On April 21, 2021

Local is not just a buzzword

By Lindsey Berk and Suzy Hodgson

Editor’s Note: This commentary is co-authored by Lindsey Berk, executive director of the Addison County Relocalization Network (ACORN Network), and Suzy Hodgson, a board member of the Acorn Renewable Energy Co-operative (AEC) and founder of the Charlotte Energy Committee. This is the fifth commentary in a 10-part series by authors who are responding to the pressing topics identified in a draft “Proposition for the Future of Vermont” developed by the non-partisan Vermont Council on Rural Development. VCRD welcomes your ideas at futureofvermont.org.

PART 5: Vermont must re-localize energy, agriculture, and business investment for a resilient economy.

The last year has shone a spotlight on the innumerable difficulties the globalized economy has created in all aspects of our community, and we have seen amazing local solutions in response to those challenges. When our supermarkets’ supply chain was disrupted and shelves were empty, it was local farmers who adapted and saw their sales skyrocket. Mutual aid networks sprouted up to sew masks and deliver food to vulnerable communities; liquor distilleries shifted to manufacturing hand sanitizer in large quantities for frontline workers.

The local multiplier effect is real: for every dollar spent locally, at least two dollars, and sometimes as much as four dollars, are generated indirectly in the local economy. If Covid has shown us anything, it is that we are all truly connected. Collectively, we have an extraordinary opportunity to lead the local economy, and our community, forward by supporting our local farmers, business owners and neighbors.

Here’s an example of the circular economy and relocalization in Lindsey’s community of Brandon, pre-pandemic: Lindsey received her paycheck from ACORN and bought some seedlings from Miller Hill Nursery. A few weeks later, she saw the owner of the nursery enjoying an IPA at Red Clover Ale Co. Later that summer, one of the owners of the brewery was buying tomatoes from Wood’s Market Garden. Wood’s Market Garden, for years, has supported ACORN with an ad in its local food and farm guide.

Relocalization isn’t a new trend. For the past 16 years a group of dedicated folks in Addison County have had a laser focus on strengthening their local community. In 2005, in the face of the increasing instability of centralized energy systems, climate change and declining ecological health, and a financialized, debt-burdened economy, ACORN was formed. This community organization, governed by a volunteer board, focused on relocalizing food, energy and money. Food and energy sub-committees formed to stimulate demand for locally-grown foods and to develop renewable sources of energy in the county. In 2008, the energy committee spun off into the Acorn Renewable Energy Co-operative, and the food committee secured 501(c)(3) non-profit status and became the ACORN Network.

At its core, ACORN is nimble, a catalyst for developing local, sustainable and collaborative solutions that adapt to the times.

ACORN’s printed Champlain Valley Guide to Local Farms and Food and its EatLocalVT mobile app directly connect residents and tourists with small and medium sized producers across product categories.

Knowing your farmer is one of the best ways we can all start relocalizing our community.

Beyond the personal, we can advocate for increased state support of our food system. In 2010-2012 we formed the ACORN Wholesale Collaborative (AWC) to research the barriers to institutional purchasing of local food in Addison County, but we were too early. The local food system, on both the supply and demand side, was too thin to support it.

Now, a decade and a global pandemic later, we have revisited these same challenges and are aiming to provide a solution that streamlines aggregation and distribution by using an online platform. To compete with the industrial food system, a reliable local aggregation and distribution network is necessary. A number of larger non-profit food hubs around the state buy and sell products from each other and regionally, but nothing exists along the Route 7 corridor. Financing such an entity is challenging for a small non-profit, and state funding would help get it off the ground and ensure its resiliency.

Other programs, such as the Farmacy Food as Medicine program and Farm to School initiatives, make local food more accessible to everyone in the community by fully removing the price barrier. Food as a right is something our State House should also consider.

The Acorn Renewable Energy Co-operative, now a member-owned business serving the residents of Addison, Rutland and Chittenden counties, helps transition area communities from their near total dependence on fossil fuels to a greater reliance on affordable local renewable energy strategies.

As the co-op has grown, these programs have included biomass heat (local wood pellets), solar hot water, solar PV, as well as other heating, energy and efficiency products and services. More recently, the co-op has focused most of its attention on local community-owned solar electricity initiatives.

In 2011, Acorn Energy Solar One (AESO), the 150 kW solar array in Middlebury, was completed. AEC’s second Community Solar project, Acorn Energy Solar 2 (AES2), in Shoreham, was completed in 2020. Work on developing AEC’s third local community solar project, now known as Bristol community solar, began in 2020. Work on this 500 kW, $1.8-million project is ongoing.

Today, the imperative to shift back to local economies, or to “relocalize,” is resoundingly clear. Pioneering programs such as these and others around the state show what is possible. Scaling these up through new investments will revitalize communities across Vermont.

As businesses such as restaurants, farms, and builders prepare for a new season, each of us can also consider how we choose to spend our dollars. This spring is a chance to reflect and do things a bit differently, to live greener.

A few tangible ways to relocalize in your area include signing up to a local farm’s CSA or visiting a farmstand in your area (use the EatLocalVT app!), finding a local contractor to improve home energy efficiency (LiveGreenVT.org can help), and researching community solar options in your community.

With the governor’s recent announcement to use $1 billion in federal relief funds for infrastructure relating to broadband, housing and climate change measures, we’re optimistic that relocalization with local companies and community solar will see an infusion of funds.

As we collectively look to the near future, the State of Vermont appears to be moving forward in a positive way towards investing in relocalization efforts. If we can make sure to bring everyone along on this reinvestment ride, we’re hoping that we not only keep our dollars circulating locally, but do so equitably so all Vermonters benefit.

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