Monday, November 29, 2010

Why Local?

This post was originally written and published a few months ago in response to my personal exploration about the importance of locally based action. - Elena Gustavson

Why Local?

I'm a local.

Well, not that kind of  "local". That type of local would entail several generations of living in the same town, often on the same land, with a surname that is likely to grace any number of street signs and local businesses. A local knows your place not by the street address, but by the family that lived there before you. A local has a harmless chuckle when I naively quote Henry Ford about chopping wood and then ask where I can get a good price on a few cords. Yes, I'm one of those transplants that came from away and bought a house in the village. I'll never be considered a local, nor will my children or my children's children...but that's okay.

I'm a "local" because I believe in putting my energy toward local matters. Local food, yes, but more than that. Local schools, local economies, local government and more. I believe that to live in a place means caring about it too. I volunteer and involve myself in my local schools. I know the teachers, staff and administration. I purchase from my local shops and know the people who run them. I know many of my local farmers, mechanics, landscapers, carpenters, plumbers and mail carriers. I know my Select Board and School Board. I know the kids and their parents. I know when Town Meeting is, and I attend, lending my voice and my vote. I've adopted my community, not just by living here, but by really LIVING here.

So why does local matter? Honestly, I'm not sure if it matters at all. I read about global warming, declining bio-diversity, stock market crashes, crushing poverty and famine. I read about wars in countries I know nothing about and the frightening economics of world powers that are not the United States. I read about a soldier, lost to war and the family that mourns him. I read about the end of days.

Yet, when I wake up in the morning, the cold light of fall filtering through my window, I am home. I hear the delivery trucks which will soon give way to snow plows. I hear the geese as they head south and the whipping of wind through the cedar and maples by my barn. I hear children talking as they walk to school. I see the hills behind my house alive with color and I watch the clouds form a myriad of shapes on the horizon, endlessly fascinating to me. I see the stand of weeds that I once had a vegetable garden in and fret about how tall the grass has become in less than a week. I smell the musty odor of my basement when I head down to rummage in the freezer and note that the rest of the wood  needs to be brought in soon. I smell the coming of rain.

What else can I do but participate right here and right now? I am incapable of taking on matters that have national, let alone global consequences. I am too easily overcome with heartache when I read about the trials of the world. Yet, I can invest the power of my dollar into my community and reap the rewards. I can add my voice, whether out loud or in print, in support of my community. I can lend myself to my community by volunteering and engaging and helping out a neighbor.

In this small way, with these small victories, I find hope in humanity and in the world. In this small way, my being a "local" has larger consequences. In this small way, I am affecting change.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Green-Aid Seedbomb Vending Machine

Below is a post by our VFVC intern, Michelle Skolnik, who has recently moved to the Northeast Kingdom. She shares her perspective about keeping our spaces green and cared for, no matter where you live.

Green-Aid Seedbomb Vending Machine
by Michelle Skolnik

A friend recently shared a project with me, that was created by Common Studio, a California-based design practice. She sent me a video that the designers made about their Green-Aid Seedbomb Dispensers, which you can watch here:

A “seed-bomb” is a ball made of clay, compost, and seeds which can be placed just about anywhere with water and sunshine and the seeds will grow right out of the ball. Common Studio recognizes that seed-bombs have been around for a while—which they trace back to New York City in the early seventies. Though the popular term may have been coined in the seventies, the idea seems to have been around since the 1930s. I could not find a credible resource to reference, but a basic Google search suggests that “aerial reforestation” (dropping seeds from flying airplanes) started in the 1930s and has since been tried by many organizations across the world.

Common Studio’s Seedbomb Vending Machine is “an interactive public awareness campaign, a lucrative fundraising tool, and a beacon for small scale grass roots action that engages directly yet casually with local residents” about a common urban issue: the lack of greenspaces and care for the urban environment.

Though the seed-bombs can’t transform a concrete lot into a garden, they can serve as a visual trigger to remind people that transformation can occur, and I see this Seedbomb Vending project as a great conversation starter and as a clever awareness campaign. However, I don’t think this project needs to be limited to cities. A lot of recent attention has been brought to “reclaiming” and transforming urban spaces into green spaces worth caring for. And though I certainly support that idea, I think it is equally as important to encourage people who already live in beautiful greenspaces to take responsibility for them. Here in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, we are fortunate to be surrounded by beautiful mountains, foliage, woods, and agricultural land. For the most part, people seem to care a great deal about them—especially the numerous family farms that exist because of their immaculate care of their personal environments. However, people who live outside of cities are still prone to what many consider to be “urban problems,” like being careless of personal impact on the environment, littering, being wasteful, and lacking access to good, healthy food. Maybe we don’t need to be tossing seed-bombs around to remind us that the place we live can be beautiful, but we might replace seed-bombs for plastic toys in supermarket vending machines to help ease us off desiring 25 cent trinkets that will end up as landfill. Instead of treating our kids to a gumball that they will chew and collect sugar from, why not treat them to a seed-ball that they can drop anywhere and watch grow? Maybe these little vending machines could get people excited about using their yards to grow food or about volunteer to maintain walking trails.

