I love to eat in Sacramento’s warehouse district. The brick buildings and reused industrial sites are the perfect background for real food driven by the season’s local crops. Magpie Café is one of my favorites. Chef Ed Roehr does a fantastic job bringing the region’s best food to a bustling midtown.
As great as the food is, I really love the sense of place. These warehouses, and many throughout Sacramento, once housed loading docks teaming with hand trucks loading first wagons then rail cars and finally trucks with the best fruits, vegetables, grain and beef that farmers could grow.
If you have been in Sacramento long enough, you remember all of the great old processing facilities – Libby’s on the corner of Alhambra and not too long ago Crystal Creamery, our local dairy. You also know that Hopland is named after the once vast fields of aromatic flowers and that rice varieties from Japan arrived in the early 1900s following the Chinese immigrants. You may also know that dried plums showed up here in the 1970s after leaving the growing population in the Silicon Valley.
In the past, all of these crops plus the ubiquitous tomato were closely associated with our region. While our grandfathers cast a misty eye over the years, most of our region’s efforts over the last decades have been focused on turning away from our agricultural heritage. We wanted to be Silicon Valley East or known for solar energy. All were lofty goals but not really rooted in our competitive advantages of growing great food in an ideal Mediterranean climate. But there is a new view emerging – one that embraces our agriculture, in its many forms, with the honest arms of a produce warehouseman picking up a box of winter beets.
Several years ago, two different groups began to look at the Sacramento Valley for different reasons but came to the same conclusion – agriculture in our region is not only our heritage. It is our future. The first group, led by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments and Valley Vision, was looking for economic drivers – job builders in a time of scarcity. Turns out they went down enough winding roads to find what had always been there – farms that turn soil, sun and water into food. But when they pulled into the farmyard they found that the farmers had not been sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee. World-class agriculture had emerged, grown tall and was now flourishing – right behind the shadow of the Capitol dome.
Today, almond and walnut orchards carpet the foothills in the deep alluvial soils along the rivers. Half a million acres of sushi rice thrive on the heavy adobe soils. Farmers are growing seeds for future crops and shipping them all over the world and the Sacramento Valley has emerged as one of the best places to grow the once-maligned tomato.
The second group carried binoculars and field guides. Biologists from organizations like Audubon and the Nature Conservancy who once saw agriculture as one of the causes of species losses were taking a new look. What they saw through their spotting scopes astounded them: rice fields filled with hundreds of thousands of shorebirds and millions of migrating waterfowl; curlews and white-faced ibis feeding in alfalfa fields and intact stands of oaks and native grasses right next to rivers, set aside by caring farmers. This, they decided, was where the future lay – in building relationships with Sacramento Valley agriculture to enhance the benefits of these lands that were producing food and providing vast swaths of habitat.
From this new recognition, the region awoke and appreciation for agriculture grew at the community level. In fact, just a month ago a group of organizations – everyone from the Sac Metro Chamber, Convention and Visitors Bureau, SARTA and Mayor Kevin Johnson’s office, met and all outlined their agriculture projects – there were 39!
Perhaps the most exciting element is connecting urban and production agriculture. Too often regions choose one over the other. Not Sacramento. Community and agricultural leaders know that both are vital and serve different roles. They recognize that each complements the other. Urban agriculture connects with consumers and foodies. Production agriculture provides great research, jobs and open space.
This week the region kicks off its “Farm to Fork” celebration, which I hope will allow more people to understand our region’s connection with its agricultural past, present and bright future.
No place else in California can match the Sacramento Valley’s abundant natural resources, perfect climate and vibrant urban hubs. As a community, we have embraced agriculture and made it our own – not just relegating it to back roads.
This week come out and see the rice harvest in the Sacramento Valley, smell the fresh cut hay in the Capay Valley, visit Soil Born Farms or dine at any of the wonderful restaurants that celebrate our special place, our food and our agriculture.
Tim Johnson is president and CEO of the California Rice Commission, which represents all rice farmers and mills in the state. He is also on the board of Valley Vision.