Thursday, November 12, 2009

Edible Excursions and Entrepreneurial Escapades

After two weeks of lusty infatuation with the state of Vermont, unlike many men I've dated in the past, it has not lost its appeal. In fact, I've become even more endeared with this wonderful state. Quite possibly this is because I've had such fantastically surreal food experiences and met so many intriguing, warmpeople that I've been able to put the 14 hours of daily darkness and other unenjoyables (which, honestly, I can't think of right now) out of my mind. Well, in any case, I'm happy to report that Vermont and I are still on VERY good terms as the honeymoon period progresses. Clearly, I need to give a blow by blow account of every amazing encounter I've had with Vermont (VT, for short). Food, wine and people feature prominently. Go figure, I have my priorities straight finally!

Last Tuesday I was invited by Tom Stearns, media darling of Hardwick's local food system, an intensely gregarious fellow and owner of High Mowing Organic Seeds, to join him on a monthly 'Business Owners' meeting. Over the past few years a number of young food entrepreneurs in Hardwick and the surrounding area have been meeting on a monthly basis to eat, mingle and talk about current business issues that they are confronting. I had no idea what I was in for. All I knew was that it was a potluck and I was to bring something (quinoa salad was the obvious choice). I met Tom at his office, and we carpooled with four other food entrepreneurs from the Hardwick area. I found msyelf instantly in awe of Hannah and Jonathan, a couple in their early 30's, who had started a non-profit community called Heartbeet. This community is home to over 30 special needs people who live on a 160 acre working farm just outside of Hardwick. The residents spend their days working on the farm, caring for the animals and assisting with planting/harvesting. As Jonathan explained, they have the chance to be the care givers, rather than just being taken care of. Wow. Later I learned that this amazing couple had four young children of their own.

Anyways, the business meeting was brilliant. Each month a different group member hosts the meeting at his/her place of business, and offers of tour of the facilities. This month, the group was treated to tour of two adjacent businesses located in Middlesex - Red Hen Bakery (the state's largest organic bakery) and Nutty Steph's (specializing in granola and delicious chocolate). Let me tell you something - there is NOTHING better than going to a potluck where everyone in attendance is passionate about food and, more importantly, produces it for a living. There were no veggie trays from the Superstore, that's for sure! Suffice to say, we enjoyed a feast of fantastic organic bread, cheese, local beer, local tofu, homemade kimchee, locally handcrafted choclates, etc. After a tour of the bakery and samples at the chocolate shop, the group discussed a number of topics. I was struck by the burden that these small business owners were under to ensure their employees had decent health care. It seems in America that the small businesses are carrying the heaviest burdens of all, which is concerning, since they're also the engine of strong, local economies and social progress.

What became very obvious after a night in the company of about 18 food entrepreneurs, was that there was an amazing sense of camaraderie within this group of mostly 30-somethings (although there was one v. young cheesemaker and one older man with a long and well-established sugaring business) which was truly authentic and very unlike the energy I've encountered when I've attended Chamber of Commerce events in the past. Even more striking to me was that these folks, many of whom were young couples or had young families at home, were the ultimate caretakers. These people are 'raising' their small businesses, dealing with the growing pains, uncertainties and risks inherent in undertaking an entrepreneurial venture, all the while also being very mindful of their responsibilities to provide a living wage and health benefits to their employees and to give back to the communities in which they are operating (more about that below). On top of all this, they are raising children of their own. I know for a fact that I could never do all of these things, and have doubts that I could do even one of these things very well. But here they are, a group of ambitious, socially-minded, innovative people who are working together to create better food, better employment opportunities, better communities and, hopefully, a better future for their children.

