The localvore food movement seems to be everywhere. Restaurants proudly advertise their use of locally produced meat, vegetables, cheese and grains. Frigid Vermont has more than a dozen wineries. The number of microbreweries in the state is rapidly growing, and many are winning awards and attracting national attention. Vermont cheese makers are winning national and international awards.
How important is this seeming resurgence in agriculture to the Vermont economy? There are lots of stories on the radio and television and in the print and electronic media. Advocates are pushing schools to buy locally produced food for school lunch programs and giving SNAP recipients the ability to use their food stamps at farmers' markets. Many policymakers and advocates see local agricultural production as a driver of economic growth throughout the state.
Probably no place in Vermont has received more publicity about how food and agriculture has transformed the local economy than Hardwick. The small Northeast Kingdom town of 3,000 has been written up in The New York Times and other newspapers and magazines. It was even the subject of an entire book, "The Town That Food Saved."
Hardwick is seen as a model for stagnating rural towns, not just in Vermont, but throughout rural America. The reality, however, is much more complex, and not nearly as bright as advocates have painted it.
The statistics show that between 2007, the year before the recession hit, and 2013, private sector employment in Hardwick increased by 300 jobs. That may not seem like much, but in that small town it represented a huge 30 percent increase in employment. By contrast, over that same period, Vermont's private sector employment declined, so Hardwick's job picture was outstanding.
But that job growth was not due to agriculture or to the local food movement. The number of paid jobs on farms in the town actually fell, from 49 to 40. There may have been an increase in on-the-farm jobs at other local agricultural producers, such as Pete's Greens in nearby Craftsbury, or Jasper Hill Cheese, just down the road in Greensboro. But the so-called agricultural resurgence has brought no new agricultural jobs in Hardwick.
What about food production jobs in manufacturing? That was the story that the media stressed. Food producers would use agricultural products raised in the region and employ people in value-added food manufacturing.
Again, there's no indication of any significant job growth in that part of the economy either. In 2009 only 13 people were employed in food manufacturing in Hardwick. By 2013 that number had increased—to 23. Although that's a 77 percent increase, adding 10 jobs is hardly anything to get excited about.
There was an increase in jobs in an industry that uses food. Restaurants in Hardwick employed 24 people in 2007 and by 2013 the number of restaurant jobs had more than doubled to 66. It's a stretch to call restaurants part of the localvore food movement, and even harder to attribute all of that job growth to the local food movement.
Even if we did, I don't think anyone would say that adding more jobs at restaurants is a foundation for economic revival. Restaurant jobs pay an average of $16,000 (although that does not include tips that some restaurant employees earn, so the actual wages are somewhat higher). Even Hardwick's food manufacturing jobs offer pretty meager wages, with an average wage of $17,000.
Compare that to construction, the part of the economy that contributed the most to Hardwick's job gains. It added 38 jobs between 2007 and 2013 and employed 126 people last year, one out of every seven private sector jobs in the town. And those workers earned an average of $31,500, far higher than the wage in restaurants or on farms.
Out of the 300 new jobs created in Hardwick between 2007 and 2013, only 23 came from food manufacturing. Compare that to construction, which accounted for 40 percent of the job growth.
When you look at the actual numbers, Hardwick is hardly a poster child for the local food movement, and Hardwick's economy has not been revitalized by agriculture.
Look closely at the state numbers, however, and something different emerges, especially in food manufacturing. In that part of the economy the number of jobs has increased from 3,800 in 2007 to more than 5,100 in 2013.
Where are those food manufacturing jobs? It's hard to say, but one major contributor is probably Keurig Green Mountain Coffee, which has been growing by leaps and bounds over the past two decades, and since 2007.
Imagine, if you will, that in 1990 or 2000 a group of government officials, economic planners, and experts in the local economy sat down and tried to figure out which food manufacturing industry would be the most likely to generate lots of jobs, especially high paying jobs, over the next two decades. They would use that information to channel state resources and possibly easier regulatory policies to that industry.
Would they have chosen wine production, microbreweries, growers of organic soybeans, grains, or vegetables, or small scale canneries and food processing facilities, regional slaughterhouses, or a coffee roaster?
I doubt that a small coffee roaster in Waitsfield would have made it to the top of the list. But Keurig Green Mountain has added hundreds, if not more, high paying jobs to the state's employment base. That may be more than all other food manufacturers combined.
That is a sign that it's impossible to know which companies, and especially which entrepreneurs, will succeed, whether in Vermont's agricultural economy or in the economy at large. Vermont's successful businesses of the future, just like the past successes, will come from unexpected places and from insightful entrepreneurs. Some of them may have ideas that at the time seem outlandish. In hindsight, of course, they seem brilliant.
Their success, which is key to the state's economic future, will result from an environment that encourages their growth and success, and allows them to focus on their business. It won't come from economic plans drawn up by policymakers or economic experts.
The best way to promote successful entrepreneurs, in agricultural pursuits and others, is to make sure that they can devote their time and energy to their businesses and not to overcoming artificial roadblocks to their success.