I don’t expect these Seedbomb Vending Machines to accomplish that much in the way of social change, but it is nice to see what kind of innovative ideas people have to engage their communities with important issues. Creativity is one of the most useful tools we have, and I feel that the more of these sorts of projects we are exposed to the better for our own brainstorming. For more information about Common Studio and their GreenAid Machines, you can visit their website at:

The Subversive Act of Supporting Local Food Systems

Although I find my work at the Center for an Agricultural Economy extremely interesting and rewarding, there are times when it feels tedious or just overwhelming. At these times, I like to frame my work as an act of subversion – a revolutionary act. Although in some ways eating locally seems like such a simple and basic thing, this is just what it is – revolutionary.

Sixty plus years ago or so, many people in our society produced their own food and naturally lived their lives within a local food system, without thinking twice about it. Then our food system was co-opted by large corporations. Food prices dropped dramatically for various reasons – mechanization and farming on a larger scale did allow our food to be produced at a cheaper cost of production (but not without losing other things), federal agricultural subsidies were developed and implemented, and not all of the costs of production were passed along directly to the consumer (aka externalities in economics - these do have their costs, however, in environmental damage, resource loss, and consumer and farm worker health costs.) This condition of prevalent and cheap food led the public to abandon their local farmer and their local communities.

In time, awareness has grown about what has been lost because of the mega-systems we have put into place. Farms are lost, open land is lost, communities are damaged socially and economically, our soil is depleted, food doesn’t have the flavor and nutrient value that it once did.

Working to support local food systems is being part of this grassroots effort to reclaim our communities and our local economies, as well as our right to healthy food and a healthy environment. It is work against the faceless, soul-less and often immoral mega-corporations and a system that has been built to produce a profit for those who have more than enough already, at any cost whatsoever. This is a subversive reclamation movement toward a world that is more kind, more human, and to a more appropriate scale. We can all choose to be a part of it in different ways – from making it your career path as a farmer or at an organization that works with food systems in some capacity, to simply buying local carrots at the farmers market or local co-op.

So when I sit at my computer, day after day (and I’m sure many see me doing it as they walk by our big office window!), I like to think of myself as a subversive revolutionary – it gets my juices going after they’ve been sucked up by the computer screen!

Local Author Event & Benefit is December 3rd, 630pm

Say good-bye to Stick Season and prepare for the coming snow with a cozy gathering of local food and agricultural authors, who will read excerpts of their original work on Friday, December 3rd at 6:30pm at St. John's Episcopal Church on 39th West Street in Hardwick, VT.


Caroline Abels is the editor of Vermont's Local Banquet a quarterly magazine about local food and farming. She lives in Montpelier and writes primarily about animal agriculture.

Bethany M. Dunbar of West Glover, is an editor at the Chronicle, a weekly newspaper in Barton.  She has a background in dairy farming and is working on a collection of photographs and essays about farmers and food in the Northeast Kingdom.

Ben Hewitt has seven cows, four pigs, six sheep, one wife, and two children. He lives in Cabot and likes cheese very much.

Julia Shipley, a writer and subsistence farmer in Craftsbury, is collaborating with Andrew Miller-Brown of Plowboy Press on a collection titled, Bales of Prose. She recently received a Creation Grant from the Vermont Arts Council to complete a book of agricultural essays.


This event is a benefit for the Hardwick Area Food Pantry (non-perishable food item) as well as the Center for an Agricultural Economy's Food Access Fund. We appreciate any contribution you can make.

For questions, please contact Elena Gustavson at the CAE or call 802-472-5840, ext 2

 Photo Credit: Bethany Dunbar,

Monday, November 15, 2010

Do we engage the mainstream systems?

