A Grand Experiment
Photo Jason Molenda
Living off the land during a long Vermont winter requires patience, planning, and a little help from your friends
From an article for Gourmet Magazine, July 2005, courtesy of the author.
To answer your first question, I don’t drink coffee so it wasn’t a problem.
And I made what might be called the Marco Polo exception—I considered fair game anything your average 13th century explorer might have brought back from distant lands. So: pepper, and turmeric, and even the odd knob of ginger root stayed in the larder.
Other than that, though, it was a wholly local winter. From before the first frost of the fall till after the salad greens had finally poked their heads above the warming soil, I spent this last year eating only from the watershed in which I live, the mountains and fields on either side of Lake Champlain. Which is precisely how almost every human being ate until very recently, and how most people in the world still do today. But in contemporary America, where the average bite of food travels 1,500 miles before it reaches your lips, it was an odd exercise. “Local” and “seasonal” may have become watchwords of much new cooking, but I wanted to see how much was really possible, especially in these northern climes. And I wanted an excuse to meet my neighbors, the farmers old and new who struggle to hang on in the face of the industrialized food networks that have bankrupted the great majority of American growers. I know that eating close to home represents the history of American farming—but I sense it may have a future too. The number of farms around Burlington, Vermont’s chief city, has grown 19% in the last decade. Most of them are small, growing real food for local consumers instead of commodities for export; the same trend is starting to show up nationwide. Something’s happening, and I wanted to see exactly what.
I’m writing this, so you know I survived. But in fact I survived in style—it was the best eating winter of my life. Herewith, a report:
The local farmer’s market here in Middlebury Vt. is in absolute fever bloom: sweet sweet corn, big ripe tomatoes; bunches of basil, melons. This is the bounty of our short but intense summer, when the heat of the long days combines with the moisture of these eastern uplands to produce almost anything you could want. It’s the great eating moment of the year.
But I’m wandering the market trying to keep the image of midwinter in mind—the short bitter days of January, when the snow is drifted high against the house and the woodstove is cranking. I’m used to getting the winter’s wood in, but not to putting the winter’s food by. In our world, it’s always summer somewhere, and so we count on the same fever bloom of produce the year round. But that takes its toll: on the environment from the endless trucking and flying and shipping; on local farmers, who can’t compete with the equatorial bounty and hence sell their fields for condos; and most of all, perhaps, on taste. There’s nothing that tastes like a June strawberry; whereas a January supermarket strawberry tastes like…nothing.
All of which explains why I’m bargaining for canning tomatoes, the Roma plums with perhaps a few blemishes. Though mostly I want to spend the winter buying what’s available, I’ll put up a certain amount. My friend Amy Trubek volunteers to help—a food anthropologist, she’s the head of the Vermont Fresh Network, which partners farmers with chefs; she and her husband Brad Koehler, one of the chiefs of Middlebury College’s renowned dining halls, also own a small orchard and a big vegetable garden, not to mention a capacious freezer. “A lot of people associate canning with their grandmother, hostage in the kitchen for six weeks,” she says. “But hey, this is the 21st century. We can freeze, we can brine, we can cryovac—we can do all this a hundred different ways.” An afternoon’s work, with the Red Sox beginning their stretch drive on the radio, and I’ve got enough tomato sauce frozen in Ziplocs to last me through the winter.
Fall lingers on (and the Red Sox too). Our local food co-op still has the makings of a “normal,” which is to say summery, salad—already, though, I’m regarding leaf lettuce with a kind of nostalgia, knowing it’s about to disappear from my life.
And I’m regarding two small bins at the bottom of the co-op’s bulk section as my lifeline. They’re filled with local flour, 59 cents a pound. Once upon a time, this Champlain Valley was the nation’s granary—but that was a long time ago indeed, back before the Erie Canal opened the way West and vast rivers of grain began flowing back from the deep topsoil of the Plains. Grain farming all but disappeared from the region; the most basic component of the American diet had to be imported from Nebraska.
