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

Wednesday, Jun 27 2012
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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.

Birbeck has little patience for the quaint and quirky. "When we can help a farmer, when we can help people who have lost their jobs, that's what I do," he says.

At Big Spoon Roasters in Durham, N.C., Mark Overbay, a veteran of the fair-trade coffee business, makes every batch of his locally sourced nut butters by hand. "I literally scoop the nuts by hand, and spoon the butter into every jar with a tablespoon," he says. A lifelong peanut-butter eater, Overbay was inspired to start Big Spoon by the ground-nut harvests he witnessed as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zimbabwe in 1999. "They would shell them and roast them in big pans, or, in one case, over the hood of a car," he says. "People would bring containers or banana leaves, just whatever they had to take it back in. It was one of the most delicious things I've ever had in my life. It was a completely different food experience."

Yet it's one which Overbay believes can survive upsizing. "With a smallish nut roaster, I would increase my capacity by 1,000 percent, and then I would simply have to find a larger grinder and maybe a couple of stand mixers," he muses. But he's thinking even bigger, because his passion for the exemplary flavors of great nut butter is matched by his passion for reinvigorating peanut farming in the South.

"If I want organic peanuts, the closest place I can get them is New Mexico," Overbay says. "There's nothing wrong with New Mexico, but as someone who believes in supporting North Carolina, I made the decision early on to buy North Carolina peanuts. I want to grow our business so we can be a positive market force for sustainable agriculture in the Southern peanut sector. I believe — and I don't think this is a pipe dream — there can be sustainable, organic peanut agriculture in the Southeast. I want Big Spoon to be an advocate for that."

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Hanna Raskin

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