One of the major observations I had at the Global Food Security Conference at McGill University in Montreal last month was that there is a shift in the international agricultural development paradigm. Earlier, the main focus had been upon large-scale traditional input-intensive interventions designed to boost economic growth by increasing agricultural production through the use of modern technology. More recently, however, small-scale, sustainable grassroots approaches have increasingly gained legitimacy in international development circles. For example, women have become more of a focus, as they are the main agricultural producers in the world. Additionally, local input into projects is now sought and valued permitting those involved with development to learn from local innovations and approaches. The most recent example that I learned about was System of Rice Intensification (SRI)*. The more traditional approaches, however, are still very much present and were referred to throughout the conference with various speakers touting the benefits of the Green Revolution, biotechnology and the mechanization of agriculture.

At a food systems conference this past weekend, It Takes a Region, sponsored by the New England Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (NESAWG) in Albany, NY, this divide was also pointed out by using the example of Wal-Mart announcing that they were going to “double the percentage of locally grown produce it sells to 9 percent.”** As a sustainable agriculture community, do we embrace this decision as a way to bring more people into the movement and create more livelihood for local farmers, or do we reject it because the business model behind Wal-Mart is in many ways in opposition to, and even destructive of, the local food movement.

Although I personally have a very strong persuasion toward small-scale development projects and supporting local food systems and economies, being faced with these opposing viewpoints leads me to think, “Is it possible to take the benefits of each approach while not losing the essence of the more grassroots, “sustainable” approach?” Does such a balance exist? Is it arrogant of me to think that the approach to agriculture and development that I believe in is the best approach and not consider the possibility that biotechnology, chemicals, and the Wal-Mart business model have a place in agriculture? It’s very difficult for me to imagine a way that, over the long run, these technologies and approaches will benefit us, except perhaps using a combination during a transition to natural farming practices and local economies. While I value the importance of being open-minded and working together as much as we can, I see many of these traditional approaches to both development and agriculture as being the cause or the tool of so many of the problems in this world. If this is the case, how can they be embraced in partnership?

If anybody has any thoughts or insight in regard to this apparent dichotomy, please feel free to comment.

* See
Initially developed as a result of the observation of “positive deviant” farmers in Madagascar. SRI requires fewer inputs of water and fertilizer, has significantly increased production, and can use any local seeds and organic fertilizers.


SAVE THE DATE! Local Author Event on December 3rd

Say good-bye to Stick Season and prepare for the coming snow with a cozy gathering of local food and agricultural authors, who will read excerpts of their original work on Friday, December 3rd at 6:30pm at St. John's Episcopal Church on 39th West Street in Hardwick, VT.

The authors are Bethany Dunbar, Caroline Abels, Ben Hewitt and Julia Shipley. More details to follow soon!

Please bring a non-perishable item for the Hardwick Food Pantry or monetary donation to benefit the CAE's Food Access Fund.

For questions, please contact Elena Gustavson at the CAE or call 802-472-5840, ext 2

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Pies for People, Soup for Supper- Bringing awareness to hunger, one pie at a time.

Hardwick, VT- November 9th, 2010-The squash is harvested, pureed and frozen, the volunteers are signed up and the recipes have been double checked. All that’s left is to bake the pies, cook the soup and deliver the food.

With just a week before our first bake night at Sterling College, we find ourselves reflecting on the past few weeks, our last two Pie events and our message as two mission-driven organizations.

Each year, there are hours of coordination leading up to the event. There are dozens of phone calls (and even more e-mails), soliciting donations of ingredients and talking to potential volunteers, coordinating the use of kitchens, freezers, and deliveries so that the timing is just right for our recipients. Once the coordination is nailed down, we move immediately into two nights of baking and cooking, where a cadre of volunteers make crusts and pies, season and stir vats of soup, wipe counters, sweep and mop floors, all the while jamming to tunes over a set of speakers in Sterling’s spacious kitchen. One week before Thanksgiving, it’s a mad scramble to deliver the pies and soup, intact, to their various homes. It’s an exhausting 6 weeks and we often ask ourselves the following questions: Are we making an impact? Is the message getting out? Thankfully, we can answer both questions with a resounding “Yes!”.

According to the USDA, 14.6% of our population was food insecure in 2008. That represents over 49 million people, of whom 16 million are children. Those are staggering numbers.

On a local level, we directly impact hundreds of people when they eat the pies or soup at community dinners, school lunch, as a snack at one of the senior centers or as a client of the local Food Pantries. On a regional level, we hope to inspire others to work with food security organizations towards a solution for hunger from a local perspective using fresh, healthy ingredients. Neighbors helping neighbors. A community feeding their community.

We know that we cannot end hunger with a slice of pie or a bowl of soup, but if our Pies for People, Soup for Supper event gets people talking, involved and working towards a solution, then we support those who take on hunger every day.

