• Eat it on the Radio

    Eat it on the Radio

    In his book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Vermont author and environmentalist Bill McKibben focuses on the importance of strong communities for the health and well-being of the planet and its people. He suggests that we can strengthen our home regions by producing more of our own food, generating more of our own energy, and even creating more of our own culture and entertainment. To achieve these goals, McKibben advises, we need to build or rebuild local institutions that draw people together, and one such institution that he cites in his book is a low-power radio station in the Mad River Valley: WMRW-LP Warren, 95.1 FM.

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  • A Passion for Artisan Soap

    A Passion for Artisan Soap

    My soap-making journey started a decade or so ago, when I was becoming more and more sensitized (allergic) to mainstream, detergent-type soaps. Eventually I just couldn’t use them anymore. As I researched the subject, I became alarmed at what was being used in cosmetic products on the market, not to mention all the harmful chemicals leaching into our waterways as a result of those products. I decided to start making my own soap, and the enthusiasm I had back then for soap making has now turned into a passion and a business for me. My only regret is that I didn’t start making them sooner!

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  • Halal in the Hills

    Halal in the Hills

    Art Meade is a 59-year-old livestock and poultry farmer with a thick Maine accent and a farm on Route 100 in Morrisville. He also happens to run the only state-licensed slaughter facility in Vermont that caters to Muslims who practice halal slaughter. This is the Muslim tradition of swiftly slitting the throat of a domesticated meat animal with a sharp knife; the animal is believed to be killed instantly and painlessly (though there is some debate about that). Muslims, who are directed by their religion to eat halal meat, can purchase such meat in Vermont stores, but some prefer to do the slaughter themselves.

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  • How to Start a Community Garden

    How to Start a Community Garden

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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  • The Story of Bread

    The Story of Bread

    Green Mountain Flour, a new artisan bakery in Windsor owned and operated by Zachary Stremlau and Daniella Malin, takes a unique approach to its craft: it uses local wheat, local milling, and local fuel to create its flours, breads, and pizzas. Here, woodcuts that comprise the bakery’s logo tell “the story of bread,” echoing a time in early New England when, according to Zachary and Daniella, “the farmers knew the miller, the miller milled with stone, and the baker baked with fire.”

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  • How to Get Grounded

    How to Get Grounded

    On a road in Cabot, not far from the land that Laura Dale and Cyrus Pond bought this past March, you can look out to the west at a horizon dominated by the undulating spine of the Green Mountains. For many young farmers in Vermont, the cost of land can seem as daunting and insurmountable as the largest of those mountains in the dead of winter.

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  • Tapping for Taste

    Tapping for Taste

    There are people in Vermont who prefer fake maple syrup—not just people who are looking for something cheaper but who actually prefer the stuff made of corn syrup. There are other people in Vermont who don’t talk to those fake syrup types. And there are Vermonters who stand by Grade B for all occasions and others who keep a little Fancy on hand.

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  • Classy Wheat

    Classy Wheat

    Last year, I arrived at The Putney School as their new gardener and was tasked with getting the high school students at this Putney boarding and day school excited about gardening. Early on, the farm manager told me he had planted some wheat on the edge of one of the farm’s hayfields. I was intrigued.

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  • Farm Camp—Planting Confidence, Harvesting Strength

    Farm Camp—Planting Confidence, Harvesting Strength

    As I downshift off the Putney exit of I-91, my husband, Jerry, is roused from his dozing by the hollow sound of several hundred jostling maple syrup jugs. It’s April, time to buy containers for our maple syrup at Bascom’s 10% container sale, and time to post Farm Camp flyers.

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  • The First Localvores

    The First Localvores

    I have always been fascinated by wild foods. When I was a kid growing up in Indiana we had a copy of Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and I remember how exciting it was to read about eating cattails, making acorn flour, and brewing sassafras tea. As I recall, the cattail stalks tasted a bit like mild turnips, the acorn flour was tannic and needed a lot of processing before being edible, and the tea tasted like something just this side of root beer. Little did I know as a kid that wild edibles such as cattails and acorns were just a couple of the foods historically gathered and consumed by the first people to inhabit the state I would one day call home.

