Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s two-year Reimagining Infrastructure project.
I got intrigued when I read about the Mad River Food Hub. One of my joys, as I write Concrete Progress, is discovering ideas I’d never considered, and I was ignorant of food hubs until this fall. As soon as I read about them, I thought, “that makes so much sense”—just like Doodle polls, or gas-cap leashes—and I wondered how we’d gotten by without them. I wanted to explore food hubs a little further, so the other day, I went to see for myself the Vermont Food Venture Center, in the town of Hardwick.
Like many of us, I’ve gotten into local food in recent years, taking cloth bags to the farmers’ market and buying in-season fruits and vegetables and, sometimes, local meat and fish. But I eat a lot more than meat and vegetables, and I bet you do, too. Most food, from chips to salsa, from chocolate stout to chocolate milk, from kale smoothies to granola bars, from peanut butter to jelly, is processed, adding flavor and texture and value to the raw material before we sip, dip, crunch, or chomp. This sort of craftsmanship makes life immeasurably better—I brew my own beer, and I like it, but I’ll never make brown ale the way a genius like Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead Brewery does. The problem is that, when we buy processed food or drinks, it’s hard to maintain a local connection. To me, what food hubs do is connect the local to the eating, and put the “to” in “farm to table.”
Hardwick used to be a town of granite quarries and raucous miners, but after the granite business fell off the town crumbled. In the 1990s, Hardwick’s economy began to turn as people found the bounty in the region’s fertile soil and plentiful rain. Vermont also has an abundance of back-to-the-land hippies and businesslike hipsters seeking their own piece of the twenty-first century’s food revolution. One idea led to the next, and Hardwick became “the town that food saved.” You can read about it in Ben Hewitt’s terrific book of the same name, from which I learned all the stuff in this paragraph. Now the Hardwick area hosts a lively agricultural economy with a slew of cheesemakers, soymakers, syrupmakers, locavore restaurants, and food co-ops. Hewitt suggests that this “just might become one of the most important food towns in the United States.” At its heart is the Vermont Food Venture Center.
My wife and I found the food hub down a frosty road on the outskirts of Hardwick. We were met at the door by Connor Gorham, an energetic guy with an expansive mustache and a boundless enthusiasm for the food hub and its mission. Connor’s the hub of the food hub, the man who works with Hardwick’s food producers to ensure that their creations can get to market. We stepped through an ammonia footbath to purify our soles and then into the food rooms. These rooms are filled with industrial processers that boil, chop, divide, and pour. Some of it looks just like the stuff you’d have in your kitchen if you were fifteen feet tall, but some of it’s like nothing else on earth. The potato peeler, as Connor said, looked like R2D2 dressed as a woodstove for Halloween. With industrial kitchen contraptions such as this, the food hub’s clients are able to get their products up to code—did you know that most food must have a pH of 4.2 or less to be stored safely on grocery store shelves? They’re also able to meet one another, gain ideas, and share advice (as well as build friendships, between businesses and between people), all in the course of storing, labeling, canning, and shipping their food to market.
It’s important to keep in mind that, otherwise, these food producers would be doing this alone, in their sinks and on their stovetops, and have to pay for all the equipment themselves.
Some of the artisans only need to come to the hub once in a while, but two of them, Jasper Hill Cheese and Grassroots Distribution, a beer company, are there all the time. One of Jasper Hill’s cheeses won Best of Show at the American Cheese Society conference last summer. Grassroots distributes craft beer, and with Northern Vermont fast becoming the Napa Valley of brewing, it is well positioned for the future. Since neither of these mainstays is moving anytime soon, they provide a stable economic base that helps ensure the food hub’s future.
On the way out, we paused in the foyer to gaze at a table spread with the wealth of foodstuffs that emerge from the Food Venture Center. Some of it was about what I’d have expected to find —maté, pet treats, granola—but some of the stuff I’d never heard of before. For me, the coolest one was Switchel , a combination of maple syrup and apple cider vinegar, molasses, ginger, and lemon. Vermont farmers used to drink it to buck them up after a hot session in the hay fields. I bought some that same day, and was going to include a photo of myself drinking it, but it was so good, I finished the bottle before I remembered to get the camera out.
Half the people I know dream of running their own doughnut shop or brewery or food truck. And all of them are indeed really good at making doughnuts or beer or falafel—and I bet you have friends with similar dreams and talents. Places like Mad River and Hardwick are closing the circle of local food and making it possible for dreams to become businesses, and for everything on the dinner table to be grown, harvested, mixed, baked, aged, sold, and consumed in its own landscape.
Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. He’s currently at work on a PhD at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he’s researching the ways people restore and remake their environments.
Yes, food hubs appear to be an important rung in the infrastructure ladder that can help the growing sustainable food industry scale to meet demand, and supply, for that matter.
Last month, Orion hosted a live dialogue on these issues w/ an expert panel, during which many great models and ideas were shared: the recording of it is here:
…or it can be downloaded via Orion’s free podcast. And do let us know if you want more info or links to any of the reports or ideas mentioned during the conversation.
ehoffner @ orionmagazine.org