Stearns’s ambition is shared by many in the community, including Andrew Meyer, who grew up on a dairy farm in Hardwick before leaving for Washington to work on ag policy with the now retired Senator Jim Jeffords. Meyer returned to Hardwick five years ago to open Vermont Soy and its sister company, Vermont Natural Coatings, which produces whey-based, low-toxicity finishes for furniture and floors. Meyer and Stearns are close friends, though Meyer is quieter, with an aw-shucks demeanor that belies his business savvy and on-the-fly resourcefulness. The launch of his business happened largely from the crest of a pile of topsoil on his brother’s farm; it was the only place he could get a cell signal. “We started to whisper about Hardwick as an ag center in 2004,” Meyer told me. We were in his “office,” a box of plywood walls built into the corner of the coatings factory. “Everyone laughed. Literally.” The laughter that recently echoed through Hardwick’s struggling economy has largely been silenced, and any last vestiges of ridicule should die a quick death in the coming months, with the arrival of the Vermont Food Venture Center, a food distribution (and packaging and development) center that’s to be built next to Vermont Soy. It will serve as a cooperative facility to local producers, enabling them to get their products to market with minimal investment. The recent opening of Claire’s Restaurant and Bar hasn’t hurt, either. Located in the space that once housed Benny’s, Claire’s is a “community supported restaurant.” Local believers purchased $1,000 coupons that they can redeem in food over a four year period. Claire’s opened in May 2008, sourcing 70 percent of its ingredients from within a 15-mile radius; in the first two months, the restaurant had done 200 percent more business than even the most optimistic projections. The momentum in Hardwick is clearly building. “You can say a lot of things, set policy, et cetera, et cetera, but unless you have blood that’s been dripped, risks taken—it’s just not going to happen,” said Meyer. His enthusiasm was beginning to show through his rural Vermont reticence, and he leaned his compact body forward. “It’s happening now.”
There is still much work to be done, though. In a way, Stearns is having to backtrack a bit: The rapid success and expansion of Hardwick’s artisanal-food-based industry has gotten ahead of the sort of careful analysis that normally focuses such ventures. In order to create a true model, one that might be replicated and implemented in other towns, Stearns and his entrepreneurial farmer friends will need rigorous methodology. One goal is to establish a local-food baseline against which to measure their progress in feeding the community. “We need to measure what percentage of consumption in the region is being produced in the region,” Stearns said. “Then we can say, “Okay, we want to increase that by five percent a year, and here’s how we’re going to do it.’” Perhaps more crucially, they’ll need the support of a blue-collar citizenry that wants for $20-a-pound cheese and organic tofu like a swordfish wants for sunscreen. “One of the things that’s most critical is that we’re not perceived as outsiders doing something elitist.” It’s a delicate balancing act, both economically and socially: In order to fund their enterprises and create the jobs that might further spur Hardwick’s renewal, the region’s agricultural entrepreneurs are obliged, at least in part, to create products that their neighbors might not be able to afford. It’s not such an unusual arrangement in 21st-century America, but it seems antithetical to the local-foods movement, and it’s surely antithetical to the very goals Stearns laid out for me. Can the Hardwick food collaborative bridge this divide? Stearns thinks so; Andrew Meyer thinks so. As does Mateo Kehler, maker of said $20 cheese. And Kristina Michelsen, one of the four partners of Claire’s. But then, of course they do. They’re not exactly unbiased. But they are persuasive. Imagine that their $20 cheese being sold in Boston and New York can produce a lot of jobs in Hardwick; they’re getting their margin from out-of-state markets and selling to locals at cost. Wouldn’t that be a start? “I’ve heard it said,” Roger Allbee, Vermont’s secretary of agriculture, remarked, “that Vermont’s way ahead of the curve regarding sustainable agriculture.” The proof is mounting in Hardwick.