But there’s always an oddball, and in this case his name is Ben Gleason, a short and modest man who came to Vermont as did many others as a part of the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s. He found an old farm in the Addison County town of Bridport, and he began to plant it in a rotation of hard red organic winter wheat. Last year, for instance, he grew 32 tons on 32 acres, a perfectly respectable number even by Midwest standards, and he ground all of it with the small, noisy machine in the shed next to his house. He only does whole wheat flour—white would require another machine, and anyway, as he points out, it’s not nearly as good for you. In any event, his is delicious—perfect for pancakes flavorful enough to stand up to the Grade B maple syrup that’s the only kind we buy. (Grade A, Fancy—it’s for tourists. The closer to tar, the better).
Ben gives me leads on other grain-growers too. Just a few miles across the lake, a couple of farmers are raising a lighter variety they call “white whole wheat,” which is milled at Champlain Valley Milling Company in Westport, N.Y. “There’s maybe four or five hundred acres altogether that’s planted in wheat around the area,’ says Samuel Sherman, who owns the mill—mostly he grinds wheat that arrives by traincar from the West, but he’d love to see more local product. “We can sell it in a minute,” he says. The proof is just down the lakeshore, in the town of Crown Point, where a young baker named Yannig Tanguy makes artisanal bread—fougasse, baguette, Swabien rye—entirely with local wheat. He grinds it himself, sometimes three hundred pounds in a day, and he can talk for hours about its personality—the way that it varies from year to year with the weather, developing a personality that a baker must respect . “There used to be many varieties of wheat, just like apples or heirloom tomatoes,” he says. “I want to grow them again, right here.” Crown Point is a poor town next to an aging paper mill—and yet the door to the little bakery keeps popping open all day. Here’s someone who wants to reserve ten loaves for an elementary school dinner the next week; here’s a woman to buy a cookie and say thanks for letting her park in the tiny parking lot during church that morning. “It’s not like I’m trying to invent anything with local food,” says Tanguy. “It all obviously worked for a long time. That we’re here today is proof that it worked. And it can work again.”
The traditional Thanksgiving dinner is also the traditional local foods dinner, at least for this part of the world. Which makes sense, since the Pilgrims weren’t in any positionb to import much food—they just hunkered down with the beige cuisine that begins to predominate as the summer becomes mere memory. (On Cape Cod they had cranberries for a flash of deep color; here we have beets, which make a ruby, tangy slaw).
The kind of self-sufficient all-around farm with which the colonists covered the continent have essentially disappeared, at least outside of Amish country. Even the tiny local growers in this valley specialize in order to stay afloat—I can show you a potato farmer in the hills above Rutland with 50 varieties in his three acres, or a bison wrangler on the lakeshore, or an emu rancher. Some of America’s original community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms are in this area and none produces vegetables more glorious than Golden Russet Farm in Shoreham, where Will and Judy Stevens are busy threshing dried beans when I stop by one afternoon to pick up some squash. If you pay them a few hundred dollars in the winter, they’ll keep you supplied with a weekly bin of vegetables throughout the growing season and deep into the fall. But even Will and Judy go to the store for their milk.
Not so Mark Gunther and Kristin Kimball, the young proprietors of Essex Farm on the New York Side of the lake. Mark graduated Swarthmore a decade ago, and then set out on his bike across the country on his bike, stopping at interesting looking farms along the way. ‘I’d knock on the door and ask if I could pitch my tent in the yard and farm with them. And everyone said yes, from a quarter-acre vegetable plot outside D.C. to a 6000-acre grain farm where we were out in the combine till midnight.” He picked up all kinds of ideas along the way, and he picked up Kristin in Manhattan, where the new Harvard grad was working in publishing; somehow they found a landowner who was willing to let them farm his spread in Essex. If you want to join their CSA, you pay more like a few thousand dollars. But when you stop by on Friday afternoons for your pickup, it’s not just vegetables: they have a few milking cows, so there’s milk and cheese and butter; they have a small herd of grass-fed cattle, so there are steaks and burgers; the snorting tribe of pigs behind the barn provide bacon and lard; there are chickens and turkeys and even bees. Except for paper towels and dental floss, you’d never have to set foot in a store again—think Laura Ingalls Wilder, complete with a team of big Belgians instead of a tractor. “I don’t think my intent is to create an historical farm, though,” mark insists. “There’s nothing inherent about modern ways that I don’t support. I’m trying to find out ways to increase the quality of my life—It just so happens tht working with horses is—not better than working with tractors, but more fun. It’s a more challenging, more dynamic relationship. You can understand an engine. You’ll never understand a horse.”
