Introduction

 

Food and
drink in every capacity play a large part in Ireland’s economy, from the farm
inputs to the producing to the processing to the retailing. The various related
industries are grouped under two sectors by policy makers, market researchers
and economists: agri-food and drink and artisan food and drink. The distinction
is necessary because of literal differences in scale: area of land required,
expected output, expected annual turnover, number of employees, size of
distribution network; and more ephemeral aspects that are socially constructed
and relate to conceptions of quality, ethics and ultimately the economic and
social value of the end-product. In the agri-food sector, the industrialization
of agriculture and the concentration of processors and retailers in Ireland
since accession into the European Economic Community in 1973 has standardized the
consistency of the product range, led to vertical integration of certain supply
chains, enabled efficient and profitable food and drink exports in raw and
processed forms to 180 countries globally, and supported specialistion while at
the same time driving the consolidation of land at the expense of the number of
farmers, facilitating extended supply chains that dislocate place of production
from place of consumption, and promoting monocultures that, while economically
efficient, are proven to be detrimental to the health and biodiversity of the
immediate natural environment.

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The artisan
sector includes businesses that make below a certain annual turnover or whom explicitly
identify with labels of distinction such as ‘organic’, ‘speciality’ or
‘farmhouse’, both of which presumes a small-scale enterprise. This is according
to Bord Bia, the Irish state’s food and drink marketing board. The sector when
defined by leading market researcher Mintel seems to encompass more business
types than meet the strict definition of the term laid out by the Food Safety
Authority of Ireland in 2015 (Mintel 2012, 2015, 2017). Rather, the size of the
business as determined by annual turnover seems to be qualification enough for inclusion.

Bord Bia organises a yearly small food market for companies with an annual
turnover of 3.5million or less, 1 million higher than the limit established for
micro-enterprises by the EU Small Business Act 2012.

 

Although
distinct in name and scale, both sectors interpenetrate each other; the artisan
sector often selling through the agri-food retail and distribution chains and
the agri-food sector benefitting from positive imagery of Irish produce
generated by the artisan sector. This paper wishes to ask, are the sectors
distinct in ideology?

 

The current
framework for production in the Irish agri-food sector is on a trajectory for
further centralization, specialization and consolidation under the policy
directive Food Wise 2025 led by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the
Marine. The social, economic and environmental harms embedded within the industrial
food system will grow too, although change-making projects are being proposed
internally such as the environmentally-concerned Bord Bia Origin Green label.  

 

Is the Artisan
sector a preparatory school for future players in the agri-food sector, a blueprint
for an alternative food system or a designation for a multiplicity of food
businesses constantly and individually navigating the boundaries between small
and big, face-to-face and faceless?

 

This paper
is a step towards the addressing of this question. In order to build upon
previous knowledge, a variable that is shared between the two sectors is
selected for study: the concept of business growth. A term that is contested in
the literature, it is proposed that how the business conceives of and operationalizes
business growth locates the business somewhere on an alternative-conventional
continuum (Sage 2003). A constructionist perspective is taken, with both
artisan and growth seen as being socially constructed (Weick 1979). In order to demarcate the extremes
of this continuum, the definition of growth generalizable among leading actors
within the agri-food sector is taken from a review of white papers and grey
literature. It is proposed that the socially constructed morality associated
with the concept of growth is linked with the socially constructed value
associated with the concept of artisan. Insert Action

 

What
follows is a review of the literature concerning labels of difference such as
artisan, traditional, farmhouse and speciality, the alternative food networks,
initiatives and systems and the concept of business growth.

 

Literature Review

 

Alternative to “glocal”

 

In reaction
to the negative externalities of dominant food systems, food initiatives,
businesses and networks have emerged in the Global North that were initially
referred to as ‘alternative’ by a wide-ranging body of literature. Alterity was
expressed in terms of distance from farm to fork (Wallgren 2006), food identity
and relation to place (Sonnino and Marsden 2006; Freidmann and McNair, 2008),
food security and sustainable food systems (Kirwan 2004; , food justice (Hassanein
2003; Delind and Bingen 2008; Hughes 2017) and “a quality turn” (Goodman et
al., 2003). The alternative can be political (Goodman et al, 2011; Sharp
et al. 2015), embodied in the rejection of one
system through the embracing of another. The ‘alternative’ system is typified
by direct contact between producers and consumers, a connection to place and
the preference of small scale production (Goodman et al, 2011; Sonnino 2013),
all aspects that the industrial agri-food system lacks. However, critique of
the binary conceptualisations of alternative vs. conventional has emerged (Sonnino
and Marsden 2005; Feagan, 2007; Rosin and Campbell 2009) since the lived
experience blurs the boundary lines (Erikson 2013). Blundel highlights the
risky but often unavoidable interaction between specialist food businesses and
large retailers, in which the specialist food producer must contend with the
exposure to “buyer power” (Blundel
2002), the failure to do so possibly
resulting in co-option as can been seen from the work of Guthman (2004), Rigby
and Bown (2007) and Tovey
(2009) in relation to the absorption of
the organic food movement and the definition of local into the mainstream. Harris
(2008) explores the potential system-altering effect local food networks can
have beyond their apparent localism. An emerging trend, instead of studying
contrasts, is the study of the local (or alternative) within the global (or
conventional), the ways in which local or alternative practices or values exist
and possibly affect change from within the dominant system (Selfa and Qazi,
2005; Wilson and Whitehead 2012; O’Neill, 2014; Forney
& Häberli 2016).

