By Elise Vider
Outside St. Michael's Church, midway though a July heat wave, Kensington baked.
Inside the church kitchen, the dew point was high and the garlic index was through the roof.
David Siller and Kevin Heaney were in constant motion, chopping mountains of green cabbage, garlic, leeks, carrots and ginger, under pressure to make 200 pounds of Kensington Garli-Kraut in the four hours they had rented the shared kitchen.
The pair pounded the chopped, raw ingredients into large tubs - a bit like churning butter - to encourage the natural fermentation process. Every day or two for the next few weeks, one of them would need to press the tubs before the finished product could be placed in one-pound jars and sold at the growing number of retailers selling Cobblestone Kraut and other artisan foods made in
And, every month. it seems there are more. Even with a recession, newcomers continue to enter the field.
The emergence of this economic micro-sector is being driven by a number of factors, creating "a perfect storm for
One factor is that there are more opportunities than ever to sell artisan food goods at wholesale and retail. In addition to the explosion of the city's restaurant scene -- especially the BYO phenomenon, which encourages young, innovative chefs to open restaurants -- there has been a proliferation of small, specialty grocers that stock local products, including the Fair Food Farmstand at the Reading Terminal Market, Pumpkin Market on South Street, Milk and Honey Market in West Philadelphia, Green Aisle Grocery in South Philly, Almanac in Northern Liberties and the venerable Weavers Way Co-op in Mt. Airy, West Oak Lane and Chestnut Hill. Add to that list a new generation of food trucks serving sophisticated fare and the dozens of farmer's markets and farmstands, with more setting up shop all the time.
There are also more sources for high-quality, local ingredients, many produced organically or using sustainable agricultural techniques. The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) reported last year that the 100-mile "foodshed" surrounding
During the same time period, the average size of the foodshed's farms decreased from 137 acres in 1987 to 114 acres in 2007.
The planning agency cited several factors for the decrease in the size of farms: some are getting smaller through subdivision by sale, inheritance or retirement. But, it also suggests that there are more 'lifestyle' or hobby farms in the foodshed,
(DVRPC also reported that there were 17 farms within
The market for locally grown and made food has also changed because of a seismic shift in the way many consumers think about food and spend their food dollars, a turning away from the highly-processed foods that are the principal product of the nation's giant food-industrial complex.
If there is one word that personifies this new thinking it is "locavore." The 2007 Oxford Word of the Year has only gained currency in the years since. (
But locavore is also a consumer movement, a reaction to the cost and resources involved in shipping food long distances, worries prompted by the outbreaks of food-borne illnesses in recent years and a growing realization that fresh, local, in-season food just tastes better.
Fair Food is a 10-year-old nonprofit whose mission is to promote a humane and sustainable agriculture system in the region by creating and supporting markets for local farmers. Its Reading Terminal Market stand sells fresh, local produce, meat, poultry, dairy, cheeses and eggs. For committed locavores, it's easy to connect the dots between supporting local agriculture by buying
Locally produced "value added" food goods have a potential ripple effect on the local food economy, by creating new products, mostly made with local ingredients. (Value added is an industry term for a product derived from an agricultural commodity that is processed in a way to enhance its value or expand its potential customer base. Examples are jams and preserves, pickles and yogurt.)
Ann Karlen, Fair Food's executive director, sees a direct link between the growing interest in artisanal foods, the commitment to local and the strengthening DIY (Do It Yourself) movement. For the loyal customers at the Farmstand, she says, it's about taste and freshness, nutrition, supporting their community and overall quality of life.
For the small-scale food producers, there is an array of motives -- everything from promoting personal health, to social and political agendas, to finding a livelihood during a time of economic uncertainty With jobs scarce, the recession, it seems, has unleashed an entrepreneurial spirit among young foodies, encouraging them to strike out on their own with small, low-overhead operations.
For Siller and his business partner Ryan Kuck, producing sauerkraut is an extension of their interest in promoting the health benefits of live-culture, naturally fermented foods. Business is steady and they expect to produce 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of Kensington Garli-Kraut and South Philly Jungle Kraut this year for a marginal profit. Still, like many of their fellow entrepreneurs, this is a sideline business.
A purely social agenda is what drives a different sort of
Project Potehtli Pinole is a nonprofit venture with the mission of supporting traditional agriculture in Ozolco, a small Mexican town from which they and many others have immigrated to
"When you don't have corn, you don't have family. When you don't have family, you don't have a village. When you don't have a village, you don't have a country and you don't have history," says
Sales have been brisk since they imported their first shipment of 1,000 pounds of pinole in April, but "the main objective is not to sell cornmeal," says Rocha.
Good thing, because it's a long and uncertain road to profitability for these small food producers. Stephen Horton counsels prospective food entrepreneurs at
The question arises, too, whether
Echoing Michael Pollan and other thinkers on the subject, Karlen points out that processed food in the
DVRPC cites data showing that the
Artisan food made in
GPTMC's Calbeck attributes it to shifting values.
Once, Kensington's Cramp Shipyards launched battleships, the Kensington Iron and Steel Works churned out propellers. The neighborhood's textile mills were said to weave more carpets than the whole of
Tomorrow: How local food makers are trying to overcome the city's many barriers to opening their own operations.