Story by Kelley Hamill | Photos by Tory Germann
In a region where farmland produces more rocks than crops, one man is helping farmers give the phrase “farm-to-table” a whole new meaning.
Gerald Corteau grew up in Groton. Surrounded by the sprawling stonewalls that cover much of New England’s countryside, he spent summers working for his family’s stone dealing business.
Stonework was in his blood and his backyard, but Corteau didn’t see the inside of a fieldstone until his early 20s while visiting family in New York. At the time, he was working as a consultant. What he saw sparked a career change.
Inside the seemingly simple rock, lurked a work of art forged by nature and time — an incredible variety of patterns, from regular forms and straight lines to curves and waves.
Through a tireless process of trial-and-error, Corteau taught himself the art of stonework without any formal training. Eventually he partnered with a local farm in New Hampshire, called the Ugly Udder. With the skill honed and the supply acquired, American Stonecraft was born.
But Corteau’s business is doing more than just producing beautifully handcrafted tableware. It’s a company with an important social mission.
In New England, there are many difficulties facing small family-owned farms.
“It’s tough to compete with commodity corn from the Midwest because we just don’t have the scale,” explains Corteau. “Those are 2,000 to 3,000-acre farms and most New England farms are four acres, or 10 acres, or maybe 30.”
Farms find it necessary to specialize in certain commodities in addition to fresh produce in order to survive and to keep people coming back.
American Stonecraft looks for farms not only to supply rocks, but with which it can forge an active partnership. Instead of paying the commodity price for the rocks, Corteau offers the partnered farms merchandise that it can sell. In this way, the farms can add to their business.
“It’s kind of like thinking of it as seed corn and we hope that they plant the seed. We give it to them and hope they sell it and they call us once they’ve tried it,” Corteau said. “It’s like a no-risk offer.”
After the freeze-thaw of every New England winter, field stones push their way through the soil and farmers have to clear the land before planting. Over the years, machinery has made the process of gathering and moving stones easier. But at one time, it was a laborious process done entirely by hand. The stones were stacked into walls, and, according to Corteau, there are now more miles of stonewalls in New England than there are miles from the earth to the moon.
Every stone is handpicked from farms and cut and polished in Corteau’s Lowell studio. Using custom-made diamond hand tools to slice and sculpt, American Stonecraft churns out unique food serving slabs, bowls and coasters. Each piece is then labeled with the farm from which the stone originated, and a web address that leads the buyer to a slideshow of the particular farm.
“We tell stories about cool farms, we support working farmers, and we help provide an extra source of income,” says Corteau. “
By providing farms with another commodity to sell, Corteau hopes American Stonecraft can also help in reducing the number of farmers who need to sell off pieces of their land to survive.
Since launching his business five years ago, Corteau now works with a team of six artisans and services more than fifty farms throughout New England and New York. American Stonecraft has also made shipments to 500 stores around the country, in every state but Alaska.
“I think of us as a lot of software companies think of themselves — as a startup,” Corteau said. “You put out the best product you can put out, you try it and see how it goes, and you then keep iterating.”
His products can be found in a wide variety of places ranging from small country stores, art galleries, and, soon, even Rodeo Drive. In late July, a small permanent kiosk will open in Boston’s first public market since the 1800s.
Until then, Corteau can be found out in the field searching for more stories just waiting to be unearthed.
“It’s cool to tell that story about why stonewalls are important, why they’re worth celebrating, why they’re worth preserving and really taking pride in.”
Learn more about American Stonecraft at americanstonecraft.com