Tag Archives: artisans

The Artisanal Economies Project, entry # 2: The Peacefield Farms interview

This is a clip of an interview of Kaelin Vernon of “Peacefield Farms” with Sam Ford, Grant McCracken and Josh Poling acting as interviewers. The interview was conducted in the second week of March some miles outside of Bowling Green, Kentucky.

We spent several days traveling around the hills of Western Kentucky. The objective was to glimpse various parts of the local artisanal economy. We met Kaelin thanks to his connection to Josh Poling.

There were several questions in play in the interview.

Sam in particular was looking at what he calls the “balance between the logics of the commodity and gift economies. If your customers are buying from you because of the story of your farm, who you are, and how you do things, then it’s decidedly not a transactional relationship. You’re selling to your neighbors. They’re buying from their neighbor.”

You are building on, and building out, a social relationship, but, as Sam puts it, “When you have to translate that relationship back into something transactional, it can be tough to do. You don’t want to overcharge friends. You don’t want things to get awkward with neighbors. And that leads many artisanal businesses to pricing themselves in ways that they barely make a profit.”

Second question: We also saw a version of the topic that showed so strongly in the Olives and Grace interview (posted last Friday). Without a consumer who grasps the artisanal proposition, your pricing is always going to look too high. As Sam puts it, “Pricing depends on people understanding/getting the premium for what you do.”

Sam adds a problem (# 3 in this list, for those using a scorecard) that must haunt every artisanal player: that consumer enthusiasm does not represent a full and lasting conversion, but may prove to be something that’s merely “passing through.” In Sam’s words, “Fad buyers may be attracted to “buying local” but only for the surface of it.”

As a student of American culture, this particularly concerns me. I have seen several deep seated ideas change often and dramatically. American culture has some ideas it treats as ballast. We can’t know at this point whether these will include the artisanal concept. It was be wrong (worse, it would be glib) to assume that they will. And this means we may have a relatively brief window to get the word out, to encourage people to “sign on” to the Artisanal economy in a substantial way. When the fashion changes and some part of it will, many of people who are now loyal Farmer Market’s patrons, will move on.

A fourth question is the “false claim” problem. Sam says, “Consider the story Kaelin tells of big restaurants that buy only a small bit of their product, so that they could list that they “buy local” but so that they could primarily serve product shipped from elsewhere. Consider the story we heard from the guy who runs the dairy farm about the employee at the chain grocery who said, “It’s local from somewhere.””

There is tons of fakery here. And several people we talked to in Kentucky feel this problem intensely. There are no easy answers. Part there are some promising solution. At some point, in these proceedings we will tell the story of farmer’s markets in Bowling Green as a useful case in point.

A fifth question: this interview clip is interesting because it shows one way of solving all of these questions. Kaelin is talking about a conversion. The guy he is working with suddenly grasps what Peacefield farms is about and this comes largely from the “power of the gift” (as we call it in anthropology). It’s when Kaelin gives him a pound of sausage and dozen eggs that the guy makes a reciprocal gesture of his own, and a transaction cash economy falls away. Suddenly, we see gifts in conversation, as it were, and a different relationship, one that helps the relative stranger grasp the point of the artisanal economy and draws him into its sphere.

A sixth issue. Sometimes these private reciprocities come to define the identity of the trading partners. Thus “Peacefield Farms” appears on the wall of Home Cafe, a restaurant in Bowling Green, Kentucky (and, as it happens, a restaurant owned by one of the investigators on the project, Josh Poling). This helps Home Cafe make good on their artisanal proposition, even as it drums up new business for Peacefield Farms.

Sam is right to say that the mutuality of the relationship in the Artisanal Economy can serve to constrain the amount of value the producer can extract. But in this case it also helps them cooperate in the creation of a visibility in the larger community, and this, we can hope, helps everyone, gradually, come to understand the proposition and the need to pay for it. As in, “Oh, I’m supporting a farm!”

Tons more data and more thinking are called for here.

Seventh question. This “marketing” or “profile” piece is a big issue for every individual player and the community as a whole. As Sam puts it, “If you don’t have deep knowledge of talent in marketing/PR/etc., how do you make progress?” One of my Uber drivers on this trip dropped out of his artisanal project precisely because he just couldn’t solve this part of the problem. I don’t mean that he failed to do marketing successfully. I mean, the marketing problem so vexed him, it proved to be his “final straw,” and he dropped out.

Eighth question. And if all of this were not enough to daunt the artisanal player, there is the issue of regulation. As Sam puts it,

“How do you navigate the labyrinth of regulation and services? Kaelin’s story echoed something we heard from throughout. An artisanal business may be run by someone who has great talents/resources at their disposal but not necessarily history with managing all the local governmental and community entities you have to navigate. We heard stories throughout the trip of people confronted with how to get support from “the system” without having much sway to bring to the table, being blindsided by regulations they knew nothing about, etc. (Remember the beer brewer constantly hit with regulations he didn’t know existed, or the dairy farmer trying to deal with the USDA guy from out of state versus the state regulators who get it and are just doing their job.)”

Ok, that will do for now. Enjoy the interview. More to come!

Thank you, Sam, for producing comments at such speed. Apologies for my ham handedness in using them here.

