• Publishers' Note Spring 2011

    Publishers' Note Spring 2011

    Who doesn’t love the first signs of spring? As soon as we see the sap buckets being readied and hung on waiting maple trees, we know for sure that winter’s grip is beginning to ease. We also know that soon we’ll be making our yearly trek to the sugarhouse near us to witness the age-old rituals and to get a taste of that wonderful sweetness in all its variety, from fancy to dark amber. In this issue, you can learn about the subtle and not so subtle taste differences in maple syrup.

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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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  • The Art of Growing Food

    The Art of Growing Food

    Gardeners can always learn from other gardeners, and I’ll admit that some of my best ideas have come from visiting other gardens and drawing from the past. We all start with the same basic ingredients—seeds, soil, and plants—yet the art of growing food can be expressed by a kitchen garden that goes beyond the practical straight rows of a vegetable garden to include herbs, flowers, and vegetables planted with a creative eye to balance color and height and to create an ornamental edible landscape.

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  • Lambing Time

    Lambing Time

    It’s 5:20 a.m. and a pale glimmer of dawn shows in the sky above the Northfield Range. I can just make out the ghosts of the sheep’s breath in the open doorway of the shed, and their dark forms nestled in the deep straw. They hear me coming and rise, grunting, their girths almost impossibly huge this late in March. Two of my 23 pregnant ewes gave birth the day before and the new lambs—two sets of twins—are cuddled close to the warmth of their mother’s bodies.

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  • What Washington Just Did—Food Safety

    What Washington Just Did—Food Safety

    In May of 2009, then-governor Douglas signed legislation that created the Vermont Farm to Plate Program. Over the following 18 months, hundreds of Vermonters came together at Farm to Plate Regional Food Summits to share ideas and strategies to support new farm and food enterprises and to strengthen local and regional markets for Vermont’s agricultural products. On January 12 of this year, in a packed room at the Vermont State House, the fruit of this excellent effort was presented in a comprehensive, 10-year strategic plan for new investments, programs, and legislation to support the continued development of Vermont’s local food system.

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  • Plant, Weed, Blog

    Plant, Weed, Blog

    When Vermonters think of local food, we tend to think of farmers’ markets, where each purchase comes with a personal exchange. Or we imagine a tour through Vermont’s characteristic working landscape. Or we recall fresh flavors and home-cooked dishes shared with friends.

    Or maybe we think of computers.

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  • The Best Farm Products You Can’t Eat

    The Best Farm Products You Can’t Eat

    We usually think of “food” when we think of “farming,” but many agricultural crops are turned into products that humans can’t eat. Such products are manufactured throughout Vermont today using various crops and livestock, and are therefore, like food items, creating jobs for Vermonters, keeping farmland in active use, and leading our state toward greater self-sufficiency. What follows is a series of articles about nine inedible farm products.

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  • Spring Cartoon—Localvore Picnic

    Spring Cartoon—Localvore Picnic

    If you go out in the woods today, you're in for a big suprise...

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  • Farmers' Kitchen Nitty Gritty Grains

    Farmers' Kitchen Nitty Gritty Grains

    Corn in Vermont fields is not uncommon, but wheat? In the 1800s wheat was a common sight on the rocky hillsides of the state, but as the country expanded westward, other land appeared to be more hospitable and profitable for the large production of wheat needed for a growing population. During the past decade, however, wheat in Vermont has had a rebirth of sorts. A small cadre of farmers have, individually and independently, decided to again give it a try by attempting to grow small quantity, high quality wheat—and they’ve been finding success.

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  • Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

    Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

    On summer evenings in the garden in Weathersfield, I know it’s nearly time to call it a day when the train whistle blows; over the river, Amtrak’s Vermonter is about to cross the highway in Cornish. As I stand up, knees cracking from too-long bending over the rows of carrots that want thinning, I think about the train on its trek north to St. Albans, and how tomorrow it will head south to Washington, DC. Back and forth, more than 600 miles, each day, every day.

