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‘Building a Local Economy’

SoRo-Based Group Aims to Fight Climate Change, Boost White River Valley

  • Chris Wood, executive director of BALE, which stands for “Building A Local Economy,” in his office in South Royalton.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Chris Wood, executive director of BALE, which stands for “Building A Local Economy,” in his office in South Royalton.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • A painting showing various cuts of beef is lit up in the rear entrance of the Black Krim Tavern as Chris Hatley sits at the bar. The restaurant is part of Building a Local Economy, the South Royalton-based organization. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    A painting showing various cuts of beef is lit up in the rear entrance of the Black Krim Tavern as Chris Hatley sits at the bar. The restaurant is part of Building a Local Economy, the South Royalton-based organization. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Black Krim Tavern owner Sarah Natvig, right, and her business partner Emily Wilkins prepare a slate of wines for their monthly tasting at the tavern. Natvig and Wilkins are both graduates of the New England Culinary Institute and started their restaurant after moving back to Vermont from Washington State. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Black Krim Tavern owner Sarah Natvig, right, and her business partner Emily Wilkins prepare a slate of wines for their monthly tasting at the tavern. Natvig and Wilkins are both graduates of the New England Culinary Institute and started their restaurant after moving back to Vermont from Washington State. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jeanna Jensen prepares for opening time at the Black Krim Tavern in Randolph. When in season, the restaurant uses fresh produce form owner Sarah Natvig's Pebblebrook Farm in West Brookfield. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Jeanna Jensen prepares for opening time at the Black Krim Tavern in Randolph. When in season, the restaurant uses fresh produce form owner Sarah Natvig's Pebblebrook Farm in West Brookfield. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Chris Wood, executive director of BALE, which stands for “Building A Local Economy,” in his office in South Royalton.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • A painting showing various cuts of beef is lit up in the rear entrance of the Black Krim Tavern as Chris Hatley sits at the bar. The restaurant is part of Building a Local Economy, the South Royalton-based organization. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Black Krim Tavern owner Sarah Natvig, right, and her business partner Emily Wilkins prepare a slate of wines for their monthly tasting at the tavern. Natvig and Wilkins are both graduates of the New England Culinary Institute and started their restaurant after moving back to Vermont from Washington State. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Jeanna Jensen prepares for opening time at the Black Krim Tavern in Randolph. When in season, the restaurant uses fresh produce form owner Sarah Natvig's Pebblebrook Farm in West Brookfield. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

South Royalton — Chris Wood has been getting communities organized for more than 35 years, and now he’s heading an organization that’s taking on the White River Valley and its 14 or so towns.

Wood is the executive director of BALE, which stands for “Building A Local Economy.” It’s an organization deeply concerned with the warming climate and finding long-term solutions that focus on changing attitudes and getting people to do business with their neighbors.

Wood and the group aren’t doling out answers for fixing the climate, but they are offering a platform and a direction for communities to discuss the problem. They hope those conversations will lead to a change in thinking, shopping patterns and more support for local businesses and agriculture. They also aren’t deluding themselves that just fixing things in this part of the world will happen overnight or have a great effect on the global economy, but they believe that it just might, so they’re trying.

The organization has a storefront across from the South Royalton green, a cozy space with large windows, a couple of Meyer lemon trees in one corner and a large sign over the front door. It’s a good location with good public exposure that the organization shares with a local business and the new Royalton Community Radio station. It’s also a gathering spot for the community, where local art is on display and area musicians gather on Friday nights to jam.

Wood is the only paid employee, and he’s part time. But the organization is fully staffed by volunteers drawn from area residents and Vermont Law School. The school has provided students who have headed up such projects as last June’s BALEFest — a six-hour gathering on the South Royalton green with music, crafts, workshops and demonstrations added to the weekly farmers market — and getting out the Locally Grown Guide, a listing of farms, farmers markets and local product retailers and restaurants.

Wood brings plenty of experience to the job. He helped start Rural Vermont more than 30 years ago, and the Vermont Community Loan Fund. He also started the now-defunct Montpelier Onion River Arts Council, which lasted for 22 years.

He grew up in Newton, Mass., and came to Vermont in 1970 to go to Goddard College after a stint in the Navy. He never left. He moved to the Upper Valley about nine years ago and now lives in Tunbridge.

The Valley News sat down with Wood last week to talk about the organization, what it’s doing and its vision for the future. Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation:

Valley News: What is BALE?

Chris Wood: BALE is new and fresh with a strong focus around local food. We started by getting local farmers’ products into school cafeterias. We’re doing farm-to-school work. Over time, we’ve broadened that vision. Even when naming our organization, we didn’t want it to be strictly agriculture or food focused. We wanted it to be broad. We wanted it to encompass all the aspects of how we would define our root cause and passion for facing climate change and how we address that.

VN: How did the group get started?

CW: We had big community meetings and conversations three years ago about what we could do to strengthen our local agriculture and our economy. The focus initially was on ag, and one of BALE’s primary focuses will always be on agriculture because it makes sense for the White River Valley, which is mostly small, agriculturally focused towns, to continue to build that path. We were very conscious during the first year to determine what area that we wanted to cover. It became clear that we should focus on the watershed of the White River Valley.

