Neighbors Feeding Neighbors in St. Johnsbury
Written onOctober 25 , 2012
Standing in a local supermarket last August, scanning the shelves for a lemon to complete the ingredient list for my mother’s celebrated cucumber salad, I felt like a complete foreigner. I realized, as I surveyed the rows of coolly aligned produce, that it had been a full five months since I stepped foot inside a grocery store.
This is because in the warmer months, the fruits of my own garden are frequently supplemented with produce and condiments from a variety of farm stands in the St. Johnsbury area and three local farmers’ markets. And like many of my neighbors, I embark on a weekly pilgrimage to several different farms within a 10-mile radius of my house for eggs, cheese, yogurt, goat’s milk, jam, relish, grass-fed beef, lambs, and free-range chickens.
As my fourth year of residence in the Northeast Kingdom draws to a close, I am recognizing that my transformation into a loyal localvore has been greatly assisted by the St. Johnsbury Area Local Food Alliance (St. J. ALFA), which also launched four years ago. At the time, vibrant grassroots concern about having gone beyond “peak oil” led to active community discussion and the founding of St. J. ALFA. Membership in this alliance is free and open to all. The core group of members represents local farmers and other citizens who believe in the alliance’s mission of making more local food available to a greater number of local people. Impressed by the vision and the enthusiasm of the group, I joined, and now attend meetings and work parties to help its various subcommittees.
St. Johnsbury’s environs are not unlike other regions of Vermont. There is a rich agricultural bounty, honesty boxes at numerous welcoming farms, and a longstanding tradition of farmers producing food for their neighbors. But two projects run by St. J. ALFA are turning out to be quite unique.
In 2010, a local citizen donated three acres of tillable land on Old Center Road just outside St. Johnsbury’s town center. This land became the all-volunteer Community Farm, first run by a conglomeration of religious groups called Faith in Action. St. J. ALFA got involved in 2011 and assumed full management this year. It’s called a “community farm” rather than a “community garden” to highlight its unusual modus operandi. Individuals do not adopt individual plots of soil for their own use and benefit, as typically occurs in a community garden. Instead, individuals work side by side with neighbors and new friends on one large plot of land follow a suggested protocol that adapts according to need, imagination, and the initiative of its volunteers. In exchange for hoeing, planting, watering, or thinning, local citizens are invited to take home whatever produce suits them. The surplus is donated to neighbors in need.
The Community Farm is a true community project, relying on generous donations of money, time, services, seeds, plants, and products by local businesses, organizations, and individuals. The vision is to expand the farm beyond its current productive state and make it a site for educational programs run in conjunction with local schools and institutions such as the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium, which is working on curricula involving the science of growing things. One active member of St. J. ALFA who is a teacher brings her high school students to the farm for many hands-on adventures studying and working on projects involving soil testing, soil preparation, farm layout, and planting.
At local meal sites this past summer, members of the Community Farm also offered “Eating Local” food workshops that featured food tastings and the sharing of recipes. Some of these highlighted the value of growing and eating beans as part of St. J. ALFA’s receipt of the Bean Grant, which is designed to promote beans as an important source of good, local, plant-based protein. The grant was co-written with UVM Extension and is a Specialty Crop Grant funded by the USDA and administered by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. Work is underway for the acquisition and installation of a bicycle-powered bean thresher that St. J. ALFA hopes to house at the farm. This human-powered machine would be converted from an old chipper thresher and would provide further opportunities for active involvement (literally!) in the local food movement.
St. J. ALFA also oversees the St. Johnsbury Online Farmers’ Market, one of only a few online markets in Vermont that offer citizens the opportunity to order products and pay for them in advance online. Twenty-seven vendors from 17 towns throughout the Northeast Kingdom are currently registered in this market, and they’re not all farmers. The roster includes herbalists, bakers, jam and jelly makers, coffee roasters, and candy creators. To make the online market more convenient for customers with tricky schedules, there are now three different pick-up locations and times: Wednesday afternoons at the St. Johnsbury House, Friday afternoons at the Lyndonville Farmers’ Market, and Saturday mornings at the St. Johnsbury’s Farmers’ Market.
Consumers appreciate the Online Market because of the wide range of vendors and items, and because they can place and reserve an order for popular items that often sell out in the early hours of the outdoor farmers’ market. Their strawberries, spinach, peas, pies, and yogurt drinks will be waiting for them even if they arrive in the later hours of pickup. Some customers want the opportunity to pick up their orders quickly rather than taking the time to walk around and shop. Direct-to-your-door delivery service is also available for a fee.
The Online Market is in its second year, and there are some challenges involved in its maintenance. Its first-year trial was possible thanks to a modest grant and the phenomenal energies of a core group of 5 to 10 committed volunteers, all of whom had full-time day jobs. One of the volunteers, a farmer with an incredibly busy schedule, drove around to all the farms with coolers in his truck to collect every order and deliver the aggregation to the pickup site.
This year, another modest grant has allowed the hiring of a part-time manager, but the difficulties of minimizing cost and maximizing convenience remain. To pay for itself, the Online Market must gross $2,000 to $3,000 a week; the customer base is not yet broad enough. Some of last year’s grant money was used to hire a marketing consultant, but the implementation of the proposed strategies requires yet more volunteer hours and additional financial resources. An application for nonprofit status is pending; if approved, it would allow tax-free donations and access to many more grants, as well as helpful free services such as web page platforms.
As part of its role promoting a local food economy, St. J. ALFA also publishes an online Local Food Resource Guide listing all the CSAs and all the winter and summer farmers’ markets in the region, as well as resources for news and information on current farm policies, activities and events, local and natural food and gardening, and healthy nutrition. It holds panels and workshops, screens documentaries followed by discussions, and brings in representatives of other food-related organizations in the area.
The success of St. J. ALFA’s most unique programs, though—the Online Market and the Community Farm—will particularly encourage more people to become loyal localvores. I may already be one, but I will celebrate it all by making more of Mom’s cucumber salad. And this time, some lemon balm or lemon basil ordered from a local producer online or clipped from the Community Farm will provide that coveted suggestion of citrus.