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Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

llustration: The Handbook of Early American  Advertising Art, Dover Publications

Written By

Charlie Hunter

Written on

March 01 , 2011

On summer evenings in the garden in Weathersfield, I know it’s nearly time to call it a day when the train whistle blows; over the river, Amtrak’s Vermonter is about to cross the highway in Cornish. As I stand up, knees cracking from too-long bending over the rows of carrots that want thinning, I think about the train on its trek north to St. Albans, and how tomorrow it will head south to Washington, DC. Back and forth, more than 600 miles, each day, every day.

I’ve been friends with the Vermonter for years. Maybe you’re friends with it, too? The Vermonter is a great little train—the crews and regular riders know each other by their first names, swapping greetings and gossip over microwaved hot dogs and terrible coffee—and as it goes about its rounds it plays the eternal role of trains in rural America: knitting distant places together, bringing a bit of the faraway to the nearby.

Many of us who are fond of local agriculture have a soft spot for trains. Trains are familiar and knowable; they carry a sense of place about them. Trains have the quirky specificity of a home-dug Green Mountain potato. Highway culture, on the other hand, feels as anonymous as a Burger King french fry.

Which is why I often think about how farmers near Vermont’s two-passenger rail lines might use the train to get their goods to urban markets. Wouldn’t it be grand if our fresh-greens growers, cidermakers, brewers, artisan cheese makers, and meat purveyors could head to the local depot and hand off cartons of fresh goods each morning, knowing that by nightfall, without putting another truck on the interstate, other hands would be picking up those same cartons in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington?

It used to be that much of Vermont’s milk was shipped to Boston and New York by rail. And packages from Sears Roebuck and boxes of baby chicks used to arrive here via the Railway Express Agency, the FedEx of its day. As highways came to primacy, that business migrated to trucks, and rail service dwindled; passenger service in Vermont ended in 1965 and, during the last few decades, the tracks were torn up on all four lines that used to run from the Vermont border to Boston. In 1972, however, Amtrak resuscitated passenger trains through Vermont, and today we have two daily trains that endearingly shuffle people between the Big Cities and our small towns—the Ethan Allen from Rutland to New York by way of Albany, and the Vermonter, starting in St. Albans, making nine stops in Vermont, and then down to Hartford, New York, Philly and Washington.

What would it take to ship Vermont food products on these trains? Of course, we’d need a walk-in cooler, maybe half-a-car long, with the rest of the car open for other uses­—hauling baggage and bicycles, or for hosting live music. We’d need a scale on board, so that a grower’s shipping credit would be docked accordingly. And we’d need clearly marked baggage tags so that the chevre destined for Philly would end up in Philly and not in Trenton. The conductor would have to engage in a few minutes of record-keeping, and everyone, at both ends, would have to get to the depot on time.

Sure, it’s a pipe dream. But not much more of one than the desire to get workaday Vermonters to consider locally sourced food, or to get rice to grow in something more than test plots. The trains run, and the state pays a hefty subsidy to keep them going. And since the new administration in Montpelier is committed to expanding the markets for Vermont agriculture, why not use the train to get the goods to the population centers? If ag products came into the Big City via the Vermonter and the Ethan Allen, doesn’t that make the story—the one about knowing your farmer, and knowing that your farmer loaded the bibb lettuce onto the train that morning—that much more appealing to urban consumers? It just seems so comprehensible, appropriately scaled, and part of the great Vermont tradition of using what’s handy to do what needs to be done.

And once we accomplish that, maybe we can get to work on making the food in the café car better. Vermont half-and-half rather than plastic creamers for the coffee would be a good place to start.

Whoa, I tell myself. It’s okay to dream, but let’s not get unrealistic.

About the Author

Charlie Hunter

Charlie Hunter

Charlie Hunter runs music trains, makes paintings of rusting infrastructure and cows, and gardens in Weathersfield under the watchful eye of his mother.

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A quarterly magazine devoted to covering local food, sustainable farming, and the many people building the Vermont food system.

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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Home Stories Issues 2011 Spring 2011 | Issue 16 Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails