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Fresh start

Farms and food and innovative human energy sustain a town’s revival

By Dirk Van Susteren
Globe Correspondent / April 3, 2011

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HARDWICK, Vt. — If there were a “Locavore Capital of America’’ one would expect it to be in sunny California or perhaps somewhere in the heartland, where the topsoil is measured in feet, not inches, say in a town with a name like Farmersburg, Iowa, or Black Earth, Wis., both real places.

But, surprisingly, in rocky northern New England, just 45 miles from the Canadian border, is a place that could contend for that honor: Hardwick, a former quarrying town that until recently knew more pain than promise.

In recent years Hardwick, population 3,200, located along a tumbling stretch of the Lamoille River, has seen a half-dozen innovative agricultural enterprises crop up, many with mission statements including such words as “community-based,’’ “sustainable,’’ and “organic.’’

The town, always a bit scruffy, and with a high jobless rate, might be on a green trajectory. And people are taking notice.

Among the new operations here or in nearby towns: Jasper Hill Farm, which makes artisanal cheeses and provides aging, distribution, and marketing services to local cheesemakers; High Mowing Seed Co., an organic seed business, whose owner likes traveling around the country to tell the Hardwick farm and food story; Highfields Center for Composting, a soil-making business that collects its raw materials from restaurants, farms, and schools; Pete’s Greens, a CSA (community-support ed agriculture) farm that grows organic vegetables in gardens and greenhouses; and, finally, Vermont Soy, a tofu and soymilk producer.

The area also has dozens of small-scale producers, from orchardists to maple sugarmakers. Their products sell at farm stands, at the summer farmers’ market, and at Buffalo Mountain Food Co-op and Cafe, a landmark in its 36th year.

The media spotlight has shined. Over the past three years stories have appeared in The New York Times, Gourmet, and Eating Well; blurbs have appeared in Parade and USA Today; even CBC got into the act. Both Dan Rather and Emeril Lagasse have featured the Hardwick story on their cable programs.

A book by Ben Hewitt, “The Town That Food Saved’’ (Rodale, 2009), uses the coined word “agrepreneurs’’ to introduce the main locavore players. Hewitt, himself a berry, vegetable, and meat producer, tells how the people behind these enterprises share ideas and resources, and hope their efforts will provide both economic and social benefit.

Hardwick, never a postcard town, is getting respect.

“What I see are people, and I don’t mean crowds, but maybe couples, or three or four friends, who may have read about the town, or heard something about it, and have put together a special trip . . . because they know something exciting has happened here,’’ says Linda Ramsdell, owner of the Galaxy Bookshop.

“Many seem to live in places where there’s no connection to local food, and they yearn for that connection, so what they do is make a pilgrimage to Hardwick,’’ suggests Ramsdell, whose store in an old bank building features bestseller displays and two cats, one curled in a chair, the other walking the aisles, hoping to be petted.

“One thing that appeals to people, I think, is that Hardwick is still a real community; it’s not a place that’s organized around tourism,’’ says Ramsdell. “Hardwick and its surrounding towns have working landscapes.’’

Monty Fischer, the executive director of the Center for an Agricultural Economy, the nonprofit organization that helped spur these farm efforts, has kept count. “People from 40 states and 40 countries have come to ask about our agricultural cluster,’’ he reports, from his downtown office.

Thanks to $3 million in federal money, the center this spring is opening the Vermont Food Venture Center, an incubator facility, where food entrepreneurs can rent kitchens to develop and refine products they hope to sell. This summer Fischer’s organization intends to open a 15-acre site, Atkins Field, for community gardens, food fairs, and other public events.

For $50 a person the center offers daylong tours of farm and business operations, among them North Hardwick Dairy, an organic dairy, where sunflowers are grown as a value-added crop, and Caledonia Spirits, a maker of mead.

Fischer says those on tour learn many things, including how some of the producers are trying to address community needs. He recounts how last fall pumpkins and other vegetables grown by High Mowing for seeds were later turned into soups and pies and donated to the local food pantry.

The fruits of these efforts are on display at two downtown sites, one the Buffalo Mountain Co-op, and the other, Claire’s Restaurant & Bar, a trendy bistro-like place, enlivened by the alternating works of local artists. Its walls this month are graced with the works of a “naïve’’ painter, the late Merrill Densmore, whose colors and brushstrokes captured the spirit of the local landscape.

