SKOWHEGAN — When the granite industry left the small, rural town of Hardwick, Vt., during the last century, residents in the ensuing years were forced to leave town to find work.
Then along came a group of farmers who relied on the land, on one another and on the promise of prosperity and good health from good food.
Ben Hewitt, a farmer himself and author of “The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food,” calls those farmers agripreneurs.
They were ambitious, young agricultural entrepreneurs with big ideas about how a regionalized food-based system can be used to create economic development and wean Americans off their unhealthy dependence on industrial food.
Hewitt, the keynote speaker Thursday morning at the sixth annual Kneading Conference at the Skowhegan State Fairgrounds, said like that Vermont town, communities all over New England can become sustainable food hubs.
“The reality is we have to acknowledge the inherent safety advantage of small-scale food systems,” Hewitt said. “According to the (Center for Disease Control) there are 3,000 deaths annually in this country attributed to acute food-borne illness — salmonella, E. coli, etc.
“At the same time, according to the Harvard School of Public Health, there are 1,051,000 deaths annually attributable to diet-related disease.”
Hewitt pointed to recent recalls of beef and eggs as examples of a nation that has lost control of it food system.
He said some of the agripreneurs in his area opened a restaurant in 2008 called Claire’s modeled after community-supported agriculture programs. Instead of purchasing shares of a weekly harvest, however, residents bought 50 restaurant shares at $1,000 each that could be redeemed in $25 increments.
Hewitt said 70 percent of Claire’s food was bought within 15 miles of the restaurant. The eatery created 23 jobs paying $625,000 in wages since 2008 to employees who live with 15 miles of the place.
Now in its sixth year, the Kneading Conference began with a group of Skowhegan-area residents, oven builders, millers and bakers who were motivated by the need to address wheat production in light of a developing local food movement.
The conference features lectures, farming and baking presentations, guest speakers, demonstrations and ideas for restoring and supporting local and regional grain production.
The event is sponsored by King Arthur Flour and Skowhegan-based Maine Grain Alliance.
At 9 a.m. today keynote speaker William Alexander, author of “The $64 Tomato and 52 Loaves: a Half-Baked Adventure” will talk about his yearlong quest to make the perfect loaf of peasant bread, a mission that began in a backyard wheat field and ended in a medieval French monastery.
On Saturday, the annual Artisan Bread Fair will take place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Skowhegan Fairgrounds.
The bread fair is free and open to the public. Parking costs $2.