It's a cool, sunny weekday morning on a small plot of land that, just months ago, transformed from a fallow field to an organic farm with lofty ideals and exciting goals.
Nestled within the city limits, minutes from shopping centers and freeways, Feeding Crane Farms could soon play a role in elevating Sacramento's culinary reputation.
This farm with a handful of employees and, for now, 10 acres in use (with a total of 89 acres certified organic), is important for several reasons.
Its location: It's a short drive from downtown restaurants.
Its history: The vegetables grow on land left fallow for years, making it relatively easy to have it certified as organic. That's a crucial component for selling produce to the most discerning customers.
Its vision: This farm focuses on growing food for restaurants, meaning it is not uncommon to have chefs visit the grounds, inspect the crops and draft a wish list of items they would like tailored for their particular kitchens.
If the latter sounds a lot like what's done at some of the world's great restaurants, such as the French Laundry in Yountville or Meadowood in St. Helena, that's what makes Feeding Cranes' potential so compelling.
Imagine the area's top chefs with customized plots of up to a quarter-acre, with produce grown specifically for their needs, whether it's carrots of a certain size, greens that are buttery or bitter, or uncommon heirloom vegetables that can transform a recipe and distinguish a restaurant.
Feeding Crane Farms, which launched in November, is the dream of Brian Shaad, who is using land that has been in his family for 50 years. It's the kind of high-minded business model that represents the rebirth of the family farm. Some hope it will reclaim the standards for ethics, sustainability and quality that massive factory farms have watered down through the decades.
The farm is growing plenty, including spinach, arugula, rainbow chard, carrots, Tokyo turnips, French breakfast radishes, pea shoots, sunflower shoots and edible flowers.
Feeding Crane's customer list continues to grow. One of the first to sign up was Michelangelo's, the popular midtown Italian spot on I Street. Owner Lauren Barton learned of the farm when Shaad came in for dinner.
"He is very passionate about food in general and he has the business acumen to fully realize his vision," Barton said. "His business model appeals to us. It is based on honesty and simplicity. We prefer to do business within the local community and we are happiest when there is sufficient mutual trust to do business on a handshake."
She added, "Brian's vision and his passion have helped push us to create new and exciting specials featuring the produce we get from Feeding Crane Farms."
The farm also scored a major coup when it began selling to the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, which boasts the largest organic produce department in the United States.
"I'm really excited about it," said Kerri Williams, the Co-op's produce manager. "The salad mix they are doing is really amazing. It's very unique, with a lot of heirloom varieties. I've never seen curly red mustard in a mix before."
If it's hard to get an organic produce manager jazzed about leafy greens, imagine the challenge of winning over chefs. They want flavor, color and freshness, and they're seeking produce no one else is using.
David English at Press Bistro likes his carrots to be a touch larger because his kitchen peels and trims them before cooking. He's also using green garlic, pea shoots, a mix of greens for salads and, as the chef puts it, "They've just been bringing us stuff and we'll use it. Their product has been outstanding."
Feeding Crane is not the only local high-end purveyor. Places like Jubilee Farm, which has been raising coveted Berkshire pigs just outside Sacramento since 2009, are leading the cause for honest, wholesome food without the dark side.
Critics have argued that these farms are too small and too few to make much of a dent in the broader marketplace. But that's not what this is about.
"We believe there is a right way to do it," said Shannin Stein, general manager at Feeding Crane Farms, as she stood next to a row of leafy rainbow chard. "And we believe there is a way to change how we view Sacramento as a culinary city."
In the distance, Antonio Garza, known to his co- workers as "the plant whisperer," crouches over a crop of lettuces, using his harvest knife to slice them near the base. The motion is smooth, swift and practically elegant, like a violinist with his bow. He's the farmer who seems to tend his crops with equal parts science and soulfulness.
Components of flavor
Garza says small specialty farms are able to focus on flavor and quality rather than convenience. Asked why some fruits and vegetables found in grocery stores seem so bland, Garza said, "The first step is getting the right varieties for flavor. If they're bred for shipability or long storage, those aren't going to have as much taste.
"You also have to get things in season. A peach in the winter isn't going to have the same flavor as a summer peach. Same with tomatoes."
Garza grew up in Texas, earned a literature degree on the East Coast and, yearning to free himself from anything involving a computer, found his true calling outdoors growing fruits and vegetables.
Several weeks ago, he and other Feeding Crane employees dined at Lounge ON20. They tasted in new ways much of the produce the farm supplied the restaurant, which at the time featured modernist cuisine with artistic flourishes, all within a farm-to-table mindset.
"It made me feel great," Garza said of the dinner. "I feel like what I do is, in a sense, an art. To see them take it to another level and bring out the beauty of the vegetables the colors and the textures is both a great opportunity and an honor."
In one of those awkward instances of timing, during the reporting of this story Lounge ON20 abruptly scaled back its fine-dining plans to focus on its bar and night-life business, laying off chefs Pajo Bruich and Mike Ward in the process. Nevertheless, both chefs are admirers of Feeding Crane and see big things ahead for the farm.
Ward said quality produce means more flavor and better textures, no matter the preparation classical or modernist. He described the radishes and salad greens delivered to the restaurant as "magical."
Natural, unadorned taste
At the farm, the employees are so sure of their product that they offer a visitor samples without any cooking, seasoning or salad dressing. The flavors are vivid and complex, even the unadorned greens. The flavors of the red curly mustard, for instance, hit the palate with broad earthy notes, then a focused spicy heat and just the right balance of bitterness on the finish.
That's the kind of "wow factor" chefs at top restaurants seek, whether for a salad, a side dish or as part of a braise.
"It's extremely important. If your product is awesome, you've already won," said Ward, who before Lounge ON20 was the chef at Slocum House, and before that cooked at the Michelin two-star restaurant Picholine in New York City.
"I see Feeding Crane reminding Sacramento what we are capable of. These guys know what they're doing. They're pros, and they're going to be able to create some really cool niche-y stuff."
It's no secret that Sacramento is already in the throes of an agricultural bounty, with respected organic growers like Ray Yeung, Del Rio Botanical, Full Belly Farm and Soil Born Farm. Beyond that, there is the highly regarded wholesale distributor, Produce Express, which deals with scores of small farms and then supplies produce to the area's best restaurants.
Feeding Crane is taking the farm-to-table concept even closer to the table they plant, they grow, they harvest, they deliver, with plenty of interaction with restaurants throughout the process.
While the farm's focus is restaurants, it also wants to introduce the general public to its produce. Feeding Crane has started accepting retail subscribers for $25 community supported agriculture boxes, which will be delivered through a distribution site in midtown. The contents will change with the seasons.
Feeding Crane also is planning on-site farm-to- table food events open to the public. Restaurants like Michelangelo's have already signed up to be involved. For more information about the CSA boxes and coming events, contact the farm: info@feedingcranefarms. com or (916) 698-5171.