Kristin chronicles the life of the farm in a weekly letter she tucks into each box of produce–her struggles to get the pump flowing on the coldest winter mornings, or the day the plowhorses escaped and wandered down the road to town. And Mark—well, Mark seems always at work on some new project. “The one thing I maybe invented is a new way to churn butter,’ he says. “Kristin used to spend hours a week hand-churning it—not a happy situation. Then I realized that we have these ten-gallon milk cans that I can more or less seal. All of a sudden I remembered someone had given us a fold-up sofa bed. So every Tuesday night I turn on some loud 70s rock and roll or some Latino rhythms and I get up on that bed and do a modified jumping dance with my fifty pounds of stainless steel and cream. After six or seven hundred vigorous bounces I find ten to twelve pounds of butter ready to be rinsed.” And good butter too, full of grassy flavor. You can’t leave the farm without Mark loading your trunk full of food—”do you have room for another chicken there?”—and all of it tastes of the place. As you bump out of the driveway, a look in the rearview mirror reveals Mark juggling carrots and grinning. “Occasionally I feel like I’m doing some work,”he says. “But usually it feels more like entertainment for myself.”
Is this realistic? Could you feed Manhattan in this fashion? You could not—every place is different. (And Manhattan is lucky to have New Jersey, the Garden State, right next door, with some of the best truck-farming soil and weather anywhere on earth). But you could feed Essex, New York this way—Mark figures the fifty acres they’re farming can support ten or twelve families at least, a reminder of just how fertile the earth is in the right hands. He’s making lunch as he calculates, whistling over a skillet of cheeseburgers. “The lard is from the pig we called Moose, who was the runt of the litter last year. And the bull, Charlie, we finished him on grass and ate most of him at our wedding. And there’s some Delia and Melissa in the cheese.” It’s not just realistic, it’s real. And delicious.
Here’s what I’m missing: not grapefruit, not chocolate. Oats. And their absence helps illustrate what’s happened to American agriculture, and what would be required to change it a little bit.
Once upon a time, oats were everywhere—people grew them for their horses, and for themselves. But oats aren’t easy to deal with. Wheat you simply grind up, but oats have a hull. They have a hull that needs removing, and they need to be steamed, and dried, and rolled. You can do that more efficiently on a vast scale in places like Saskatoon Saskatchewan, where a single mill turns out a million pounds of oat products a day. Such scale quickly undercut local markets, and soon no one was milling oats in the Champlain Valley—just as no one was raising pork, or canning tomatoes, or any of the other things that a local food economy would require. For the moment, this centralization works. But that may change if the price of oil (the lifeblood of industrial agriculture) continues to climb, or if the climate starts to shift, or if global politics deteriorates. (“For the life of me,” said Tommy Thompson, on his retirement as Secretary of Health and Human Services, “I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do.”) Even now stubborn people keep trying to rebuild smaller-scale food networks, but it’s hard against the tide of cheap good that keeps flowing in. A few years ago, for instance, a Vermonter named Andrew Leinoff decided to go into oats—he and his friend Eric found some old equipment, and started experimenting. They worked out a good rotation for their fields—soybeans, then buckwheat, then the oats—and they eventually managed to make their ancient machinery work at least sporadically. (“One time Eric turned on the huller and it blew apart—missed him by inches and made a big hole in the roof of the barn.”) But after a few years of struggling to overcome all the problems of a start-up, they gave up, and a little bitterly. The state’s Department of Agriculture talks a good game—the governor has a public service ad on the radio urging Vermonters to buy ten percent of their food from within the state—but they spend most of their time and money propping up the state’s slowly withering dairy industry, not supporting the pioneers trying to build what comes next. The only thing Eric and Andy got from the state was “these bizarre tax notices fining us $250 because we hadn’t field something that said we had no income.”