If you would like to be involved in our event, please consider donating to our Food Access Fund or donate directly to your local food bank, food pantry or any other organization that strives to create food access and security. Thank you for your support.


Elena Gustavson, Program Director
Center for an Agricultural Economy or 802.472.5840, ext 2
Tim Patterson, Media Director
Sterling College or 802.586.7711, ext 124

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Food Access Fund-What is it?

The Food Access Fund is a part of the Center for an Agricultural Economy’s great Food Access and Security Program.

The Fund was established in December 2008 by the CAE to support the Hardwick Area Food Pantry and its clients to gain better access to locally grown and produced as well as provide support to our other food access and security programs. It does this by reimbursing the Pantry, dollar for dollar, for products purchased from local food producers and businesses. Items the Pantry has purchased as a result of this Fund have included fresh bread, eggs, meat and vegetables.

By supporting a relationship between the Pantry and local producers, the CAE hopes to encourage and facilitate the availability of healthy, local food to people in need throughout the year. At the same time, the Pantry is supporting a local economy by putting money back into the pockets of our local producers.

We were fortunate to receive an anonymous donation to seed the Fund with $3,500.00 in 2008. Since that initial donation, the CAE continues to work towards replenishing the fund so that it continues to be an active support for our Food Access/Food Security Program.

Many individuals and organizations in the greater Hardwick community have generously donated to the Hardwick Area Food Pantry and other community service organizations over the years. It is our experience that this program has been another on-going inspiration to others to continue and expand their generosity on a year around basis.

To make a donation to the Food Access Fund, you may
contact us directly or via our website donation page. All donations are tax deductible. For questions, please contact Elena Gustavson, or call 802.472.5840, ext 2. 

Updated December 2, 2011

Monday, November 1, 2010

Like Pie? Us Too! Help Bake and Cook for the Community.

Volunteers Needed for Bake Nights

Pies for People, Soup for Supper

Tuesday and Wednesday, November 16th and 17th, is the bake night for our 3rd Annual Pies for People, Soup for Supper event, hosted by Sterling College and Center for an Agricultural Economy. We are in need of enthusiastic volunteers to help us prepare 150 pumpkin pies and 50 gallons of scrumptious winter squash soup! A true farm-to-table experience, all of the ingredients will be sourced and processed from local farms and will be fed directly back to Northeast Kingdom communities. A great chance to partake in a community feeding its own community! Baking will start at 7pm and ends at 10pm. 6-12 volunteers are needed each night. RSVP to

Unable to volunteer? DONATE! Become involved by donating to our Food Access Fund. The Food Access Fund directly supports the Hardwick Area Food Pantry by reimbursing them for products purchased directly from local agricultural businesses. Seeded by an anonymous donation two years ago, the CAE is challenged to maintain the fund for continued use. Your donation of any amount will help us do exactly that.

Donations are vital in helping ensure food security throughout the year, especially in the leaner spring months when food pantries find their shelves more sparse. Thank you for whatever donation, be it your time or money, that you can contribute.

Be a Changemaker

Last week, while touring a farm with a small group of first year college students, we discussed the frustration of being away from home for the first time, only to be thrust in what feels like a system that doesn't allow for change and growth. The particular target of this frustration was school food. Not one of them liked it and felt helpless to do anything about it.

Picking our way around the jutting rocks on the farm's back road, I felt compelled to assure them that they did have a voice.They had such untapped power, they had only to wield it! But how? How do you stand up for yourself? How do you stand up for your beliefs? Your community? It's more than just making noise and dumping your opinions...How do you make change?

As a part of an organization that treasures the value in collaboration, education, and community building, I've had a front row seat in the figurative classroom of "how to make change". Over the years, involved in a movement that is intent on being a part of the solution rather than the problem, you find that change can be a slow, plodding process or it can be so quick --and forgive my surfer reference-- that you feel you've been through the rinse cycle of a big wave, paddling in the direction that you hope is the surface.

So how do we go about change that is effective? How do we move forward and towards the surface?
  1. Question authority, then question yourself. Be a skeptic.
  2. Understand your opinion by understanding the differing opinions of others. Practice critical thinking.
  3. Offer solutions, not just "constructive critisicm". Self righteousness should be avoided.
  4. Be thoughtful. Be organized. Be respectful. Do not waste another person's time.
  5. Allow others to speak and then listen actively.
  6. Read and understand the issues. Talk to people you trust and then talk to those you don't.
  7. Vote.

We are all Changemakers. Your age, your gender, your socio-economic status, your doesn't matter. You have a voice. Speak up as an individual or speak up as a group, but speak up.