 

Labels of difference

 

Sage
describes the producers in the Irish Artisan sector (referring to them as
specialist producers) as occupying an “ambiguous position with regard to their
alignment within alternative food networks”, listing certain sales and
labelling practices as areas of ambiguity in terms of ideological position
(Sage, 2003:53-54). Perhaps part of this ambiguity
comes from the term artisan itself and the many meanings provided for it by the
relevant literature.

 

 ‘Artisan’ is a distinction for a type of class
in medieval Europe, higher than a laborer but lower than a merchant,
distinguishable from the lower classes by codes of honor upheld and enforced by
workers guilds (Farr, 2000:4). During the industrial revolution, the honor and
attention to skill was prone to being romanticized and a subject for nostalgia,
fueling a critique of over-mechanisation (Farr, 2000:3). The same industrial
revolution led to the rapid development of new technologies that made the
skills of the artisan unessential, situating them on the margins of the
economy, in opposition to modernity almost to their detriment (Herzfeld, 2003).

After a period of being the provision of historians alone, ‘artisan’ has
re-entered the general lexicon of the global neoliberal society as an attempt
to capture food production and provisioning methods that resembles aspects of
the craftsmanship of the past. Michael and Commins (1999:362) associated
artisan with “…craft, speciality or niche…” when describing small-scale food
enterprises operating in Ireland. For some Irish consumers it indicates luxury
and the realm of occasional treats, for others it is synonymous with
traditional, local, and the human story behind the product (Bord Bia 2015; Bord
Bia 2017).

 

In Europe
certain definitions add a dimension of time to the term, suggesting that
artisan production involves knowledge “…passed down over generations…” that is
“…now in danger of being lost” (School of Artisan Food, 2017). The Food Safety
Authority of Ireland goes one step further, defining a traditional method as
one that has “…proven usage on the domestic market for a period that allows
transmission between generations; this period is to be at least 30 years;”
(FSAI 2012). Less strict, Eldrimner, the national resource center for food craftsmanship
or “mathanverk” in Sweden, places value in the person and their knowledge
“being part of the whole production chain”. Tradition here is seen as a
starting point for further development, not a rigid process (Eldrimner, 2017).

The same sentiment appears in studies of the New Nordic Cuisine, based in
Denmark, who’s goal was to “make tradition the basis for creativity in the
kitchen” (Jonsson, 2012:65). 

 

A similar
‘revival’ of ‘traditional’ skills can be witnessed in North America. The most
recent financial crisis of 2008 is said to have exacerbated the trend (Jakob,
2013; Kapp, 2017) towards what is described as “an artisan-based
economy, which values highly crafted specialized goods and blends old
manufacturing techniques with new digital technologies” (Kapp 2017:1). In this
description, artisan connotes more a sense of heritage as opposed to a specific
process (Russell, 2003), a heritage, in the case of the United States, not
necessarily of specific food production methods but of “entrepreneurial
sensibility” (Paxson 2016). Certain researchers argue
that individuals undertaking to produce food according to ‘artisan’,
‘traditional’ or ‘speciality’ sensibilities are in fact entrepreneurs,
innovative by the very fact of their interest in ‘traditional’ production
techniques that may have been discarded from mainstream usage as out-dated or
perhaps never used at all, as is the case goats cheese in Sweden (Bonow and
Rytkonen, 2012) and ‘fine cheese’ in Quebec (Boulianne, 2012). The artisan as
entrepreneur idea leads the discussion towards a review of entrepreneurship and
growth literature.

 

Conceptions of growth
regarding small businesses

 

Growth as a socially constructed concept – an evolving
metaphor (Journal et al., 2010). Theory base is Penrose 1959 comprehensive theory of the growth of
the firm must explain several qualitatively different kinds of growth and must
take into account not only the sequence of changes created by a firm’s own
activities but also the effect of changes that are external to the firm and lie
beyond its control. –
internal development increase in amount.

 

The study of growth corresponds
with the renewed scholarly attention on micro, small and medium-sized
enterprises after the clear indication of the importance of such firms in the general
economy: 99.8% non-financial business enterprises in the EU were SMEs in 2014 (Eurostat,
2017). Small business creation through entrepreneurship has been seen as the
means of rebooting the economy after the 2008 financial crash, “providing a powerful
driver of economic growth and job creation” (Department of Finance, 2012:3). The
entrepreneur starts small, supported by the small business act, an act inspired
by “our potential to build on the growth and innovation of SMEs.” (SBA, 2008:).

The concept of the entrepreneur was first proposed by Schumpeter in 1934 as
someone who performs new combinations of materials that they have not
necessarily created (Munier, 2013). However, the SME sector is populated by
diverse business types ranging from family firms to social enterprises and the
SBA has been criticised for being too homogenous in its assessments of needs
(EESC, 2015).

 

While the entrepreneur is
associated with growth (Davidsson et al., 2006), the high-growth start-up is in
fact an abnormality in the case of micro and small businesses. A gap in the
literature exists around businesses born to stay small (Kolveried ,1992), that
remain in the embryonic stage (Van de Ven and Poole, 1995)