Claire’s opened just three years ago, thanks in part to 50 local residents, each of whom contributed $1,000 for start-up costs. The good news: They are being paid back with meals.

Chef Steven Obranovich reports that 79 cents of every dollar he spends on food goes to producers living within 15 miles of the restaurant.

Claire’s clientele, he says, is a “spectrum’’ of skiers and summer people and weekend visitors from Boston, New York, and, occasionally, Canada. Obranovich says he is especially pleased with the support that locals, originally hesitant, are giving the restaurant.

If Claire’s is fresh, Buffalo Mountain is funky and proud of it. The co-op, founded by a group of hippies and homesteaders in 1975, offers local produce, meats, cheese, and tofu; T-shirts; herbal health aids; seeds (High Mowing); breads from the region’s bakers; grains, granola, and rice; and maple syrup sold in bulk. A sign in the front window decries nuclear power; a notice on a bulletin board advertises yoga classes; and a wall poster urges, “Make Gardens, Not War.’’

The coffee shop offers java, omelets, veggie wraps, curried chicken salad, tea, plus Wi-Fi service and reading opportunities. “How’s your book coming?’’ a patron asked another on a recent afternoon, not making it clear whether she was referring to the book her friend was writing or one she was reading.

Hardwick is not long on accommodations: It has one bed-and-breakfast, the Kimball House, an 1890s Victorian home with comfortable rooms, a broad porch, and inviting gardens. But there are other B&Bs and inns nearby. One of the more noteworthy is the Highland Lodge on Caspian Lake, about eight miles up the road. The lodge has 19 rooms and cottages, a porch with views, and opportunities for hiking, bicycling, and aquatic sports.

Visitors may want to check two colorful restaurants a half-hour drive from Hardwick: the Bee’s Knees in Morrisville (emphasis on local ingredients) and the Parker Pie Co. (terrific pizza) in West Glover. Both offer live music and a wide choice of Vermont brews.

In Hardwick, visitors should check out the Town House, which on a summer night might offer anything from chamber music to local “Vaudeville’’ performances. Still another option: a hike on Hardwick Trails (trailhead behind the high school), a choice of winding forested paths, with one, Eaton Brook Loop, featuring stations with verses of poetry.

The hike, an appetite builder, is the perfect prelude to dinner at Claire’s, where I recently ordered grilled chicken, flavored with smoked paprika, cayenne peppers, and black lager. The accompanying fingerling potatoes, roasted carrots, and parsnips — mined last fall from a nearby field — were delicious.

Dirk Van Susteren can be reached at dirkpatrick@aol.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, this story on Hardwick, Vt., mischaracterized an aspect of Jasper Hill Farm’s business. It does not lease underground aging vaults; it provides aging, distribution, and marketing services to local cheesemakers.

If You Go

What to do
Hardwick Town House
127 Church St., Hardwick
802-472-5920
www.nekarts.org
Music and theater in 19th-century schoolhouse.
Center for an Agricultural Economy
41 South Main St., Hardwick
802-472-5840
www.hardwichagriculture.org
Daylong visits to farms and food-production enterprises; $50 per person.
Perennial Pleasures Nursery & Tea Garden
63 Brickhouse Road
East Hardwick
802-472-5104
www.perennialpleasures.net
Gardens, gift shop, and a chance to buy heirloom flowers and herbs. English cream teas served, Memorial to Labor days.
Where to stay
Kimball House B&B
173 Glenside Ave., Hardwick
802-472-6228
www.kimballhouse.com
Restored Victorian home, porch, gardens. Rooms $89-$99 with full breakfast.
Highland Lodge
1608 Craftsbury Road
Greensboro
802-533-2647
www.highlandlodge.com
Historic family resort, with range of adventure opportunities: hiking, canoeing, swimming, and bicycling. Dining room. Resort closed from end of cross-country ski season until Memorial Day weekend.
Where to eat
Claire’s Restaurant & Bar
41 South Main St., Hardwick
802-472-7053
www.clairesvt.com
Local ingredients, delicious fare, menu changes daily. Reservations helpful on busy nights.