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My Vision of Terroir

  • Mateo Kehler

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  • Mateo Kehler
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Corps de l’article

In the classical sense, terroir is the expression of an economy rooted in a landscape, not imposed on a landscape. And while this may seem simple, it is important to remember that economies are never simple; they are social constructions, the result of historical and political processes. For at least a generation now the political economy of food and agriculture in the United States has militated against the local consumption of local production. Instead, our agricultural policy subsidizes the overproduction of commodities and the industrial production of cheap processed foods sold to us by global brands that are divorced from locality. The resulting cuisine is homogenous from coast to coast, and cheap, as the externalities associated with its production have not been accounted for. As we seek to re-establish our local foodways against the backdrop of global commodity agriculture, we should keep in mind that our social and political history is not likely to yield a local food system that is simple, cohesive or uniform. It is clear that terroir is much more than the particulars of soil, climate and geography, of which every landscape has its own variation; it is the marriage of the particulars of soil, climate and geography with social and cultural traditions resulting in distinctive agricultural production and a distinctive local cuisine.

Vermont’s idealized landscape—with its patchwork of forest and farmland, its rugged independent Yankee farmers and loggers, and its rich cultural history and agricultural traditions—is fading away in most parts of the state in the shift toward a more conventional form of development: box stores, suburban sprawl and second homes encroach and fracture the idyllic landscape captured in postcards and calendars on the shelves of Vermont’s historic general stores. But while convention might suggest that development is the highest and best use of the land, something else is happening in the Vermont countryside: there are more farms and more Vermonters earning their living from agriculture today than there were 10 years ago. In spite of the homogenization of American consumer culture, in Vermont we are experiencing a shift in our cultural landscape, as a new generation finds their place within it and redefines what it means to farm in Vermont.

As the American economy moves away from more traditional forms of agriculture and globalized markets place downward pressure on the dairy and forestry industries, the impact on the landscape is palpable, yet Vermont leads the nation in its transition toward a more sustainable food system. Farmers’ markets are thriving, organic farms are prospering, farmers are exploiting niches and producing everything from cheese and garlic to pastured poultry and grass-fed meat. All these elements are converging as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is adopted at an exponential rate by Vermonters seeking alternatives to the industrial food system, whose failings have been so well publicized over the past months. We are in a time of transition and opportunity, and food and agriculture has become a lightning rod for a great societal debate on sustainability.

Yet there are major challenges remaining, and it is unclear whether or not this social upheaval which has led so many to “vote with their forks” will lead us to define our terroir in a classical sense, one requiring the legislation of collective production and typicity. The terroir of continental Europe was born out of the collective production of cheeses, grapes, meats, and grains, crops that adapted to the land over generations, and was legislated as a means of collective survival and social reproduction. As independent Yankee farmers, we do not necessarily have the same incentives to collaborate and succeed collectively, as the nature of our production is geared toward a market whose primary axis remains outside our local communities, and our cultural heritage is one of competition. Yet in understanding our own history, we become the architects of our future, and it is in this time of transition and economic change that we have the opportunity to redefine the way we live and therefore how we eat.

It took us a couple of generations to lose our connection with the land, and it will take a few generations to rebuild that connection. And while it may not be clear from here what our cultural and working landscape might look like in a generation, at least we understand its value, the consequences of what we’ve lost, and the enduring power of an economy rooted in a landscape.

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