Tranforming communities through locally grown food
Greg Cox owns Boardman Hill Farms, West Rutland, Vermont and is President of the Board of Rutland Area Farm and Food Links (RAFFL)
After many months of trying to connect with Greg Cox of Boardman Hill Farms and the Rutland Area Farm and Food Link (RAFFL), I was finally able to sit down with him on an icy December day and learn how he and a small group of citizens in South Central Vermont are re-making their community through their locally-owned and operated food co-op, featuring locally-grown produce, and a year-round farmer's market.
Greg dropped out of an education major in the second semester of his senior year in college because he realized that he would be able to make much more of a difference in the world as a farmer than as a teacher. "My maternal grandmother raised me", he says, "and she grew everything. When I grew up on Long Island it was principally an agricultural community-great soil, minerals off the ocean, lots of fresh water, perfect temperature, lots of rain. There were year-round truck farms, and I grew up in the midst of this agricultural environment, and I watched the transition from all of that to suburban sprawl. I also watched innocent, naïve farmers sell their land for almost nothing to exploitative real estate agents."
I dialoged with Greg about the success of relocalization efforts in Rutland, specifically around agriculture and food, and asked him to give me a history of the journey that the community has taken in the past two years.
According to Greg, it all started in the office of the Rutland Regional Planning Commission with India Burnett Farmer and Tara Kelly. India was an intern with the Regional Planning Commission where she met Tara, one of the planners, and in their work at the commission, they noticed that every town in Vermont pays lip service to agriculture, but there's rarely an action plan. As regional surveys have been taken over the years regarding the benefits of living in Vermont, citizens report overwhelmingly that they love living in an agricultural community. As India and Tara observed this, they became committed to making agriculture in Rutland County not only vibrant, but a mainstay of the local economy. As a result of his longstanding reputation as an organic farmer in Vermont, India and Tara contacted Greg and began strategizing with him.
One model for their venture was Intervale, a large tract of prime agricultural land in Burlington, Vermont, originally Abenaki Indian land, which exists for the purpose of incubating farmers and providing a strong local food supply. The group sought a similar model for Rutland in order to seed the county with the next generation of farmers. "Agriculture for the most part in America," says Cox, "has become all about producing commodities and less about producing local food." They believed that if they could create an incubator farm with an infrastructure that included education and have the viability of enough farmers to create a community, they could attract young folks with new ideas from all over the nation and the world. RAFFL, they realized, could help tremendously with consumer education and providing a market for local foods. Their intention according to Cox, "was to create an economic engine with an agriculture base." The beauty of this strategy, of course, is that the money remains in Rutland County, as does the food.
Cox, Farmer, Kelly, and members of RAFFL quickly realized that in the event of economic or energy disruption, Rutland County would be incredibly vulnerable and have nothing to feed itself with.
At this point, I wanted to know more about Cox's perception of food security.
CB: So what's your sense of what's happening with food security in the United States and locally?
GC: I grew up on Long Island with my grandmother who was like a contemporary of Robert Rodale, the founder of the organic movement in the United States. We grew and raised virtually everything that we ate, and I never ate anything out of the box. Today, we have a profit-driven food system that has nothing to do with quality. It takes more calories and energy to transport organic carrots from California than you get from eating them, and that's a system that runs on a deficit, and when you consider what may be in them and on them, it's even worse.
When you consider the transport of food from other places, it makes no sense. For example, Vermont is a dairy state, but we don't consume our own dairy products which is ludicrous.
CB: Many indicators point to a global recession and possible worldwide food shortages dead-ahead. We now have food banks telling us not to look to them for emergency food supply because they are having difficulties obtaining food. So it's extremely important that communities have plenty of local food in order to feed themselves.
PHOTO: Rutland Winter Market
GC: Yes, we've been conditioned to believe that we can eat bananas in January, but there's a cost, a huge cost, that is never part of the story. It's absolutely not sustainable. We need to go back to communities with agriculture as the base to produce most of what we eat. And it's not necessary to import food from afar because you can extend the window of growing season virtually twelve months a year.
CB: OK, so tell me more about this because at the winter farmers market you have many beautiful fruits and vegetables for sale. It takes a lot of energy to grow fruits and vegetables in the winter. How does one do this with the least amount of energy?
GC: Well, in Vermont you can't grow food from November 21 to January 21. The days are just too short and cold, but if you can get the crop to 70% maturity by that time, for example, with a crop like lettuce or spinach, you can do a field tunnel and cover the crop with plastic. Inside that field tunnel are row covers that are made of spun polypropylene which look like cotton. You double-cover the plants which gives 12 degrees of frost protection. At a given time you go out and pull back the cover and cut your lettuce then cover up the remaining plants.
So the key to producing winter greens without using a huge amount of energy is growing the crop to 70-75% of maturity, then cutting it when you need it. Then you begin to re-seed as the days grow longer and more light returns. Once the light returns, it's as if the plants are on steroids-they really flourish. You can harvest many things year-round. Some crops, like spinach, require at least 14 hours of daylight before they could even begin going to seed, so when you have much less light than that, you don't have to worry about them going to seed.
CB: How did the co-op and the winter farmers market come about? Tell me about the community's future plans for both.
