Trading on Terroir: Fostering Artisanal Cheese and Alcohol Production through Specialized Agrarian Industrial Districts

Authors: Stefan Norgaard*, Columbia University, Mariel Collard Arias*, Harvard University
Topics: Agricultural Geography, Food Systems, Urban and Regional Planning
Keywords: Agrarian studies, geographies of food and agriculture, urban-rural inequality, urban-rural linkages, climate, climate disintegration, integrated territorial development, urban bias, public/private arrangements, economic geography, depeasantization/rural dispossession, nationalism, protectionism, global supply chains, international divisions of labor, world ecology
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2020
Start / End Time: 4:40 PM / 5:55 PM
Room: Plaza Court 1, Sheraton, Concourse Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


We introduce and critically engage Specialized Agrarian Industrial Districts (SAIDs), geographically bounded zones that produce distinctive agricultural products, with localized-producer networks and regional inter-firm relations. We define characteristics that animate these zones, and their social/ecological opportunities and pitfalls. We examine the role that public actors—specifically nation-states—and local institutional arrangements play in supporting and enabling SAIDs as counters to global agro-industrial consolidation. Moreover, we consider SAIDs as new spatial sites, or geographical arenas for critical study.

Our investigation examines cheese in the Franche-Comté, France and in Minas-Gerais, Brazil; and alcohol in South Africa’s Western Cape (wine) and Jalisco, Mexico (mezcal). Cheese and alcohol often require artisanal, centuries-old production and storage techniques; their biophysical properties and longstanding cultural traditions explain why SAIDs produce these commodities.

Regulations and specific “denominations of origin” bound SAIDs, protecting them from pernicious, “race-to-the-bottom” globalization. SAIDs relate to land and property systems with long histories (agrarian reform, collective ownership, natural protection, and cultural/touristic heritage) and distinctive “terroir” (physical geographies with climate, topography, and soil central to production).

SAIDs offer regional-development opportunities, negotiated relationships between workers and producers, and quality food. SAIDs cannot be created, but can be fostered where nascent. Yet concerns abound: exclusionary divisions that privilege “insiders” over “outsiders”; informal and exploited labor; nation-states that promote SAIDs at the expense of long-marginalized communities and social justice; and mass producers who deceive consumers by imitating SAIDs’ appeals. Nevertheless, if done right, SAIDs represent an urgently necessary alternative to “cheap food” and a just, sustainable regional-development strategy.

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