Everybody seems to know everybody else in this part of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. Interconnectedness and mutual support define this 3-county region that President of Sterling College Matthew Derr prefers to regard “not as a Silicon Valley for sustainable ag, necessarily, but as a place where certain values converge.”
Our day on June 5 started with a “windshield tour” of a 400-acre organic farm outside of Craftsbury owned by Pete Johnson, whom our guide, Louise Calderwood of Sterling College, has known since he opened his farm stand at age 15. That stand is still operating, on an honor-system, but is now part of widely dispersed complex of farms and enterprises, including a 500+ member CSA, collectively known as Pete’s Greens. When Pete’s barn burned down four years ago, the surrounding community helped raised the capital for him to rebuild, through a public auction, a concert by Phish, and sales of a beer named after him by Rock Art Brewery.
Our destination for the morning was actually Cellars at Jasper Hill, a 22,000 sq. ft. array of cheese caves and attached dairy barn and milk processing facilities near Greensboro owned and operated by brothers Mateo and Andy Kehler. The Cellars also makes cheese for 6 local and regional milk producers. Monger liaison Molly Browne guided us through several vaults of aging clothbound cheddar, blue, Brie, tomme-style, and other hard and soft-ripened cheeses. Most recently from Denver, Molly is part of an ongoing in-migration of young people and families who are revitalizing the economy and enhancing social life in this part of Vermont. According to President Derr, Sterling College’s 120 total average study body has contributed greatly to this influx, with approximately 45 percent of alumni choosing to stay in the area after they graduate.
Another major force in attracting jobs and people to area has been the Center for an Agricultural Economy (CAE), located in Hardwick, subject of the book The Town that Food Saved, by Ben Hewitt. While we ate brown-bag lunches that we had prepared in the Sterling College kitchen, CAE executive director Sarah Waring led us in a discussion about food hubs and specifically the Vermont Food Venture Center. Providing a community kitchen space and food business incubation facility, this project had helped generate 285 jobs and increase the per capital income of Hardwick and Craftsbury residents by 18 percent. Sara characterized the Hardwick success story as “more rapid slow growth here than elsewhere.”
Our “school day” ended next door at Vermont Soy, a business that has benefited from its relationship with the Center of Agricultural Economy. Business manager Michael Carr and co-owner Andrew Meyer (also owner of Vermont Natural Coatings, manufacturing a non-toxic whey-based wood finish), were our congenial hosts. While we sampled soy pudding, Andrew talked about the challenges in maintaining an organic foods business with new non-GMO regulations pending at the state level and new FDA safety rules also expected.
Here again, the mutual support aspect of region was apparent. When Vermont Soy has its lull periods, often a three-week period just after schools close, it “shares” its employees with Pete’s Greens and others are just coming into the peak periods when seasonal farm labor is needed. Also, whenever a person is hired at Vermont Soy, Michael does all he can to find work for that employee’s spouse, figuring the family will then want to stay in the area and become a long-term part of the business and the community.
In these many ways, the values associated with sustainable agriculture in the Northeast Kingdom thrive and endure.