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The Unexpected Renaissance of a Mining Town

Here is a small town that has bounced back thanks to a different vision of agriculture where scale matters, stakeholders collaborate, and, in most cases, ownership has more to do with stewardship than it does with possession. Community members know each other by name and value civic engagement. Young people who moved away for bigger and “better” opportunities now flock home. This town, Hardwick, Vermont, embodies the spirit of the commons in so many ways—but it wouldn’t be that way without the work of Tom Stearns, an ardent commons advocate and the founder of High Mowing Organic Seeds.

A hallmark of the company is that the High Mowing team engages with everyone who uses seeds: the farmers and gardeners, plant breeders at universities, other seed companies, and soil scientists. They do this in an effort to bring a broader collective wisdom to bear on how to develop new seed varieties and how to promote them as a critical element in building healthy food systems. By encouraging this knowledge sharing, High Mowing empowers the whole community to engage in a ten thousand-year-old agrarian tradition that is vital for the future.

The High Mowing team also engages their immediate community in many ways—from lending money to sharing employees to developing co-marketing programs with other local companies. On the day I spoke with Stearns, Pete Johnson of Pete’s Greens had planted three acres of carrots on the land he rents from High Mowing. Together with another seed breeder, Johnson and Stearns are working to develop a new organic carrot variety.

While this level of commoning may seem out of the ordinary, it is only the beginning. Stearns is also a co-founder of the Center for an Agricultural Economy, a Hardwick‐based nonprofit that coordinates regional food system activity. Among many other contributions to the community, the nonprofit just purchased the old town common. It once appeared there was little hope that Hardwick, an aging granite-mining center, would ever recover from the collapse of the mining industry. The town common had been neglected since the 1930s, but members of the Center for an Agricultural Economy saw its potential to the community and purchased the 16 acres in the heart of Hardwick. Stearns describes all kinds of activity planned for the property, including an educational farm and community garden.

The combined effect of these many assorted commons solutions is a small town renaissance no one could have expected in Hardwick. Stearns describes countless new economic opportunities growing up around healthy food, ecological awareness, and value‐added agriculture. There are new jobs—good jobs—at High Mowing and elsewhere. The rural “brain drain” is reversing in this area, as smart young people who moved away are coming home. People are once again running for town select boards and school boards. “People are actually competing [for those positions] because they want to have a voice,” Stearns says. “It’s really cool.”

This is excerpted from the new ebook, How to Design our World for Happiness, by Jay Walljasper and Jessica Conrad.

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