VN: How is this different than the White River Partnership?

CW: The White River Partnership is focused on watershed protection and is not really involved in community-building and economic vitality. They’re the scientists, the conservationists who are concerned with water quality and the safekeeping of the river.

VN: What has the group done so far?

CW: We’ve opened this community space. And because this is South Royalton, and we want to work more broadly in the White River Valley, we’re working with the Randolph Area Community Development Corp. to build a regional web site. In some ways, it’s going to bring that community effort to the Internet.

VN: What will the site be like?

CW: There will be a listserv (bulletin board), calendars and interactive maps. We’ve gotten a U.S. Department of Agriculture rural development grant, which is the main piece of the funding that we’ve gotten to put this together. You’ll start seeing beta tests in April, but the goal is to have it completed and online in September.

We really feel it’s needed because the White River Valley towns are small and don’t have the capacity to promote themselves too consistently, and in some cases, to get their town minutes out and to be an easy resource for businesses, municipalities, local businesses and for tourists. We’re calling it Tap the Valley, which on the website will read “Tap into the Valley.”

VN: Why did you decide to locate in South Royalton?

CW: We had to put ourselves somewhere, and mostly because I was the prime mover, it made sense to locate in South Royalton. But, hopefully, the web page will serve as a good regional resource for all kinds of good calendar information, and in some ways we’ll probably link with Royalton Community Radio when it’s up and running.

VN: What else have you done?

CW: We do a locally grown guide that we insert in the Herald of Randolph because we’re in the White River Valley and that fits their service area.

We also do what we call BALEFest, a celebration of all things local. We do it on the green here in conjunction with the South Royalton Farmers Market. I’ve also been asked to consider doing a second BALEFest in Randolph in conjunction with their farmers market because they like what we’re doing here and would like to have one. We’ll see if there’s a capacity to do that.

We also have a key committee on the board called White River Food and Farm to work on food and farm issues and engage the Vermont Law School in a community conversation about food and farm issues.

VN: Are you working with Vital Communities?

CW: In many cases where it’s appropriate and where they are engaging, we’re working with them. One of the projects we’re doing is a series that will start in April called “Why build a local economy?” It’s a three-year project that features 10 public programs in 2013 focusing on a wide range of reasons of why we’ll need a local economy. The programs will be filmed. In 2014, we want to develop a curriculum that will be either for high school age or just for public school education. We’ve gotten $9,500 in grants so far, and the total project for this year is $31,000. But the grant is $90,000 that we’ll need for the film next year.

VN: Are you hoping to build a corps of volunteers in each of the towns?

CW: I hope we build slowly. The reality for the first two years is that we’re probably only noticed in Randolph, Royalton, Tunbridge, Bethel and the towns around here. The real answer is I don’t know.

VN: What’s your next step?

CW: I’m writing a letter of intent for the big grant for the film, and I’m really focused on the “Why Build Your Local Economy” program.

The long-term goal is transforming people’s consciousness around the fact that our planet is in a lot of trouble both via our current economic system and how that economic system is destroying the ecosystem. I’m a Bill McKibben (environmentalist) convert. But how do you apply that belief locally and how do you take that full scary concept that the climate is going to change, and start making a difference locally, I don’t know. If we build a local economy, we can wrest a lot of control for local enterprise from what is now the existing system, one that’s extracting our community resources and sending them off to global food corporations or whatever. The goal is really altering a consumptive habit that we’re consuming too much.

VN: What do mean by resources going off to corporate entities?

CW: If the business is not local then more money goes out of the community in the hands of stockholders and corporate executives who live in other parts of the world. The more we can keep our money and work local, the more we’re going to be resilient. The resources and the capacity for work and jobs are going to stay local if people bring that awareness into their shopping habits and how they live.

VN: How does this fit with farmers trying to expand their business outside of the area?

CW: A good example is Gov. Peter Shumlin and Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross’ model of the 100-mile market, the New York, Montreal, Boston and getting our farmers into those markets. I think that’s good, but I don’t think that’s ideal. Pete’s Greens (an organic farm in Craftsbury, Vt.) decided to market their local CSA in South Royalton. We have lots of farmers and new farmers who want to start up here. I applaud Pete’s Greens for expanding, but expanding is the model, if taken to extremes, is failing us and failing the planet.

VN: Are you attempting to change the economic model?

CW: We don’t know what the model is. We know we can keep our money local. We can do things like create bartering and local community currency. Randolph has a shopping incentive program to reward people for shopping locally in the winter. There are things we can do like that to change things.

VN: How are you going to break the shopping patterns for people who work in Lebanon and shop at the big grocery stores?

CW: We’re not going to keep them from doing that. The long-term goal for me is changing people’s habits. We have a climate crisis approaching as soon as 50 years, and changing habits and consciousness looks to take way longer than the 50 years, but all we can do is try to do the things that we think will work.

I would hope that we would be able to change shopping patterns, but I don’t know if we can do that. Is capitalism failing us? I don’t know. Is what we’re doing just transforming capitalism? I don’t have that answer.

But what I want to do is start a conversation. I know we have a big, serious climate problem, and we should be talking in ways that get us back to where we have a healthy planet.

Warren Johnston can be reached at wjohnston@vnews.com or at 603-727-3216.