GC: The Saturday winter farmers market developed from a conversation with people from the Rutland Area Food Co-Op and Rutland's new Creative Economy movement. In the past there has been a separation in our minds between agriculture and economics, but agriculture is an amazing economic engine. (Somehow it's not considered a "real" business-as if the farmer is an artist or something.) People can understand how a new Borders or box store coming into Rutland would stimulate the economy, but it requires a lot of explanation to help them understand how agriculture can drive the economy.
Farmers markets bring one thing wherever they go: foot traffic. That's what downtown areas are-and what they need. Cities used to be alive-people lived and worked there. We need to re-establish that. We need to make downtowns vital. Not only do we need new businesses, but we need to have residents in the downtown area.
People understand outsourcing and don't like it, but they don't understand that when they spend dollars outside of their town, they're outsourcing their dollars. Jobs follow the money. Every dollar that stays in the community enriches it. So in the discussion of revitalizing communities, agriculture may be the introductory sentence, but it goes way beyond that.
The winter farmers market now occurs every Saturday in what used to be an old theater, adjacent to the co-op. In order to enter the market, one must walk through the co-op which generates a creative competition enhancing both businesses.
City officials and downtown business could have resisted the co-op/ farmers market venture, but they didn't. As forward-thinking folks, they were willing to take the risk, and no one, including the co-op board and the farmers market vendors had any idea how successful the project would be.
CB: So how do you explain the explosion of success both the co-op and the farmers market have had?
GC: Well, in general, humans are animals, and animals follow. And if you have a really good message, then the community follows. But specifically, we laid the foundation for the farmers market more than a year in advance. A year ago, we didn't know where it was going to happen, but we took the stand that it was going to happen. We sent emails and letters to every person in Rutland County telling them that we were going to have a winter farmers market. As it got closer, we kept approaching the growers telling them that we had a location. The Rutland Herald gave us great press, and we started asking for stories specifically on the farmers market. The co-op had a wonderful mailing list to help us, but so much of the effort was laying the foundation.
"Local" is not a high priority in a lot of places, but it is in Vermont. The people really wanted it to happen, and because it was so wanted, it has become a beautiful place. It creates an energy that builds off itself.
There are many farmers markets throughout the state in the summertime, but in the winter, there are only four, and many vendors were thrilled to have yet another venue. The market features not only produce but cheeses, meats, breads, chocolate, wine, and other products.
Rutland is often referred to by other Vermonters as "Rutvegas" because it is traditional, conservative, and the assumption has been that this kind of thing would happen in other places in Vermont, but not in Rutland. But in Rutland, if you can put forth a great idea with passion and energy, you can make it happen. Rutland is facing economic hard times as so many communities are as they pick up the slack of what's been cut off by the federal government.
The co-op's growth curve is unbelievable, and the farmers market now has almost 50 vendors waiting to participate.
Both the co-op and farmers market have outgrown their spaces, and both want to keep their spaces downtown. Because of the synergy of both entities, it's really important that we make a move together.
We're also currently looking at 130 acres of prime agricultural land on which food could be grown in a manner similar to Intervale. Intervale, by the way, produces 10% of Burlington, Vermont's food. On this land we can not only raise food for Rutland but also incubate farmers. On the edge of this plot of land is a large grocery store owned by a giant food chain that could possibly be the new home of the co-op, but many people, on the other hand would like to keep the co-op in the downtown area.
PHOTO: Scene From Winter Market
We'd also like to approach local institutions like high schools and colleges and get them on board with using locally-grown food. In addition, RAFFL has been trying to brand locally-grown products as coming from "Rutland, the heart of Vermont agriculture." We can create a year-round source of vegetables, and we can create markets for farmers all over the state. Through partnerships with funders, we can acquire the resources to make this project succeed. We dare not miss these opportunities.
CB: One thing I haven't asked you about is the role of youth. On the one hand, you want to incubate farmers, but young people are often completely unconcerned with these kinds of things-often fascinated with technology and without interest in anything remotely resembling farming. In fact, they usually want to leave rural areas and head for the city. How are young people in this area responding to the efforts of your groups to educate the community about local food?
GC: Most young people, even in a rural area like Vermont, have a complete and total disconnect with their food system. Although Vermont is rural, it's really not agricultural-there are very few farms. My son and daughter are the only kids in their classes who live on a farm. Most parents in this area are service workers. We used to have a thriving General Electric plant here with a strong middle class where people made good salaries, had healthcare, and retired in great financial shape. Not anymore.
You know, there's somebody inside of each one of us; some of them are farmers. The Northeast Organic Farmers Association (NOFA) has an apprenticeship program where many young people intern on farms, and when a young person is drawn to farming, it's amazing to see them blossom in the process of discovering their love for it. Green Mountain College in nearby Poultney is a gemstone of teaching sustainability and environmental science. They've also just added an organic agricultural department, and the college has a farm nearby. The Putney School is another college focused on sustainability, and the University of Vermont also has a good program.
I generally don't feel optimistic about the world we live in today, but I want my efforts locally to make a difference in my community and hopefully create opportunities for my kids and other young people. When I see what we've accomplished here in Rutland in just the past two years, I feel encouraged and excited.
I came away from my conversation with Greg Cox with two profound realizations: 1) All the stereotypes of Rutland, Vermont as "backward" and "too conservative" to relocalize its economy through local agriculture were fading into the dustbin of history, and 2) Any region in America can affect the transformation that the forward-thinking folks in Rutland are making happen with their passion, commitment, and incredibly hard work as they engineer local economic solutions and give new meaning to the word "community."