Faculty spotlights

Faculty spotlight: Chris Saladino researches the local "craft" economy

October 17, 2018

Chris Saladino and Mitchell Smiley enjoying a craft beverage
Saladino, left, and Smiley will be presenting their research at the upcoming 2019 Midwest Political Science Association annual conference in April. Their relationship began when Smiley was an undergraduate in one of Saladino’s classes and morphed into a mentorship and later a friendship.

When Professor Chris Saladino took a day trip to RM Felts Packing Co. to pick up some “amazing” ham and bacon in Ivor, Va. a few years back, he had no idea it would lead to a series of conference presentations, news interviews and a possible book chapter. But so far that’s exactly what has happened.

As he walked into Felts Packing he noticed thousands of pounds of hams in salt cures in the curing room, along with young men in white coats and hard hats getting ready to clear the hams out of the curing room and into the smokehouse nearby. Not far from them were hogs. But it turned out the hogs that caught Saladino’s eye were not local hogs as he had assumed. No, the elder Mr. Felts explained, the nearby hogs were Chinese hogs, imported from halfway across the globe, and owned by Smithfield’s, hardly the small artisan shops Saladino had grown interested in. When asked the obvious follow-up question, as to where Felts got their hogs, Mr. Felts replied, “Canada—these are NAFTA pigs!”

In that moment a research agenda was born. Along with VCU Political Science alum Mitchell Smiley (Class of 2008), Saladino began by investigating new trends in consumption as they related to long-existing artisanal food and beverage producers. They noticed that not only were the new, trendy, and often expensive, consumer habits capitalizing on the cuisine of the American South, a region itself with limited options for nutritional foods, in what are often referred to as “food deserts,” but that this emerging “craft economy” growing out of those less prosperous cities, towns and districts were driving economic development in a way that defied the standard, expert rational and logic offered as explanations for poor performance in those areas.

Noting the deficiency in those prior ideas and arguments, Saladino and Smiley developed what they’re calling a “craft economic development” model that shows how these industries are very different from previous and more corporate attempts to revitalize these communities. One of the most compelling variables in their model is the “communitarian” appeal of these craft economies. That is, industries that were previously rejected or discounted from opening up shops in those areas, and were therefore not contributing jobs, taxes and other developing outcomes to the region, were now being approved by both the communities and their political leaders because there was suddenly something different about them. The difference, they suggest, is that these new producers were “craft” producers, and craft production was not only more appealing to local populations due, perhaps, to an “everything is new” nostalgia, but also because of their success creating sustainable development in those local communities.

So what do Saladino and Smiley mean by “craft” production? “We maintain that making America great AGAIN should be a nod to craft: doing it the way it used to be done...as opposed to pushing workers back into mines and factories. Craft industries rely on an number of key variables. Local ownership and participation versus corporate outposts, the repurposing and adaptation of existing real estate and infrastructure to fit new production (particularly in largely declining industrial neighborhoods and cities,) a more equitable and personal relationship between ownership and labor, the idea that producing goods using local raw materials and labor produces a 'better' and still sustainable and viable good, and finally a strong nod to tradition in terms of recipe, production, marketing, etc. ALL are essential components of 'craft,'” says Saladino.

Their research looks at a variety of local Virginian craft barbeque, aquacultural and beverage economies, including pork, oysters, beers, ciders and whiskeys, and involves travel throughout Virginia and nearby states (like North Carolina and Kentucky) in order to interview brewers, pit masters, aquaculturists and distillers, as well as industry staff and policy makers.

Professor Saladino’s research has been featured in a recent story published by the Virginia Mercury online, thereby continuing the Department of Political Science’s mission to extend our expertise outside of the walls of VCU’s campus by engaging in public scholarship that can make a difference to urban and rural communities in our state.

Saladino and Smiley will be presenting their research at the upcoming 2019 Midwest Political Science Association annual conference in April. Their relationship began when Smiley was an undergraduate in one of Saladino’s classes and morphed into a mentorship and later a friendship. Smiley has recently entered into the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs’ Master’s of Public Administration program. Together, their research agenda has the potential to inform Virginia’s political economy in rich and meaningful ways.