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  • Getting Everyone to the Table

    Getting Everyone to the Table

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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  • A 10-Year Stroll

    A 10-Year Stroll

    With hundreds of spectators lining Main Street in Brattleboro, the groomed and bedazzled heifers are led down the center of the street to the cheers of onlookers. Hundreds of cows preen for the delighted crowd, followed by more farm animals (bulls, goats, and horses), tractors (also decorated for the parade) floats, clowns, marching bands, street performers, and all manner of groups touting their various farm affiliations.

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  • Cookbooks, Culture,  and Community

    Cookbooks, Culture, and Community

    The case for local nuts. No, I’m not talking about your odd mother-in-law, your bizarre ex-boyfriend, or that whacko who expresses herself, extensively, at town meeting. And I don’t mean aficionados or extremely enthusiastic people. I mean those portable nuggets of nutrition, held aloft by tree limbs. A nut, technically speaking, is a big seed enclosed by a hard shell. And even though you’re now fantasizing about almond and macadamia instead of weirdo and diehard, I’m here to tell you about what nuts we can grow in Vermont, and why.

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  • After the Fire

    After the Fire

    Barn’s burnt down…now I can see the moon. –Chinese proverb

    Yet the converse is also true: Yes, we can see the moon, but it won’t shelter tractors, nor can vegetables be washed, packed, and stored inside its lovely glow. Oh, the moon is beautiful, but what can it do for food and a business after the fire is put out?

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Consumers as Coproducers

NOFA Vermont’s executive director reflects on 20 years of involvement in the state’s local organic food movement

NOFA-VT Members of the staff and board gather to celebrate over 30 years
From left to right: Lisa Harris, Will Stevens, Enid Wonnacott, Kirsten Bower, Andy Jones, Meg Klepack, Olga Boshart, Cheryl Bruce.

Written By

Enid Wonnacott

Written on

December 01 , 2008

People frequently ask me: Why is Vermont’s local food system so strong? Of course, it is difficult to name one reason. Is it the quality of our farmers who steward the land, mentoring each other and increasing in numbers annually? Is it the localvore movement, which is building a social food and farm network among neighbors and an organizing structure that addresses the barriers to greater local food production? Is it the 100 schools in Vermont that are integrating farm and food lessons into their curricula and partnering with farms to serve local foods in their cafeterias? Is it events wholly outside of Vermont that provide an external stimulant, such as the high price of fuel, food safety scares, and the slow decline of rural America?

I think the answer lies in our bedrock. The local food movement has elements of the types of rock we see in Vermont. It is sedimentary, in that it has built over time. It has undergone key structural changes, consistent with metamorphic rock, such as the founding of a Vermont organic dairy co-op and other community-based businesses. And it is igneous, as a result of the “fiery” farmers and consumers who have spurred the movement on. Regardless, the local food movement in Vermont is strong, is growing, is inspirational, and will undoubtedly keep me engaged for at least another 20 years!

But what needs to happen over the next 20 years for us to progress even farther? First, a look back.

In 1987, I was hired by the Northeast Organic Farmers Association of Vermont to certify organic farms in the state. That year there were 17 farmers certified, compared to 543 producers today. At the end of the season, NOFA Vermont needed a coordinator and asked if I were interested in the 10-hour per month job. There was a handwritten database with 120 names on it, and a board that needed refreshing. But what was so clear, even then, was the deep conviction of the farmers, gardeners, and homesteaders who were providing leadership for the early certified organic movement.

As with other counterculture movements of the time, organic agriculture was a response to the trend toward larger farms and vertical integration in the agricultural industry. The late 1980’s were a kind of primordial soup of organic agriculture, with farmer-gatherings to discuss food access, state organic certification standards, and what practices were consistent with our ideals. These gatherings included long discussions on topics such as the use of black plastic—important for season extension and heat-loving crops, but reliant on the petrochemical industry and a contributor to landfills—and debates about when young stock could be considered organic—from the last third of gestation or birth? The Vermont Organic Farmers (VOF), the certification program of NOFA Vermont, had a quorum of “consumer members” that they invited to their annual meetings to provide a consumer voice during the standards-setting process, but there was little consumer ownership of local and organic foods at the time.

