Viewpoints: Sacramento will need sustained leadership to match Austin’s festival success

10/20/2013 12:00 AM

10/19/2013 9:38 PM

Sacramento this year declared itself America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital in order to “foster community pride, celebrate regional farming, and to create further demand for the region as a culinary tourism destination.” In doing so, city leaders made a point of comparing their proclamation with that of Austin, Texas, which in 1991 declared itself to be the Live Music Capital of the World.

And why shouldn’t Sacramento want to compare itself to Austin? Since Austin made its claim to be a live music capital, hundreds of millions of dollars have poured into the city’s economy.

The problem with the “if you declare it, the revenue will come” comparison is that it overlooks key factors that have made Austin so financially successful.

In 1991, South by Southwest (SXSW), Austin’s annual music festival, was 4 years old and attracting close to 500 bands and 3,000 attendees. Musicians came from all over not simply to “celebrate” music, but to be part of an inspiring and dynamic scene and to promote new albums – or if unsigned, to be discovered. The music industry came as well, in hopes of promoting its artists or finding the next buzz band.

In 1991, “Austin City Limits” had been taping its PBS TV show for 17 years. Austin’s Waterloo Records was voted the best record store in the country, and Austin was home to musical luminaries such as Stevie Ray Vaughan and Willie Nelson. The city had more music venues per capita than anywhere else in the world, which was the rationale behind Austin’s “Music Capital” declaration.

All of which is to say that even in the early 1990s, Austin had an infrastructure and identity as a music destination that attracted tourists. Since then, Austin has continued to build on that infrastructure. In addition to continuing to tape its TV show, now the longest-running music program in television history, “Austin City Limits” hosts a three-day music festival and in 2011 moved into a larger new venue in downtown Austin, The Moody Theater.

SXSW, which has retained several of the key organizers from the original 1987 event, has seen monumental growth. In addition to music, the festival now includes interactive, film and education – plus SXSW Eco in the fall – and has become something of a high-powered amalgam of TED Talks, a massive trade technology show, an enormous music festival, the Sundance Film Festival and spring break all rolled into one. In March every year, it is the place to be for people in technology, film and music. In 2013 SXSW had 41,700 badge holders with the combined SXSW festivals injecting $218.2million into the local economy.

But SXSW’s impact goes beyond Austin. Two notable online entities that either launched or took off at SXSW include Twitter and Foursquare. Music success stories include such diverse acts as the White Stripes, John Mayer and Hanson. Comedian and actor Fred Armisen was discovered at SXSW as well.

But people also go to hear big ideas, such as Elon Musk talking about why we should colonize Mars and Jill Abramson talking about the future of the New York Times and journalism. They also go to learn about marketing from the LOL cats of I Can Has Cheezburger and to maybe get their photo taken with the Internet sensation Grumpy Cat.

For Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork declaration to truly have impact – to have it deliver on the gains the organizers hope for – the city will need leadership to become a global incubator for people to come together around the topic of food.

Bringing people together

Food has the ability to unite people and can foster good will and community. But in addition to the pleasures of cooking, eating, and drinking, issues surrounding food and food culture are significant and pressing.

Just a few concerns include whether the model of small local farms is financially sustainable; lack of access to healthy affordable food in economically disadvantaged communities; lack of cooking skills in a large percentage of the population; the impact of food choices on health; water rights and resources; the impact of agricultural pesticides on health and the environment; and the impact of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

Austin is successful because it doesn’t merely celebrate its musical status, but because it acts as an ever-evolving incubator for creativity and innovation. Sacramento is well-positioned to create a similar dynamic with food, with implications far beyond our region.

Northern California has long been a leader in food production, culture and knowledge. UC Davis is home to prestigious programs with resident experts in agriculture, viticulture, enology and food science.

Numerous local organizations such as the California Food Literacy Center, Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services, Soil Born Farms, Ubuntu Green, and Harvest Sacramento, just to name a few, are committed to solving local food issues.

Sacramento is also home to renowned tastemakers such as Darrell Corti and Patrick Mulvaney, with numerous high-quality restaurants committed to creating innovative cuisine using locally sourced ingredients.

The community’s enthusiastic embrace of Farm-to-Fork week and the proposed downtown public market shows there is significant support for the farm-to-fork movement. But to achieve something comparable to Austin’s cultural and financial success, Sacramento needs to commit to creating something meaningful and to make Farm-to-Fork week more than just another annual party, albeit with particularly delicious local eats.

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