Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails
Written onMarch 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.