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  • Manny Crisostomo / mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

    A farm bill being pushed in the House of Representatives by some of California's lawmakers would eliminate traditional crop subsidies and also provide the state's farmer with stability, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, said.

  • Manny Crisostomo / mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

    Lucky is nearly lost among Brussels sprout plants in another field at Ryan Casey's 30-acre certified organic farm near Pescadero, south of San Francisco.

  • Manny Crisostomo / mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

    Organic farmer Ryan Casey sorts tomatoes at his Blue House Farm near Pescadero. Running the farm is grueling work that requires him to be everything from a marketer to a mender of broken farm equipment. "Despite the challenges, I believe there's never been a better time to be a new farmer," he says.

  • Susan Sward

The Conversation: Small farms harvest hope

Published: Sunday, Sep. 23, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1E
Last Modified: Tuesday, May. 14, 2013 - 2:30 pm

Join the Conversation: How important is it to you to eat locally grown produce, or does it matter? To comment go to sacbee.com/sendletter or go to our Facebook page.

ESCADERO – The farmer maneuvers his tractor through the field of rainbow chard, heading toward the weather-beaten barn late on a summer afternoon. Behind him, framed against a slate-gray sky, is a ridge covered with Douglas fir and redwoods. Near the barn the farmer's sheepdog, Lucky, lounges in the dirt after greeting me with an enthusiastic bout of tail wagging.

There is a timeless feel to Blue House Farm and its fields – a sense that the place might have looked much the same more than a century ago when settlers first cleared the land for farming in this small, coastal valley inland from the town of Pescadero.

But the sort of farming practiced by Ryan Casey is not from a bygone era. In 2005, the University of California, Santa Cruz, graduate and a friend leased four acres of land. From a six-month UCSC postgraduate course on farming and gardening, and from work on other farms, Casey already knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to be an organic farmer.

Today Casey, who grew up far from any farmland in a suburb of San Diego, leases 30 acres spread over four fields 45 miles south of San Francisco, and he runs one of California's 2,518 certified organic farms. The blue house from which the farm got its name is on property that he no longer leases, and his friend has left the business, but Casey, 35, has seen his operation flourish.

To my eye, Casey's farming operation demonstrates a phenomenon far broader than the land he tills and the hundreds of customers who buy his Blue House Farm produce and flowers: His success shows how, increasingly, a market exists in which customers – at home and in the restaurants they frequent – are seeking produce that tastes good. They are not accepting the idea that farmers need to pick crops green so the product can withstand the time it takes to get to market, and the bumps and bangs of the distribution system that can do considerable damage to ripe fruits and vegetables.

Instead of being mad that grocery store tomatoes often taste like you are eating one of your shoes, people can show their preference by purchasing produce at the ever-increasing number of farmers markets and restaurants that give the customer tasty produce and enable the farmer to take home the profit rather than see it shrunken by the cut taken by middlemen and grocery stores.

All that is enormously important to me. Beyond those benefits, too, when I talk to the experts who monitor this phenomenon, I find something else that means a great deal to me: I hear that this evolving desire for fresh, local, healthy food has been an enormous boon to small farmers, who struggle to survive. This development addresses a fear I have long harbored: Throughout my years of getaway trips driving the rural roads of California, I have gazed at the farmhouses and barns on small plots of land and worried that they might soon vanish as agriculture grows more corporate. Now there is hope.

At Blue House Farm, Casey has nine full-time employees and grows 100 different vegetables. He sells his organic produce and cut flowers at eight farmers markets in Northern California and each week delivers boxed produce to 200 families – most of them in San Mateo County, San Francisco and the East Bay.

It is grueling work requiring Casey to be everything from a savvy marketer to a mender of broken farm equipment.

"Despite the challenges," he said, "I believe there's never been a better time to be a new farmer focusing on high-quality, locally grown organic food."

To me, Casey is the embodiment of what is broadly termed the farm-to-table movement, which embraces locally grown produce, eggs and meat, direct purchases from farmers and the importance of eating healthy food coming from a source you can identify – preferably a nearby farm or one in your region.

Just four decades ago, I never would have thought this movement possible. In that era I covered the Legislature, and organic agriculture was very much a fringe phenomenon. The state would not even legalize farmers markets until Gov. Jerry Brown and his administration made that happen in the late 1970s.

Numbers tell the story. Today, there are more than 7,800 certified farmers markets in the country, and California leads other states with 827. According to the Organic Trade Association, U.S. organic sales are up from $1 billion in 1990 to $31 billion last year, and the Organic Farm Research Foundation says a decade ago there were 1,443 certified organic farms in California compared with the 2,500-plus today.

The roots of the farm-to-table movement stretch back decades.

"Think back to 1980 when idealistic people came out of the environmental movement – some of them farmers, community people, chefs, writers, produce distributors, nonprofit organizations – and they played a big role in developing the nation's consciousness about food and agriculture," said Judith Redmond, one of the owners of the organic Full Belly Farm in the Capay Valley northwest of Sacramento.

"It wasn't just one group trying to get this message across, and that is why it is fair to call it a movement," Redmond said. "It has become a real national conversation about food and agriculture and how they relate to the environment and community development."

Since its founding on 120 acres in 1985, Full Belly Farm has grown to a 350-acre venture providing produce deliveries for 1,200 families each week and also selling to restaurants, stores and – at the height of the season – to wholesale producers as well.

Another farm in the valley, Capay Organic, delivers its produce boxes to 25,000 families each week. A young couple began growing crops in 1976 on 20 acres; today the farm has 450 acres in Yolo County along with 150 acres in Southern California, and it is producing 150 varieties of fruits and vegetables.

Thad Barsotti, one of the couple's sons, said that from the beginning his family "always has grown whatever we thought we could sell, and that was always dictated by what the table asked us. I define 'the table' as people in restaurants, farmers markets or homes.

"Oftentimes, farmers really have no knowledge which table their food will end up on," Barsotti said. "My vision is that one day the vast majority of produce will be purchased in this farm-to-table manner, not in a faceless way that doesn't represent the true source of who grew the product."

The reason the farm-to-table movement is growing, Barsotti said, "is because there are people like my organization who are saying, 'Wow, we can change how the distribution system works by connecting farms directly to people.' "

In recent years, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments has recognized the potential of farm-to-table enterprises. SACOG's Rural-Urban Connections Strategy, among other things, is attempting to document the economic benefits of food that is grown and sold within the area.

David Runsten, policy director for the Community Alliance with Family Farms in Davis, has been fighting on behalf of small acreage farmers for more than 30 years. As he sees it, the farm-to-table movement is the only real answer for both the survival of small farms and for young people and immigrants starting out in the business.

"Small farms had been going out of business for decades, but now people have found a way to compete through small-acreage farms," Runsten said. "There is all this drive for local food production – it's growing rapidly and the U.S. government is supporting it. It is good we have this opportunity for people to farm – if we didn't have a lot of this direct marketing to consumers, we probably wouldn't have a lot of these small-acreage farms."

At Blue House Farm, Ryan Casey often works from sunrise until dark. "We aren't making millions and don't fool ourselves that we will someday," he said. "But I support myself and my employees as best as I can. This is very much the lifestyle I signed up for. A lot of people like me grew up eating bad tomatoes and canned peas, and now more folks are realizing food doesn't have to taste that way."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Susan Sward



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