The Artisanal Economies, Entry # 1: the Sofi interview

Yesterday, walking to see friends in Boston’s South End, I stumbled across Olives and Grace

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I am working on a project called The Artisanal Economies. So I had to go in.

Olives and Grace is run by Sofi Madison. It’s been open for 5 years. (See more details here in a Boston Globe article. ) That I should come upon an interview opportunity this rich virtually at random encourages my suspicion that god is an artisan. (It would explain so much.)

Sofi and I spoke for about half an hour and the conversation was far ranging. In the spirit of Jerry Michalski (my favorite anatomizer of conversation), I will extract a couple of points.

1) Artisanal economies are robust in some ways, less so in others. One of the special challenges is “paths to market.” Farmer’s markets are useful. Etsy is super useful. But many artisans struggle to get their work before the public. Target isn’t going to carry it. Malls may be dying but they are for the moment closed to the artisan.

So a place like Sofi’s is a proof of vital concept: specifically that you can make a go (for 5 years no less) of bringing artisanal goods to market and flourish doing it.

2) A second big problem for Artisanal Economies has to do with what Eric Glasgow calls “cheap food.” (This idea may come from another source. I heard it first when interviewing Eric Glasgow of Grey Barn Farms,). The idea here is that consumers are addicted to the cheap prices that industrial economies, producing at scale, make possible. Confronted by the prices charged in the world of the hand made and the small batch, we sometimes balk.

In a sense, solving this problem is precisely what Olives and Grace is for. It is little, inviting, curiosity provoking, engaging. You are drawn in, as if into a children’s book. And you’re then engaged by Sofi in a conversation that moves effortlessly in the direction of anything you might happen to want to talk about. Sofi is there. Drawing you forward, gently shooing you along, helping you find that question you just have to ask. She calls this “intimate retail” and it deserves a study all on its own.

Several things happen in this conversation but one of them is that we begin to see into the history, we might even say the “intentions,” of the objects on the shelves. We begin to see that these things come from someone, that they were crafted to a purpose that begins with “coffee mug” and then scales up to include the lifestyle, the community, the economy, the culture that might be loosely designed artisanal.

Ah, now we get it. That’s why things cost more. That object on the shelf of Wal-mart doesn’t have a story. It was made by a stranger in a factory in Chengdu, shipped across an ocean, and banged around in the distribution system until it just happened to roll to a stop here on a shelf. It doesn’t mean very much because capitalism was so busy giving it value, it forgot to give it meaning.

And that’s what Sofi is for, to gently help you see what the mug means. Yes, we can buy a cheaper mug somewhere. But ,by this standard, cheaper doesn’t feel better, it feels poorer. As if everyone in the production – consumption chain as been diminished by the effort.

So, we could say, if we were rushing to conclusions (and that is what we do here), that retail is not merely the last moment in the distribution chain. It completes the meaning making process. And more to the point, it helps consumers understand and grasp the “artisanal premium” they are required to pay. It’s always true to say “we get what we pay for.” The very point of Olives and Grace is to help us see what we’re paying for. It helps solve the problem of cheap food.

3) Olives and Grace sits in a tiny shop in Boston’s south side, a neighborhood that continues to gentrify at speed. And this is another problem for the artisanal world. The best retail space is only temporarily affordable. A change in the surrounding neighborhood will eventually push us out.

Sofi has a plan for preventing gentrification, and it is a larger version of the education process that happens when you visit her in her shop. With the help of other shop owners, she is trying to tell the artisanal story in a way that makes it clear to people who live in the neighborhood how much value comes from shops like hers, how these shops transform the local style and spirit of neighborhood, and what happens, cue Frank Capra, when the big brand boxes come in. (Reebok has just set up shop down the street and while it is calling itself a collective and trying it’s hardest, people are nervous.)

So Olives and Grace is solving this third problem. Let’s call it the “where do you want to live?” problem. And to put this boldly, and much more bluntly than Sofi ever would, the proposition is this: you moved here because you found the neighborhood charming. But this charm doesn’t happen by accident. If you want this place to remain charming, you know want to do. You want to patronize local shops. And not “patronize” in the diminishing sense, as in dropping by every month or so. No, you want to make Olives and Grace the places you get your olives. Routinely. That’s if you want this neighborhood to be a place you get (some of) your grace. There is a connection.*

That was one of the pleasures of the conversation, listening to Sofi show how all these things things, the artisan, the olives, the coffee mugs, the scented candle I bought Pam, the store itself, the neighborhood, the local economy, American capitalism, all thread together. Pre-artisanal capitalism breaks these all apart. Sofi sees them (says them) whole.

Olives and Grace, and Sofi’s mission, comes down to the child’s art she has taped to the wall. It was done by a local kid who likes to come into the store and look around. She prizes this. Not because it’s good. And not because Wal-marts discourages people from bringing in children’s art. She prizes it because it completes the circle. All that’s hand crafted comes down finally to this thing that’s hand drawn.

More details at olivesandgrace.com

Thanks to Sofi for the impromptu interview.

*  A last point here. Sofi is working with other shop owners, many of whom happen to be women, and there is, she says, a fierce, “mama bear,” intensity to the way they protect their community.. We swept past this topic. I would have liked to have heard more.