They sold their equipment across the border to Quebec, to an organic miller named Michel Gaudreau, who does everything from dehulling spelt to pearling barley. And he found a grower in the province’s eastern townships, Alex Brand, whose family had been growing oats for many years—Brand was not just organic, he was ‘biodynamic,’ a follower of Rudolf Steiner’s methods. I tracked him down, delighted to find that Brand’s Fellgarth Farm was right on the edge of my Champlain watershed. But shipping a single sack of oats across the border was going to be hard work—it might, they warned, require a trip to customs. Happily, Brand had an American distributor—Joe Angello, in New York’s Columbia County, who specializes in biodynamic food. By the time all was said and done, my “local” oats had traveled on a truck from Canada to the lower Hudson Valley, and then back to Vermont in a UPS sack. Not precisely an ecological triumph. On the other hand they were delicious—plump, if an oat can be plump. So now it’s pancakes only every other morning.
Truth be told, my 11-year-old daughter has used the words “icky” and “disgusting” on several occasions, always in connection with root vegetables. Not potatoes, not carrots—but turnips, and parsnips, and rutabaga . It is a little hard to imagine how people got through winter on the contents of their root cellars alone.
Which is why I’m glad for the Ziplocs full of raspberries and blueberries my wife froze in the summer. And why I’m glad for the high-tech apple warehouse just down the road in Shoreham. Here’s the thing about apples: the best ones rot pretty fast. Sure, those brick hard Red Delicious and Granny Smiths can be picked in New Zealand or South Africa or China or Washington and flown and trucked halfway round the world and sit on a shelf at the supermarket for a week and still look like an apple. (Taste is another story– They’ve been bred for immortality, and immortality alone). But the great apples of the Northeast, your Cortlands, your Empires, your Northern Spy, above all your Macintosh, are softer, more ephemeral. That crisp bite that sprays your tonsils with juice soon turns to mealy mush. For generations people solved that problem by converting them cider—hard cider, fermented for freezer-less storage. That’s what most of those apple trees around New England were planted for. But there’s another solution if, like Barney Hodges, you have a storage shed where you can pump in nitrogen. “We push the oxygen level down from its normal 20 percent to just under three percent. The apple’s respiration is slowed down to the point to the point where the ripening process is nearly halted,” he explains. Every few weeks he cracks open another room in the warehouse, and it’s as if you’re back in September—the apples in his Sunrise Orchard bags head out to local supermarkets, where he frets that they won’t be kept cool. Here’s the take-home message: if you get your hands on nice apples, don’t leave them in a pretty ceramic bowl on the counter. Put them in the refrigerator!
Apples help illustrate another point too: in the years ahead, “local” may be a more important word than “organic” in figuring out how to eat. For years people bought organic food because it might be healthier and taste better, and because it was in some way “better for the earth.” But now that guy down the road with two acres of happy carrots is morphing into Del Monte; the country’s biggest growers have cashed in big on the organic boom. It’s true that the acres they plant in Chile or Mexico or California aren’t drenched with pesticides, but in every other respect they mimic all the sins of big agribusiness. In fact, a British study published this winter found that buying food close to home prevented twice as much environmental damage as buying organic food from a distance.
Now, the best solution might be local and organic; most of the food I’ve been eating this winter falls into that category. But apples aren’t easy—an orchard is a monoculture, prey to a bewildering variety of insects and blights. And very few consumers, even at the natural foods co-op, will pick up a Macoun or a Paula Red if its clear that some other creature has taken the first nibble, so almost all the area growers do at least a little spraying. “Every day all summer I’m out there trying to figure out what insect it is, what crops are at risk,” says Bill Suhr, who runs Champlain Orchards, down the road just above the Ticonderoga ferry dock. “My question is always, ‘how little spray can I get away with, and still produce fruit that people will buy?’” His saving grace is the cider press that’s clanking noisily away as we talk: he can take the risk of using fewer chemicals because if the apples aren’t perfect he can always turn them into cider. Absolutely delicious cider—I’ve been drinking well north of two gallons a week, and I’m not sure I’ll ever go back to orange juice. He presses new apples from the nitrogen room twice a week; $4 a gallon. And each batch, because it draws on a slightly different mix of varieties, tastes a little different: tartest in early fall, sweetest and most complex at the height of the harvest, but always tangy, deep. It may not be ‘organic,’ but it’s neighborly, which is good enough for me.
