I. Vermont rural food systems—from milk to maple

This is the first of five journal entries assigned for class.

We’ve been asked to write one or two pages describing: the ways in which past and current experiences shape current perceptions of Vermont’s contemporary food and farming system; any food issues which are of interest and that may be further explored through the context of the course; and ideas about how the format for this course (one-week intensive and experiential) will support the development of understanding of the contemporary food system. Comments should be based on course learning objectives to: experience Vermont’s working landscape; understand Vermont’s contemporary food and farming system; use systems thinking both to reflect on their experience and to analyze current food systems issues in Vermont; apply understanding of Vermont’s rural food system for the urban environment of Gotham.

An article in the July 02005 issue of Gourmet magazine written by Bill McKibben summarized his one year experiment eating only the foods he had grown and/or procured from within his watershed in Northwest Vermont, or within “a couple dozen miles of [his] house.” He did “pack in” items that would have been on the market in the thirteenth century—pepper, turmeric, ginger. I recall coffee was part of the deal too, but it might have been in another locavore’s larder. Several folks have tried a similar experiment and lived to write, and publish their tales.

Since reading the article, Vermont has been on the map as one state affording someone all the victuals necessary to survive, and thrive—albeit frugally at times—throughout the year. With the miracle of cold storage, berries and stone fruits picked during late summer can be available for pancakes throughout the winter. Greens, tomatoes, root and other vegetables can be grown and preserved for the long winter haul. Potatoes and grains are grown in the state. There are cattle and sheep for dairy and meat. Chickens for eggs and meat. Rivers and streams provide freshwater trout. There’s water for drinking as well as for soups, boiling, braising, and canning. And there’s plenty of maple syrup to make homemade candies and for the pancakes Bill and his family ate quite a lot of.

Vermont is self-sufficient to the point that Marion Nestle, on her return from New Zealand proclaimed to the class last fall, “They’re doing Vermont.” I’ve heard the expression used on other occasions. I am interested in the related concept, self-sufficiency. Living in Gotham nearing a decade now, find myself with each year further removed from the more rural life lived until my early twenties;—albeit that more rural life happened to be within the same watershed—I still drink the same water, eat the same apples, pick the same pumpkins, and see the same leaves turn each fall. But I do so from a fifth floor apartment on the urban side of a moat called the Hudson River. I am indeed one of those urban dwellers looking forward to someday cash out my cooperative apartment and buy a small place, with good soil and water source, and make my go at a more self-sufficient life, or at least to produce some of my own food—primarily vegetables and eggs. The Vermont model is one that in over three centuries has seen its share of trials and errors, and booms and busts in agriculture. I suspect the current boom, with an eye towards a Long View of the land and mans place on it, may hopefully provide something of a ‘cheat sheet’ to creating such a life.

As a one-week intensive and experiential class, I imagine it will remain primarily observational and based in discussion. We will travel to farms and production facilities, and perhaps participate in some demonstrations, but likely still cannot provide the experience getting ones hands into the dirt, tilling, sowing seed, milking, and stealing eggs from the hen house affords. The experience will serve to fill some of the massive fissures in knowledge to visualize a more rural future life—from what land is best suited to growing various livestock and produce, requirements of care, growing and harvest cycles, issues of seasons, ecological and climate conditions, as well as fiscal and market considerations. From the introductory meeting earlier this month, the aim of the course is to be holistic in nature.

I certainly look forward to sampling a lot of cheese.

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