FALL 2019 | WEEK 6
The Decentralized Food System
By Chris Dussault and Jessica Bakowski
This week we began our Agriculture Unit in the Field Semester. We love this unit because of the thriving local food economy, innovative food producers, and generous farm partners that we have in the area. There is so much with which to work. Our main text during this unit is Ben Hewitt’s 2009 book, “The Town That Food Saved.” Since the book focuses on the rise of the decentralized, local food system that has grown in the Hardwick area over the course of the last two decades, we have made it a point to visit some of the farms and businesses featured in the book as well as other agri-businesses in the area. This week we visited Tamarlane Farm in Lyndonville, Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, and the Small Axe Farm in Barnet.
Each of these operations are arguably a part of the local decentralized food system, which Hewitt defines through four criteria:
It must offer economic viability to small-scale local producers. Farmers need to be able to sustain themselves economically through their work. Vermont’s most successful small and larger scale food producers tend to increase the value of their commodities by turning them into value-added products, specialized product, or both.
It must be based on sunshine.
This basically means that the food producers do not use chemical fertilizers to grow their food. Chemical fertilizers are an element of the centralized, industrial agriculture economy, relying on chemical energy that relies heavily on petroleum products in their production. A sunshine-based system relies on the power of the sun to photosynthesis light energy into chemical energy.
It must feed the locals.
This is an important part of a truly decentralized system. As Hewitt states in his book, “Otherwise, what’s the point?” This criteria often conflicts with the first criteria, as it is often difficult to maintain economically viability while also providing a product that meets the weekly food budget of the local population.
It must be circular.
The idea here is that nutrients within the system must be part of a “cycle” rather than a “line.” The majority of nutrients do not escape from a decentralized food system. Centralized food systems, on the other hand, rely on energy from fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers to create nutrients. At the end of the line they are simply discarded as waste. For example, food waste from crops grown in the area can be composted and used to fertilize fields that will grow more food. Incorporating compost, livestock waste, and crop rotation into agricultural practices can amend soil and replenish resources used to grow food.
As students looked at different models of agriculture and visited a variety of farms in the area, we delved into the question “how do we sustainably manage our resources to grow food and support healthy communities?” While there is no simple answer to this question, students gained perspective on techniques and approaches that allowed us to begin to address this difficult issue.
On Tuesday we went to Tamerlane Farm in Lyndonville. There we met owner/operator Eric Paris, who gave us a tour of their composting operation. Tamerlane farm is the only compost facility in the North East Kingdom. This compost facility converts 800 tons of organic material into nutrient-rich compost. The compost consists of equal portions of wood chips, food scraps, cow manure, and other manure from the county fair. They source their food waste from 24 food scrap generators, sharing some of it with the Black Dirt Farm in Greensboro. Food scraps are not free; there is a tipping fee of twenty-five dollars per ton. Eric and his wife also run the Freight House Restaurant in Lyndonville. This diversification is useful as they are able to use biodegradable waste generated at the restaurant in their compost operation.
Tamerlane Farm is one of the most sustainable farms we had seen this week. Besides producing compost, Tamerlane Farm is a certified organic dairy farm. By further diversifying their farm with the restaurant, the Paris’s are able to utilize food scraps from the restaurant to add to their compost. After the food scraps are composted, they use the nutrient-rich compost on their fields in order to make the grazing for his cows even healthier. All of these practices define Tamarlane Farm as part of a decentralized food system. They are feeling locals with organic beef and milk, diversifying their farm with a local business, composting food scraps from their restaurant and then putting it back on the ground where it will grow the grass that will feed their cows. Their operation is truly circular!
On Wednesday the Field Semester class had the privilege of visiting v, producer of several award-winning artisan cheeses. Jasper Hill prides themselves on their 22,000 square feet of state-of-the-art aging cellars. Their operation is all organic; all aspects of their supply chain meets the most stringent standards. When the class went for a tour of the facilities, we got to see their production line and their cellars. We even got to taste some of their most famous cheeses.
Jasper Hill Farm sources only organic ingredients, has many sustainable practices, and meets several of the criteria for being a decentralized food system producer. Firstly, being organic, Jasper Hill’s operation is “based on sunshine,” as the milk that they use comes from local grass-fed cows. Again, every component of their supply chain is organic. Secondly, Jasper Hill is an economically viable operation, producing specialty cheeses that can sell for $25+ dollars per pound. Their cheeses are sought out by connoisseurs and are sold all over the world. This impacts the criteria where they fall short: feeding the locals. Since Jasper Hill’s cheese is an expensive specialty item, its primary markets are well outside of Vermont. Finally, the nutrient side of their operation approaches the standard for being a circular system in that they are able to recirculate a significant amount, though not all, of the nutrients in their production cycle.
On Thursday afternoon we went to Small Axe Farm in Barnet. Small Axe Farm is a small, organic, no-till vegetable farm. Their entire operation is off the grid. They don’t use any fossil fuel-powered machines so as to avoid polluting the air and soil on their farm. Small Axe only markets their products locally. Their biggest contracts are the Littleton Food Co-op and White’s Market. They showed us what a sustainable farm looks like and the challenges it faces. It was a good visit and the class learned a lot.
The Small Axe Farm meets all four criteria of a decentralized food system producer. First of all, they feed the locals by delivering to Barnet, Danville, Peacham, St. Johnsbury, Littleton, East Burke, Monroe and Lyndonville. They also sell their produce at White’s Market in Lyndonville and St. Johnsbury and have CSAs available on their website. Small Axe Farm doesn’t use chemical fertilizers or pesticides which keeps the plants and soil much healthier. Food waste is put into compost. These practices make the farm both sun-based and circular. Small Axe Farm is also an economically viable operation, producing about $100,000 worth of produce on a single acre of crop beds and greenhouses. They keep their costs low through sustainable practices and minimal labor costs, doing most of the work themselves.
One of the highlights to going to Small Axe Farm was that we got to see many different tools that they use on their no till farm. They don’t use fossil fueled machines for planting, cultivating, harvesting, or processing, though they do utilize fossil fueled machinery for loading and transporting vegetables. Small Axe does this so as to provide the best possible environment for their vegetables to prosper. The photo above shows farm owner Evan Perkins demonstrating the use of their custom -made, battery-powered seed planter. Not only is it is efficient–- capable of planting up to five rows at a time– it is also recharged using solar energy.