By LANCE GAY
Scripps Howard News Service
November 28, 2005
Once a niche market involving local foodie enthusiasts rebelling against factory farming and the one-taste-fits-all approach of America's giant food manufacturers, handmade or artisanal food is booming.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says it's providing the one bright spot for saving family farms and rural life in the midst of the industrialization of America's agriculture. From 1974 to 2002, USDA statistics show that the number of corporate-owned U.S. farms increased by more than 46 percent. But the number of small farms - those 10 to 49 acres - also increased from 379,000 to 564,000.
What's driving the revival of many family farms is the organic movement - today the fastest-growing segment of America's food industry and a $14 billion market. The explosive growth of the organic business has prompted big food manufacturers to launch their own organic brands and also to pressure Congress this year to water down some strict USDA organic rules so their products can carry the green "organic" label that some shoppers demand.
"People are looking for something good and different. There's a nostalgia for the tastes of something people used to eat," said Malachy Duffy, a New York-based food writer. Duffy said he's seen the interest in local foods at the Union Square market near his home in New York, where both the number of customers and the number of products have exploded in the last 15 years he's lived there.
"We've seen a growth of interest in food produced in a traditional way," he said. Duffy said the artisanal food movement has also brought about a revival of the quirky tastes of heirloom varieties of produce that industrial farms abandoned because they bruise too easily or don't ship well.
Duffy, who is a judge in this year's Gallo Family Vineyards Gold Medal Awards for the best artisanal foods in the nation, said he's impressed by the quality of the homemade products coming from small kitchens and small farms. "The best cheeses can hold their own against anything that I've seen overseas,'' he said.
Artisanal products aim to be everything that industrial products are not. While industrial processors look for consistent year-round taste, the tastes of artisanal food vary from season to season - richer during the harvest when animals are fat from grazing on pastures and bitterer in the winter. Some artisanal products appear on the shelves only when they are in season and won't be found in the winter or spring.
The homemade products traditionally have been found in farmers markets, but the organic supermarket chain Whole Foods combs farmers markets for cheeses, hand-cured salamis, fig spreads, jams and other products they can sell in their stores.
Cathy Strange, a buyer of artisanal products for Whole Foods, said the chain's philosophy is to encourage small, local producers - even those making small quantities to meet only regional demands.
"We have a cheese in North Carolina that's only in three stores," she said.
Local production varies from region to region, with many producers in California and fewer in Texas.
Strange said people produce food with a lot of passion, but often without the knowledge of how to market or distribute what they have. She said customers' tastes also are becoming more discriminating, and while Whole Food shoppers used to buy products just because they were produced organically, today they are looking more for taste and quality.
"They are very high in quality, and the flavors are district and very unique," she said.
David Gremmels of Rogue Creamery in Oregon said the key to understanding artisanal products is that they are handmade, frequently relying on time-honored techniques. "We're true to our heritage of making fine artisan cheeses - we use our hands in the process, and we have an apprenticeship program. We are dedicated to the Old World art of making cheese with our hands," Gremmels said.
Rogue Creamery produces about 200,000 pounds of cheese a year, including Rogue Blue, a Roquefort-like cheese made from dairy milk that has won several international awards, including a 2003 "Best Blue Cheese" award at a London competition. The 41 employees at the Central Point, Ore., plant also produce Oregonzola, an Americanized version of the Italian gorgonzola and cheddars.
Gremmels said one of the differences of his cheeses and those produced by large manufacturers like Kraft is that his products will vary in taste.
"The beautiful thing is the seasonal differences in our cheese. Our spring milk tastes different than our fall milk, and that gives a different flavor. And that's the wonderful thing about artisanal food is that there is a difference in flavors," he said. "The solids and butterfat are highest in the fall."
Gremmels and his partner got into the cheese-making business in 2002 while scouting for a place to open a wine bar, and instead bought Rogue Creamery from the son of the founder. "It's not about romance, it's about work and more work and more work,'' he said. "It's work that you are passionate with."
Across the country in Vermont, Peter Mohr of Grafton Village Cheddar said part of his company's success is being in the right place at the right time when artisanal foods developed their market.
Grafton Cheese's 18 employees made 1.5 million pounds of cheddar last year, all by hand using unpasteurized milk from a herd of Jersey cows.
The Jersey cow produces less milk than the Hereford, and so isn't favored by dairy farmers looking for high-volume producers. But the Jersey's milk is higher in fats and produces a rich and flavorful cheese, which is aged longer than most sold on the market. He said Grafton Village has developed techniques for aging cheddar for five or six years, which has gained interest from England where cheddar originated.
"It's high quality, better than you get in Europe," he said.
Grafton Cheese is owned by the Windham Foundation, a nonprofit organization created to preserve the village of Grafton, pop. 600. "We do one thing, and we do it the best that we can," he said.
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