By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
By Leif Haven
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Kate Conger
By Brian Rinker
By Rachel Swan
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."
According to Schroeder, "in terms of seeing jam save the farm, it's a bit of a stretch," but agricultural activities have become hugely important in economies battered by factory closings.
"Michigan's heritage was built on building cars, and we recognized we had to rethink ourselves as a state," says Matt Birbeck. "We've climbed on board with agriculture. Culturally, we've changed to understand value-added is sexy."
Birbeck moved to Michigan from California, where he says artisans are "more focused on cosmetics. Here, we focus on ingredients. When you talk about 'artisan' in San Francisco, they're talking about craft, whereas here it's taste."
In addition to the Herkners' cherry topping, Birbeck has helped develop and market whitefish filets, cheeses, and venison sausages. Since 2004, MSU's Product Center claims it has officially launched 229 food businesses, creating 917 jobs statewide. Funded by the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station and MSU Extension, it offers growers and home cooks a menu of services, including market research, label design, and financial planning. Last year, more than 250 entrepreneurs signed up. The center has been so successful that this week it's hosting the National Value-Added Conference in Traverse City, near the orchards where the Herkners' cherries grow.
Birbeck says, "I think every state has program like this, but Michigan is really pushing it because it's an area it can do very well."
Doing well for Birbeck is measured in dollars, so he's cut deals with Kroger and Meijer to dedicate shelf space to Michigan artisans. When WDIV, Detroit's NBC affiliate, this month covered the introduction of Kroger's "Pure Michigan" section — "This is huge news," the reporter raved — a marinade-maker stationed alongside the display looked dazed. "It kind of just blew me away to think I have this opportunity to be in such a prestigious store," she said.