By now pleasant routine is setting in: granola or oatmeal or eggs in the morning, soup and a cheese sandwich for lunch. (I could eat a different Vermont cheese every day of the winter, but I usually opt for a hunk off the Orb Weaver farmstead round). And for dinner, some neighbor that until quite recently was clucking, mooing, baaing, or otherwise signaling their pleasure at the local grass and hay they were turning into protein. Also potatoes. Aomething frozen from the freezer—it’s a chest-type, and in a kark corner, so you basically just stick a hand in and see what vegetable comes out.
And oh, did I mention beer? Otter Creek Brewery, a quarter mile down the road from my daughter’s school, makes a stellar witbier, a Beligan style naturally cloudy with raw organic wheat from Ben Gleason’s farm. It’s normally sold in the summer, but I’ve hoarded some for my winter drinking. “We’d love to use local barley for the rest of our beers,” says Morgan Wolaver, the brewery’s owner. But that would mean someone building a malting plant to serve not just Otter Creek but the state’s seven other microbreweries. Perhaps right next to the oat mill…
I can see spring in the distance—there’s still feet of snow in the woods, but the sun is September-strong, and it won’t be long till down in the valley someone is planting lettuce. There’s so much that I’ve eaten and not described: the venison burgers at the Waybury Inn; the goat-cheese soufflé from the Blueberry Hill in Goshen; the cry-o-vaced Lake Champlain perch sold at Ned’s Bait and Tackle (only eat once a month if you’re of child-bearing age).
But there’s one place I must describe, both because it’s provided many of my calories, and because it embodies the idea of a small-scale farmer making a decent living growing great food. Jack and Anne Lazor bought Butterworks Farm in the state’s Northeast Kingdom in the mid-70s, after a stint of working at Old Sturbridge Farm in Massachusetts—they dressed in colonial costumes and milked cows by hand, and talked to the tourists. As it turns out, they weren’t actors—they were real farmers. Slowly they’ve grown their business into one of the state’s premier dairies: their organic yogurt is nearly a million-dollar business, and expanding steadily year after year after year; I’ve been living off their dried beans too, and their cornmeal. It’s great fun, then, to sit in their kitchen eating bacon and eggs and watch Anne mix up some salve for the teats of her cows, and listen to them describe their life. The talk’s a mix of technical detail (they milk Jerseys, not the more common Holsteins, which means less milk but higher protein, so their yogurt needs no pectin to stay firm) and rural philosophy. “We have such a ‘take’ mentality,” Jack is saying. “It’s part of our psyche, because we came to this verdant land as Europeans and were able to exploit it for so long.”
But here the exploitation feels more like collaboration. We stroll over to his solar barn, where the forty cows in the herd loiter patiently, mulling over the events of the day. “That’s Morel, that’s Phooey, that’s Vetch, that’s Clover, that’s Jewel…” The vet wanders in, to report that he’s figured out what’s wrong with Emily: milk fever, easily treated. (“Since this place is organic, everything in my truck is pretty useless,” he says. “All my antibiotics, I just leave them behind. The weird thing is, though, with the bigger industrial dairies, where I can use all my medicines, I’m visiting them three times a week. Here it’s once a month.”) It’s very calm in here, no sound but cud being chewed, and it’s warm out of the late winter wind. Jack, who’s a talker, is explaining how Vermont could market itself as ‘the natural state,’ and how he’s hoping to market masa harina for making tortillas next year, and so forth. I’m sort of listening, and mostly just absorbing the sheer pleasure of the scene—that this place works, that I’ve been connected to it all winter long, that it will be here, with any luck, for the rest of my life.
Look—eating this way has come at a cost. Not in health or in money (if anything I’ve spent less than usual, since I haven’t bought a speck of processed food) but in time. I’ve had to think about every meal, instead of wandering through the world on autopilot, ingesting random calories. I’ve had to pay attention. But the payoff for that cost has been immense, a web of connections I’d never known about. Sure I’m looking forward to the occasional banana, the odd pint of Guinness Stout. But I think this winter has permanently altered the way I eat. In more ways than one, it’s left a good taste in my mouth.