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With its rich soils, abundant water, superb growing conditions and a population of 2.1 million people, the Sacramento region would seem to have all the makings of the world's farm-to-fork capital, as Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson proclaimed late last year.
But are our forks really in touch with our farms? Far from it. Each year, the region's population consumes about 2.2 million tons of food, but less than 2 percent of that is produced here, according to the Sacramento Area Council of Governments. With 700,000 acres in cultivation, the farms in the region's six counties produce 3.4 million tons of food annually. But only a small fraction is consumed here. More than 98 percent is exported elsewhere.
"Imagine this: We are a region with all this bounty, and we have trucks taking it out of the region, and then we have trucks coming into the region with what we eat," says David Shabazian, a senior planner for SACOG who has been researching the local food scene. "These trucks are literally crossing paths on the highway."
There's a reason for that. Like their counterparts elsewhere, most consumers in Sacramento are looking for and accustomed to the cheapest possible food. Meanwhile, most local farmers, like farmers everywhere, are trying to organize their operations to bring in the maximum revenue. Those two demands rarely result in local farmers having a relationship with local customers.
Yet that is starting to change. Farmers markets and food stands are popping up in every county. Big and small grocery chains increasingly are attempting to market local fruit, vegetables, wine, olive oils and other products. Restaurants often provide excruciating detail about the local produce they serve, short of telling you the name of the field hand who picked it.
All this is happening because of popular demand. An increasing number of consumers are recognizing that a locally grown fruit or vegetable tastes better, and because it is fresher, it is richer in nutrients and healthier.
Some like the idea of giving their food money directly to a farmer, even if it costs a bit more.
"It's actually consumers that are driving farm to fork," said Paul Muller, a founding partner of Full Belly Farm, a 350-acre organic farm in the Capay Valley. "They are driving it more than we realize."
To explore the potential of farm to fork, I invited eight local food leaders to have lunch with me at The Bee, for a regional round table in early May. The group included farmers, chefs, food processors and representatives of regional government, the grocery industry and hospitals. They came from Placer, Sacramento, Yolo and Yuba counties.
I started the discussion by playing devil's advocate: Is it really a worthy goal to try to increase local consumption of locally produced food? Markets are working the way markets work. "Why should we try to mess with that?" I asked.
Joanne Neft, a cookbook author and former agricultural marketing director for Placer County, was the first to stab her fork into this question. She said the current system comes with hidden costs, both to the environment and public health. The current abundance of cheap, processed food high in fats, sugar and salt has contributed to a crisis of obesity and diabetes.
People have grown so disconnected from farm-fresh produce that they no longer know how to cook or shop for seasonal produce, she said. "We are all paying the price for that, each and every one of us," she said.
Glenda Humiston, California state director for USDA Rural Development, noted the potential economic benefits of helping medium- and small-size farms serve local markets. She cited a study from the California Centers for Excellence last year that found that 181,000 jobs could be created from farm-to-fork enterprises in the next five years. "Those are jobs averaging almost $24 per hour," she noted.
SACOG's Shabazian, whose father put him through school on revenue from a family farm stand, noted that growing the local market could make the Sacramento region more resilient to future price shocks and disruptions to international markets. Current commercial food prices, he noted, are dependent on the price of oil staying relatively low.
"We have a food system now that, in some respects, is a little artificial, right?" he said. "If we can feed ourselves, we don't have to worry as much about what's happening in the others parts of the world."
Much like the local food movement itself, the afternoon's discussion was freewheeling and somewhat disorganized, with the conversation sometimes veering down bumpy farm roads before circling back. Along the way, there were disagreements on how farm-to-fork needs to go forward, even within this like-minded group.
Steven Dambeck, a farmer and co-founder of Apollo Olive Oil in Yuba County, said he fears that the movement could end up like organic farming, taken over by big corporations that squeeze out the smaller producers. "My concern is we are going to end up rewarding those folks who can drive down the price point, at the cost of quality," he said.
Yet others said that the local food movement will never take off without the participation of larger operations that unlike smaller growers can reliably supply grocery stores with local products that locavores crave.
"We need to quit demonizing these people," Humistan said about medium-sized agribusinesses and retailers. "We've got to work with them. We've got to show them opportunities. We've got to give them the infrastructure they can work with."
Kate Stille, marketing director for Nugget Market, said that her family's business has been challenged finding local farms that can reliably provide a particular item in a quantity that will serve all of its 13 stores. A recent success, she said, came when Nugget teamed up with three farmers to provide asparagus in the spring.
As became clear in our round table, there are several gaps that prevent local forks from connecting with local farms, and vice versa:
A lack of slaughter facilities prevents some ranchers from getting their meat into local markets. "We know we have unbelievable demand for grass-fed beef and organic lamb and free-range poultry," said Humistan. "We have farmers who would love to supply that demand, but we can't get the two together because we are missing slaughter facilities up and down the state."
A similar gap exists in all kinds of food system infrastructure aggregation of products, cold storage and processing to help local farmers reach local markets.
Some local farmers now engaged in commodity production may be interested in converting to produce for a local market, but may need assistance in undertaking such a transformation. "We are just seeing this new entrepreneurial class arise in agriculture. They are going to need technological support, marketing support and financial support," said Muller.
Large institutions, such as universities, schools, the convention center and local hotels, could become key players in sourcing and serving locally grown food. But some of them, particularly hospitals, face safety regulations and other constraints against serving unprocessed fruits and other produce. "We really need to work on that, and think all the health care systems would be interested in that," said Janet Wagner, CEO of Sutter Davis Hospital.
Finally, on the demand side, there's a serious barrier to enlisting more consumers in the local food crusade: Many of them don't know how to cook. Without basic cooking skills, consumers have no reason to buy fava beans from a farmers market or fresh asparagus from Nugget.
"We've lost two generations of people who have lost track of what it takes to prepare a meal," said Neft.
After an hour and a half of dialogue and putting our forks into local food, our round table concluded with as many questions as answers. How do we close the gaps? How do we help two generations overcome the intimidation of the kitchen, and learn how to cook? How can we return some of the farming infrastructure that has departed from the region?
And lastly, what is this local food movement? Who is leading it? Does it need some kind of formal organization? Or should it bubble up on the natural organically?
"It makes people really uncomfortable that there's no structure," said Patrick Mulvaney, owner of Mulvaney's B&L.
"I say, 'Get over the discomfort and just do stuff.' "