Wednesday, I went gleaning. Such a sexy word, gleaning. I like to imagine that the word is a melding of glamourous and cleaning, which conjures up images of waltzing around a grand ballroom in a glitzy, floor-length gown bejeweled with diamonds, occassionally reaching out to feather dust a low-hanging chandelier or the such. Obviously the feather duster and ballgown would be matching in colour. I'm thinking a pastel blue. Oh, if only that were what I did on Wednesday. But no, gleaning is, in fact, a slightly less glamourous activity, albeit much more rewarding than feather dusting a ballroom. Basically gleaning is harvesting after the harvest has been done. Volunteer groups go out into a field or, in my case, an apple orchard, and harvest the 'leftovers' of a farmer's crop. I'd agreed to join Rebecca of Salvation Farms (part of VT Foodbank) and other volunteers in an apple-picking adventure. We spent about three hours picking apples from Chapin Orchards. I'd met the proprietor of Chapin Orchards at the business meeting the previous night. And now here I was at his orchard, helping pick apples that he'd given the Foodbank permission to harvest.I think we picked about 1,500 lbs of apples amongst a group of maybe 6 volunteers. I had to sign a waiver of liability. I joked with Rebecca that apple-picking was clearly a dangerous activity. Well, wouldn't you know, I had at least two apples smack me on the head within the first half hour of picking. At least I didn't have to climb the ladders, I suspect that would have ended badly for all. In the afternoon, Rebecca headed back to Hardwick to glean some squash from Tom Stearn's trial fields (recall, he owns a seed business, so much of what he grows is salvaged and used by others).

Wednesday evening I ventured out to Claire's restaurant, which is located on Main Street, Hardwick. The restaurant was actually closed (will write more about my dining experiences there in another post), but had opened its doors to let one of the servers hold a fundraising activity. This young server, who also worked on one of the local farms, was heading to Africa to teach sustainable agriculture (can't recall the country she was headed to). To raise funds for the plane ticket, she was hosting a dessert buffet and raffling off a number of beautiful items that had been donated by local artisans. The place was packed, the desserts were to die for, and I had a local beer to wash it all down.

Saturday was to be a full on day of food and wine sampling. I headed out of Hardwick mid-morning, ready to hit up the Food & Wellness Expo in Montpelier, which was being hosted by the city's grocery co-op, Hunger Mountain. Upon entering the room full of food vendors handing out samples of everything from caramel made with goat's milk (Fat Toad Farm), to grass-fed beef sausage (Applecheek Farms) to elderberry syrup, to gluten-free chocolate cookies, I realised that everyone loves free food. The place was jam-packed with people elbowing for chocolate yogurt samples and matchstick cuts of walnut bread. I couldn't handle it, there were way too many people vying for space. Plus, there were no alcohol exhibitors and my next visit promised to be much more fruitful in this regard. So off I headed to Burlington to meet up with a friend, and we drove out to Shelburne Vineyard for their Autumn New Wine Festival. Samples of wines, mostly sweet (yay!) were on offer and around the periphery of the sampling room, food purveyors were handing out samples. I saw the young (24!) cheesemaker from teh busines owners meeting sampling her Ploughgate cheese, as well as some of Jasper Hills' artisan cheeses, which had been featured on Martha Stewart Living earlier in the week ( I'll blog about Jasper Hills after I visit their caves), as well as another attendee of the business owners meeting, who was sampling her Laughing Moon truffle chocolates. And yes, I decided to sample one, rationalizing that they were made locally, therefore fit within the constraints of my locav-or-ganic challenge.

Phew. As I am writing this, I realise it's an extremely long post. Apologies, I guess I'm just having too many adventures in food!! I will break now, and write Part Two of my food escapades tomorrow. Stay tuned for Bluebird, community lunch, jerusalem artichoke soup, and a factory tour of Ben & Jerry's!


Rob said...

Shannon - this all sounds so exciting - good for you and for VT - can't wait to see what you can do here

fromaway said...

Excellent reading Shan...look forward to part two!


fromaway said...

Yes, I agree with Rob. If you are going to settle in PEI I can't wait to partake of some of the future events that I'm sure you will be instrumental in making happen. It sounds like you hit the jackpot in finding a match for you and you're master's undertaking!

Anonymous said...

Actually the last 'fromaway was Mom"

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