Are We Ready for a Craft Economy?

RECENTLY BROOKLYN ARTISAN sent a New York Times article by Adam Davidson about artisanal pickle making and the rebirth of a craft economy  to an old friend writing here as the Skeptic from Boston.

SfB: You bait me… I bite.  Theoretically a craft product is made by hand and involves skill.  I don’t think making a “craft cocktail,” even if the bartender has an untrimmed beard and a stingy brim, requires so much skill that it is worth $12.00.  I recently read about a couple with wheat and gluten allergies  starting a business to package “natural” artisanal wheat-like foods without wheat. Let’s hope they didn’t quit their day jobs to do it.

The economy in Boston is okay but not great, so there are some underemployed smart young people looking for high returns in niche markets. For example, last year there were two recent college graduates at the Cambridgeport Farmers Market locations with a folding table and a set of brochures for organically grown oyster mushrooms, but no mushrooms. The mushrooms were nearing harvest somewhere on Cape Cod, they said, so they were selling impregnated do-it-yourself mushroom logs, but no mushrooms. They showed up for six weeks straight, May to June, and talked to people about their plans, conceived in their dorm room, supported by a business plan and product descriptions, but no mushrooms. Then they disappeared.  The other farmers figured they moved to Brooklyn.

BA: True, many artisanal entrepreneurs here are starting micro businesses for lifestyle reasons – some to supplement their unemployment checks or because their jobs have stagnated in large corporations or they’re selling coffee at Starbucks. They’re frustrated by this economy and trying to create their own jobs. Or they’re the stay-at-home spouse whose child is old enough now for nursery school. They need to make money, they seek some creative satisfactions, they enjoy the sport of a start-up, and they like to feel some control.

Also, they welcome a chance to express their values—very likely they believe in fair trade, organic farming, local foods, reclaimed or sustainable materials, non-polluting and natural ingredients, high quality, and putting their hearts into their work. These ideas are not empty clichés. Many artisanal entrepreneurs are hoping to create soul-satisfying livelihoods. Yoga teaches its disciples to live the change they believe in, to be the change. It’s a very similar impulse.

SfB:  Yada, yada.  I wanted mushrooms, not mushroom marketing.  It is difficult to make really good bread, cheese and pasta. They take years of training and practice. Good bakers take years to “find their own bread.”

Some old Boston-area warehouse and factory buildings have been converted to artists’ workspaces. I visit the Radcliffe and Mudflat pottery shows every year. They are doing okay. Mostly part-timers and hobbyists. It may be quite some time before we see the beginning of a new Arts and Crafts movement with significant impact on the economy.

The Boston Globe has been paying more attention to good food, but we don’t have many centralized specialty markets here. I usually have to drive to Brighton, Watertown or Somerville to check in on the craft food makers. Only the hard cases, like European educated bakers, seem to be making real money.  We have few craft butchers left in the city, but some of the farmers are offering humanely raised, good-quality meats from coolers during the summer months. It is not easy work and they have supply problems because there are not enough small slaughterhouses in Massachusetts anymore. Most of the work is done in N.Y., N.H. and Vermont. Kate from Stillman’s Turkey Farm was thinking aloud last week, about what it would take to open her own small USDA facility: proposals, architectural plans, grant writing and spread sheets. Then finding someone to build the facility, and local workers with slaughterhouse and custom butchering skills. My grandfather was a small butcher in Minnesota because being a butcher was easier than working in the mines. But it is killing work in many ways and my father moved to Detroit to work in factory as soon as he could. I think when people say the word artisanal, they conjure painting and sculpture and poetry. Unless they grew up on a small farm, they don’t know the 12-hour days, the stench or the insecurity of running a nonindustrial food operation. It will take a while to bring it back.

Real craft is taught by journeymen, raised in a craft tradition, to apprentices. If you grow up doing a craft, you are used to it and can sustain it, particularly when you don’t have alternatives. But now we are highly mobile. The families and whole towns which made great hams and sausages, specialty breads and pastries, have vanished, wandered off to easier jobs. Starting new, skilled craft operations is doubly difficult because we don’t have the traditions or the concentration of people with multiple skills that fuel and support a living craft.

BA: Many of these urban artisanal entrepreneurs are working out ways to give community support and market guarantees to the small farms and the sustainable fisheries, to preserve the traditional ways and honor the skills as well as shorten the distribution chain in order to get superior goods. These are serious people.

As for the mushroomers you described: Are they wrong to dream and explore? Perhaps after harvest, they discovered they didn’t enjoy mushrooms, or they landed big-bucks Wall Street jobs, or they moved on to some land of bigger basements with a better mushroom-growing climate. False starts are nothing to be ashamed of.

SfB: I see some hope in the people who are developing new supply chains with the remaining small fishermen and farmers (who are hardly making it). And I am desperate for their products. I want those mushrooms. But there is only a small market for premium-priced, high-quality, true-artisanal products in Boston. Yankees don’t spend money on food or clothes.

And I’m happy the gluten-allergy people are selling alternatives. Some of my friends need to find carbohydrate and dairy substitutes or they will end up like holy anorexics from the Middle Ages. But I don’t know how well that business can scale up.

What fires my skepticism most are the trendy charlatans calling their various products natural, artisanal-life affirming, authentic. Am I to believe in Domino’s artisan pizza? I am looking for skillfully made, anchored-in-a-tradition, sustainable products. I don’t want them over elucidated and over packaged. That does not give me warm feelings of authenticity. So, I worry about the good people of Brooklyn like I worried about the blissed out hippies who occupied San Francisco: This may not end well.

To show you I am not just a cranky old guy talking to an empty chair, I am not blind to Brooklyn restaurant life.  Somehow you guys have managed to attain a critical mass of cooks and epicures. If life is a table you have at least two good legs.

The Skeptic from Boston is expected to be contributing to this team blog from time to time.

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