By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
"When I started this, I just started playing around," says Anton Nocito, who makes lovage and sarsaparilla soda syrups in Brooklyn. 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. "A lot of people there were baking cakes, but they brought them and sold them. 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. There's a lot of people who don't follow the rules. It's probably a lot of times they don't know better. It's growing so rapidly that a lot of the information that should be out there isn't getting out there quickly enough."
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 award-ceremony presenter Alice Waters, the chef/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 and several Southern cheesemakers. 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. "We feel it's the best situation for our cows. When you're actually farming, when your neighbor is also farming, you know they're not evil because they're spraying herbicides. 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: "It's not just about a high-quality product. It's bigger than that," says McGreger, who worked her family's sweet-potato fields as a girl in Vardaman, Miss. "I feel like wildness is one of our values. Supporting local agriculture. Preserving local land, that's a big part of it. To certain people, the things I'm saying are really political, but they're values my grandfather had, and to him it wasn't political."
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 farms or 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 fancy artisan breads for bed-and-breakfasts in Door County. But he quickly realized there wasn't any money in baked goods. "Frankly, a salesman doesn't go home and say 'I crushed it this week, let's get the good flour.' " 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 whiskey, 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. Death's Door celebrated its grand opening with cocktails and cheese from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.