By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
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"From the beginning, my belief was we could find partners for everything," Ellison says. "It got to the point where we were growing so fast, the feeling was either we have to accept the fact that we don't get the same quality every time or build a distillery."
The growth has reconstructed Washington Island. The five-acre stand of hard red winter wheat that a pair of farming brothers first planted for Death's Door 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 historic 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.
"There are a lot of folks, particularly in the foodie, artisanal world, who have a different set of values," Schroeder admits. "Their value system is still based on cutting every strawberry with a knife in a certain way. From our perspective, it's all about finding the scale that gives farmers the opportunity to continue farming."
Leslie Schaller, who works with entrepreneurs in the Appalachian region of Ohio, has a client who's making ice treats and beer from indigenous pawpaws, a creamy, mango-like fruit sometimes called a poor man's banana. "He created a whole pawpaw fest, and lobbied so pawpaw is now the state fruit," she says. "Pawpaw was really considered the garbage fruit of Appalachian Ohio. But [now] it's an exotic fruit at Wegman's," the New York grocery chain so adept at sophisticated display that curatorial students tour its aisles when studying exhibit design.
"There's a lot of crazy stuff going on in the back of nowhere," she adds, laughing.
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 passion-fruit jam for diabetic Hispanic immigrants who miss the tropical flavors of Central America. "He doesn't want to get big," Schroeder says. "Passion fruit is his niche. 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 Michigan State University 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.
"If you are a person who has a recipe in your back pocket and $5 in your other pocket, you can come to us," 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 slightly dazed from gratitude. "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.
Matt Jamie of Bourbon Barrel Foods also works with corporations: Woodford Reserve, owned by liquor giant Brown-Forman, last year hired the Louisville soy-sauce maker to develop a sorghum vinaigrette salad dressing with its bourbon. Jamie recognizes that the partnership qualifies him for sellout status in certain artisanal circles. "I want to make a lot of money," he says. "I don't think there's a problem with me remaining an artisan. When a company like Brown-Forman approaches you, it opens doors." Jamie clarifies he didn't have to sacrifice quality for the contract: "I was approached by QVC, and the guy was like, 'We'll make this in China,' and I was like, 'You could, but you can't put my name on it.' These products are my babies. We're selling a super-premium product. I embrace that."