Date of Award

2014

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)

Department

Food Systems

First Advisor

Amy B Trubek

Second Advisor

Christopher J Koliba

Abstract

Vermont is widely-regarded as a hub for artisan cheese production, with more cheesemakers per capita than any other US state. Despite significant local and statewide support, out-of-state markets are essential to the long-term success of these small-scale producers. In spatially extended supply chains, retailers occupy a pivotal position. This thesis aims to examine the intermediary role of retailers in building social networks between producers and consumers. Consumers appreciate Vermont artisan cheese, in part, because it is embedded in a complex network of social values and relations related to where and how it is produced. Guided by social theories of consumption, sensory experience, and exchange, a transdisciplinary, mixed-methods study was conducted in order to better understand cheese retailers' role in this network.

First, participant observation and ethnographic interviews at a specialty cheese shop demonstrated how highly specialized cheese retail professionals (known as a cheesemongers) communicate social information about Vermont artisan cheese to consumers in practice. Specialized narratives are transmitted to consumers through in-store signage and social interactions. These stories also involve the cheesemonger as traveler, developing specialized knowledge of Vermont artisan cheese by traveling to the place of production. A second site of participant observation at a national conference for artisan cheese professionals added breadth to the study. While cheesemongers appear to agree that a certain level of intrinsic quality is necessary for consumer acceptance and preference, many also see the importance of, and derive pleasure from, knowing and conveying the social story, and perceive this to be an important part of their professional role and identity.

Second, social network analysis provided a broader examination of relationships between Vermont artisan cheesemakers and retailers in the region. In order to collect data on these relationships, an online survey was distributed to Vermont artisan cheesemakers and follow-up phone calls were conducted. A combination of statistical and network analyses was used to visualize the social structure of the network, identify key actors, and examine qualities of the relationships. The findings suggest that the social network for Vermont artisan cheese is a multiplex system, in which a cheesemaker's relative position in the network is the result of a complex balance--and sometimes compromise--between a cheesemaker's needs, goals, and desires and their various retailers' needs, goals, and desires. Moreover, geographic proximity, time, experience, convenience, cost, history, loyalty, and regard all appear to be important factors in the type of relationship cheesemakers have with retailers, and whether a relationship is established at all.

Language

English

Number of Pages

208