By Sara Gilbert
I recently returned to Rutland from Seattle, where eco-friendly living and eating is celebrated by nearly everyone, and consumer choices for ethically-produced food and other products abound. Organics are trendy; sustainable shopping is cool. But what does it mean to live eco-friendly in Vermont?
Many Vermonters have a deep knowledge of living connected to their human and natural communities. You want green before it was cool? I give you The Garden Guy. Based in Castleton, The Garden Guy is 60 years into a lifetime of locally grown and harvested eating. As a high school biology teacher, he introduced countless students to the principles of conservation, locally-based consumerism, seasonal eating, recycling, and appreciation for the resources of our local lakes and woods. I proudly count myself among his most devoted and admiring pupils: he’s my Dad.
Maybe it was Father’s Day that got me thinking about what I’ve learned from my dad, Tim Gilbert. He’s the kind of environmentalist who can recite lines from Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac no matter which page you open to. He’s always cooking up some scheme that gets him outside, whether it is scouting ice fishing spots on family trips to the lake, engineering a new cooling systems for his hand-made greenhouse, or rototilling a friend’s garden in exchange for repairs to his rototiller.
A gardener, Dad’s yard overflowed with summer produce, a problem he solved by setting up a little roadside stand on our front lawn. Summer squash, cucumbers, and zucchini sold three for a dollar on the honor system. As kids, my three siblings and I subsidized his commitment to organic gardening: I learned to spot potato bugs at an early age and sat with a rock and a five gallon pail, eliminating beetles, larvae and eggs, plant by plant.
In summer, we breakfasted in the back yard – blueberries, raspberries, lettuce, cucumbers, peas, beans, cherry tomatoes and asparagus taught us that food tastes best covered in dew with maybe a little dirt still on the leaves. Dad’s idea of putting food on the table often included what he could grow, catch, shoot, or trade for among family, friends and neighbors.
Since retiring, he has expanded his garden to a little under an acre. He sells or barters around eight CSA shares each spring and is a frequent vendor at the Castleton Farmers’ Market. He raises chickens and guinea hens for eggs and meat, and grows a huge variety of herbs and vegetables. His blueberries are prized by friends and market-goers alike.
I took our edible yard for granted as a kid, but I realize now that he was modeling a different take on what it means to live and be “local.” He developed the skill and knowledge needed to live in and of the place over many decades of gardening, hiking, hunting and fishing. For him, the local “food system” includes much more than the grocery store and local restaurants – it’s a network that was entangled with business partnerships, friendships, bartering networks, and family ties. Don’t buy what you can make or grow; problem-solving means using what you have at hand; close observation of the human and natural world are the best tools.
For those of us who don’t garden and/or who don’t have land, we depend on our small farms to help us realize the lessons of local economy that I learned in my parents’ household. I asked my friend Iona Woolmington, an organic farmer at the Intervale Community Farm in Burlington’s Intervale, who also grew up in Vermont, if my notion of learning from the wisdom of our community elders also resonated for her.
She says new pressures to compete in the world of small organic farms create challenges that require young farmers to create their own mentoring resources. A nationally-connected group of farmers have been posting detailed how-to videos to share with their peers on site like YouTube and Farm Hack (www.youngfarmers.org). Farm Hack’s mission is to connect farmers with other innovators in their communities; the group convened in Burlington last August. But in terms of working with older farmers, Iona says there is a gap in terms of mentorship.
“I don’t think people were riding chariots of fire down their rows two generations ago!” she said, in reference to Pitchfork Farm owner and inventor Rob Rock’s flame weeding tractor.
Farmers and community members have been working hard to build a network of expertise and support right here in the Rutland area. The Rutland Area Farm and Food Link (RAFFL) might be considered Rutland’s answer to the mentorship gap that farmers like Iona are feeling. For example, some of RAFFL’s farmer training workshops this summer cover topics such as plant disease and pest management, increasing sales through marketing and merchandising and farmer ergonomics. RAFFL’s farmer training blog What’s Growin’ On? (raffl.wordpress.com) is another excellent resource.
Trends like organic foods and the localvore movement cannot be simply a way to act more ethically within the existing economic system, vitally important as these movements are. Watching my dad manage his yard and his kitchen helps me realize that the success of the regional food systems approach demands transformations that go deeper than what we put into our bodies, all the way to who we are, how we interact, the economic models we support, and the kinds of wisdom we value and pass on.
Sara Gilbert is a Vermonter and geographer living in Rutland, VT.
Originally published in the Rutland Herald.