August 7, 2012 | by Jessica Conrad
Here is a small town that thrives on a kind of agribusiness where scale matters, stakeholders collaborate, and, in most cases, ownership has more to do with stewardship than it does with possession. Local, land-based investment opportunities abound. Community members know each other by name and value civic engagement. Young people who moved away for bigger and “better” opportunities now flock home in droves, seeking jobs and dedicating themselves to community improvement. This town, Hardwick, Vermont, embodies the spirit of the commons in so many ways—but it wouldn’t be that way without the vision and drive of Tom Stearns, an ardent commons advocate and the founder of High Mowing Organic Seeds.
Stearns spent his childhood exploring woods adjacent to his family’s property that were conserved by a land trust. “They were my woods,” Stearns used to think, but deep down he knew they were “everybody’s woods.” He had learned that collective ownership meant that no one person had permission to trash the place. So he fell for the woods, confident that they would remain wild for years to come. This confidence led to a deep belief in the importance of land stewardship and the commons; a belief that has inspired and influenced his work for the past sixteen years at High Mowing Organic Seeds, a farm-based seed company located just northwest of Hardwick.
Over his years working in the seed business, Stearns has come to understand that, even more so than the land he works, the seeds themselves are a special kind of commons. The vegetable seeds we have now, he says, are vastly different than the seeds that existed one hundred years ago, and today’s seeds will assume new qualities in the future. That’s partly why privatization and commodification have become commonplace in the seed industry. Corporate giants have denied public access to information about our seed resource because “when you control seeds, you control a lot,” says Stearns.
But as Stearns says, “seeds are powerful,” and that power can be harnessed to advance the common good, too. “Right now we have seeds that were developed for high‐input chemical systems,” Stearns notes. “We do not have seeds for the type of food system we need to build, nationally or internationally.” But that could soon change. By defining and protecting seeds as a commons, Stearns encourages the kind of information sharing necessary for developing the seed varieties we need today and in the future.
Just so, the High Mowing team engages and interacts with everyone who uses seeds, including farmers and gardeners, plant breeders at universities, other seed companies, and soil scientists. They do this in an effort to bring the seed community’s collective wisdom to bear on how to develop new seed varieties, how to make seeds available to consumers, and how to promote them as a critical element in building healthy food systems. By encouraging this knowledge sharing, High Mowing empowers the whole community to engage in a ten thousand-year‐old practice of food provision that is vital for the future. They are framing seed saving as a commons‐based solution.
High Mowing also engages in their immediate community through business‐to‐business collaborations with local organizations, including Pete’s Greens and Vermont Soy. They’ve done everything from lending money to sharing employees to developing co-branding and co‐marketing programs. On the day I spoke with Stearns, Pete Johnson of Pete’s Greens had planted three acres of carrots on the land he rents from High Mowing. Together with another seed breeder, Johnson and Stearns are working to develop a new organic carrot variety.
While this level of commoning may seem out of the ordinary, it is only the beginning. Stearns is also a co-founder of the Center for an Agricultural Economy, a Hardwick‐based nonprofit that coordinates regional food system activity. Among many other contributions to the community, the nonprofit just purchased the old town common. Until recently, no one had hope that Hardwick, an aging granite-mining center, would ever recover from the mining industry collapse. The town common had been neglected since the thirties, but members of the Center for an Agricultural Economy saw its potential and purchased the sixteen acres in the heart of Hardwick. Today, Stearns describes all kinds of activity planned for the property, including an educational farm and community garden.
The combined effect of these many assorted commons solutions is a small town renaissance no one could have expected in Hardwick. Stearns describes countless new economic opportunities growing up around healthy food, ecological awareness, and value‐added agriculture. There are new jobs—good jobs—at High Mowing and elsewhere. The rural “brain drain” is reversing in this area, as smart young people who moved away are coming home. People are once again running for town select boards and school boards. “People are actually competing [for those positions] because they want to have a voice,” Stearns says. “It’s really cool.”
When asked about the secrets to this success, Stearns speculates that Vermont’s size has something to do with it. Towns operate on a “human-scale,” and political figures are readily accessible (you might event spot the governor walking down the street, he says). As a result, people sense their ability to make an impact—they are not just one among millions. To Stearns’s mind, the hopelessness that comes from feeling inconsequential is one of the main obstacles to creating commons-‐based societies in other places today.
But through story, we can restore hope and raise awareness about the commons. And a place like Hardwick, Vermont—where the community has “reached a tipping point, and it’s completely unstoppable”—certainly provides the narrative to inspire commons-based solutions anywhere.