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The Artisanal Irony: The Mass-Produced Hand-Crafted Food Dilemma 

Wednesday, Jun 27 2012
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"When I started this, I just started playing around," says Anton Nocito, who makes lovage and sarsaparilla soda syrups in Brooklyn, N.Y. Martha Stewart Weddings last year suggested brides tie tags to P&H Soda Co. bottles and present them as guest favors. "It was literally an illegal market in the basement of a church," Nocito remembers. "I started thinking, 'I need to research how I can do this properly.' I maybe think it's not so cool to be producing out of your apartment that has a cat hanging around."

Of the 130 artisans selected as finalists for last year's Good Food Awards, five were disqualified for violating competition standards. "They weren't able to trace where their ingredients came from," Director Sarah Weiner says. It's unclear whether the scofflaws were so caught up in the artisan craze that they figured there was easy money in a Good Food Awards gold seal (a fundamental misunderstanding of the industry, warns Dafna Kory of San Francisco's Inna Jam: "It's not a get-rich-quick scheme. It's a work-with-no-money scheme"), or if they were genuinely confused by rules governing fungicides and gestation crates. Banking on the latter, Weiner's San Francisco-based group is planning soon to roll out the Good Food Guild, an umbrella organization for the hundreds of unaffiliated artisans who yearly enter the awards competition in the hope of scoring a win and a congratulatory kiss on the cheek from presenter Alice Waters, the chef and owner of Chez Panisse and an acknowledged figurehead of the sustainable-food movement.

"What we're going to do is connect and promote the whole industry," Weiner says. Guild members will be eligible for educational programming and collaborative marketing opportunities, including a massive trade show timed to coincide with the awards celebration.

In drafting its membership criteria, the Guild has been forced to formalize its values, a few of which created regional conflicts when they first popped up in the awards process. "For example, initially we required cheesemakers to certify that organic feed and grass were the only thing their cows were eating," Weiner says. "We received thoughtful objections on this point from the Southern Cheesemakers Guild. It is much harder for them to source organic feed in the South than here in California, though many are using locally grown and certainly pushing the envelope on artisan cheesemaking in the South."

So the word "organic" doesn't appear in the Guild's guiding principles — which are grouped into categories labeled "tasty," "authentic," and "responsible" — but members are still forbidden from using synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, or herbicides, a prohibition which strikes some producers as a California affectation.

"We use conventional pesticides," says Portia McKnight of Chapel Hill Creamery, a 37-acre dairy that's known in North Carolina for its elegant interpretation of Camembert. "They think conventional farming is the enemy, and I don't have that perspective at all. I think anything protecting farms is doing something valuable for our future."

McGreger, who sells alongside McKnight at the Carrboro Farmers Market, agrees: "I feel like wildness is one of our values. Supporting local agriculture. Preserving local land, that's a big part of it."

The Good Food Guild calls upon its members to make food that's "an expression of tradition and culture" and to "use local ingredients whenever possible," but doesn't specifically ask them to agitate on behalf of farmers. Torn between sensuality and advocacy — a tension spotlighted this month when Slow Food USA's president left the organization after enduring harsh criticism from members who didn't think the taste-centric club needed to meddle in food-policy fights — the many artisans who prize stories, vintage glassware, and gray sea salt are siding with the former. But for artisans without a built-in customer base ready to buy anything packaged in a darling burlap sack, the raging interest in high-quality heritage products represents an unparalleled opportunity for agricultural activism.

Brian Ellison, founder of Wisconsin's Death's Door Spirits, is often asked how he decided to work with Washington Island farmers. When he launched his company, there weren't any. "Farming had died off in the 1970s," Ellison says. "Then in 2005, I found two brothers willing to grow five acres of wheat."

According to the original business plan, Ellison would use the wheat's flour to make artisan breads for bed-and-breakfasts in Door County. But he quickly realized there wasn't any money in baked goods. In 2007, Ellison started distilling, and "the success was immediate." Death's Door's current annual production is 250,000 cases of vodka, gin, and whisky, making Ellison the odd artisan who's become too big to outsource. After years of distilling in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the company this month opened Wisconsin's biggest craft distillery.

The growth has reconstructed Washington Island. That five-acre stand of hard red winter wheat has grown to 1,200 acres of organic wheat planted across the island.

"The best way to keep people farming their land is to have them farm it," says Ellison, who pays three times the going rate for wheat, chalking up the added expense as a marketing cost. "You don't need land trusts."

When cheap imports and antismoking campaigns conspired to decimate North Carolina's tobacco industry, the state's farmers were left with badly depreciated tracts of land that wouldn't yield corn or cotton. Joe Schroeder oversees a program that connects farmers with alternate income streams: The Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Project has funded a group of Hmong farmers who are growing bamboo, and Chatham County dairy farmers who've come up with a mozzarella cheesecake.

Schroeder says, "From our perspective, it's all about finding the scale that gives farmers the opportunity to continue farming."

Those projects might not have been possible without the artisan movement, Schroeder says. He points to Felix Vargas, a migrant farmworker who became a citizen and bought land in southwest North Carolina. Vargas is developing a low-sugar passionfruit jam for diabetic Hispanic immigrants who miss the tropical flavors of Central America. "He doesn't want to get big," Schroeder says. "He wants to provide access to the food people were used to back in Mexico."

About The Author

Hanna Raskin

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