Eventually, though, pivotal events in the 80s contributed to the “tipping point” at which consumers became much more aware of their food consumption. For example, in 1989, Meryl Streep served as a high-profile spokesperson against Alar, a plant growth regulator used on apple trees to delay ripening and to prevent apples from falling prematurely. Even though the science behind Alar was controversial, and is still being challenged, it alerted parents to the fact that food may contain chemical residues or breakdown products that may impact their children’s health.

In the late 80s, when Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, then-Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, asked me, organic farmer Will Stevens (president of the Vermont Organic Farmers at the time), and other agricultural leaders in Vermont what we thought about developing national certification standards, it was seductive. Not that organic farmers were necessarily disenfranchised at the time, but people in high places did not necessarily ask us for our opinion, nor acknowledge the growing national importance of a practice like organic agriculture. As an organization, we were a combination of wowed, honored, wary, and belligerent. We didn’t trust the federal government to establish and uphold the very certification standards that we had created during many farmhouse kitchen discussions, but we also wondered: with national and international growth, what was going to keep the word “organic” credible without some oversight?

From 1990 until the National Organic Program was implemented in 2002, farmers and consumers in Vermont and around the country engaged in that debate. NOFA Vermont led the very vocal minority opposed to a government-administered certification program. We did not disagree on the need for a uniform national standard that we all adhered to, but we did not want it administered by the federal government. When a pivotal national vote was taken and we did not have the backing of enough other certification programs to challenge the proposed National Organic Program, we vowed to shift our energy toward making it the best program it could be, with quality standards that farmers in Vermont would support and that would benefit consumers.

An unanticipated outcome of this process was the emergence of a strong consumer voice. In 1997, the first draft of the National Organic Program rules was released for comment. When the federal government asked whether the spreading of sewage sludge, irradiation, and the use of genetically modified organisms were consistent with organic agriculture, they received comments from 280,000 citizens, generating more comments than any other issue in the history of the USDA. And the USDA listened, adding more ballast to consumer ownership of food production.

Now the floodgates are open; consumer interest in local and organic foods in Vermont is unprecedented. I believe that over the next 20 years, we will see consumer ownership of food continue to grow until consumers are truly “coproducers.” By transitioning from being pure activists to engaged advocates, “coproducers” will engage in a shared partnership with food producers. Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a prime example of a shared partnership between farmer and consumer, and that partnership is being transformed into business models such as Restaurant Supported Agriculture, Community-Supported Kitchens, and Community-Supported Businesses. These are all examples of individuals investing in their communities, whether they are consumers who want to “put a face on their food” by purchasing a share of a farm, or chefs who support access to the freshest foods.

Just as “local” has emerged as the rallying cry of the last five years, “community” will emerge as the new organizing concept in food. Individuals seek community and a sense of belonging. Whereas “place-based” education supports community learning about local heritage and cultures, I believe we will move toward “taste-based” agriculture, in which we celebrate the tastes of the Champlain Valley or the communities of the Connecticut River Valley and the prime Hadley loam soils that reside there. To support community-based food systems, regional storage and processing facilities will be developed, and farmers will organize into producer hubs to share equipment and to develop cooperative marketing structures. The traditional Vermont values of entrepreneurialism, hard work, stubbornness, and self-reliance will play important roles in this transition to strong community-based food systems.

About the Author

Enid Wonnacott

Enid Wonnacott

Enid Wonnacott is the executive director of NOFA Vermont, a non-profit association of farmers, gardeners and eaters working for local farms, healthy food and strong communities.

 

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Vermont's Local Banquet Magazine illuminates the connections between local food and Vermont communities. Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape is changing as the localvore movement shapes what is grown and raised here.

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