this place, along with the young people who have staked their farm future here and the bounty they produce.


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Anonymous American Earth said...

Dear Greg,

Thanks for sharing a story where you mentioned Bill McKibben.

He has a new book that has been generating buzz in the environmental community this fall. It was released on Earth Day 2008, “American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau.” It was edited by Bill McKibben and with a forward by Al Gore.

The first attempt to bring together in one place all the essential writings for the American environmental movement, American Earth is being called the “environmentalist’s bible.” It has started to gain mainstream accolades from the likes of U.S. News & World Report and The Boston Globe, which called it “the best resource between two covers” for anyone seeking to understand the “historical and intellectual roots of today's environmental movement.”

The book has already been adopted into university curricula around the country, and environmental action groups like Earthjustice and the National Resources Defense Council have pegged this anthology of environmental literature a must-read.

At a time when being “green” is all the rage, this book is a great resource for anyone wanting a better foundation upon which to understand global climate change and other important environmental issues that have finally caught the attention of policymakers and leaders worldwide.

Check out the book’s website at www.americanearth.org. It’s worth a look!

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