Food & Drink

Farm to forklift: As Sacramento hungers for local food, growers are looking elsewhere

This is what Farm to Fork actually looks like

There are a lot of people involved in the process of Farm to Fork. Farm to Fork is a phrase that Sacramentans use a lot now, but not everyone knows exactly what's involved.
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There are a lot of people involved in the process of Farm to Fork. Farm to Fork is a phrase that Sacramentans use a lot now, but not everyone knows exactly what's involved.

Food grown at small-scale area farms has taken over Sacramento kitchens, from stadiums and hospitals to virtually every wannabe-cool restaurant in the city. Yet as demand for locally-sourced food continues to swell and Sacramento’s population climbs quicker than any other California metropolis, growers are leaving the business or switching to crops destined to be consumed elsewhere.

Area farmers fed up with governmental red tape, water shortages and urban sprawl are increasingly selling their land to developers eager to bulldoze their backyards, said Sacramento County Farm Bureau Executive Director Lindsey Liebig, with no turnaround in sight.

More than a quarter of Sacramento County’s farmland vanished between 1996 and 2016, according to state Department of Conservation data. Fertile San Joaquin County lost more than 50,000 acres during that time, while Yolo and Solano counties each saw about 20,000 acres of farmland disappear.

“When you’re buried in regulation paperwork and being encroached upon with urban development, it becomes much more enticing to sell that land than to remain in the trenches and keep farming every day,” Liebig said. “The more (farmland) that’s taken out, the less that’s available for restaurants, farmers markets and local markets.”

Many small farmers who remain in the trade have ditched the perishable row crops often consumed in the surrounding area in favor of products that can be sold internationally, like grapes and walnuts, said Central Valley Farmland Trust Executive Director Charlotte Mitchell.

“Semi-permanent crops,” as they’re known, can help farmers secure long-term contracts with buyers and provide some much-needed stability and an opportunity for better selling prices, Mitchell said. Most row crop farmers don’t fully abandon plants such as tomatoes and carrots but instead diversify their land to weather bad seasons and keep income flowing throughout the year.

“The way that we’re going ... you have to become bigger and more diversified in order to ride out the cycles of ag,” Mitchell said. “You can’t just be a cherry farmer and expect that you can make it in the end. You have to have a variety of crops.”

Semi-permanent crops are also associated with more advanced machinery, which helps growers mitigate the impact of a weakening labor force.

A 2015 Purdue University study funded by the USDA found an estimated 57,900 annual openings for high-skilled agricultural jobs yet only about 35,400 qualified graduates available to work. Farmhands have also been notoriously hard to come by in recent years as elderly workers age out of manual labor and their descendants move into more comfortable professions.

As charming as a quiet life milking goats or running an expanded garden on an isolated plot of land may sound, Liebig said tales of people abandoning secure jobs for simpler pastures are the exception in a shrinking profession.

“While it is a romantic notion and I hear it all the time, it’s too expensive to be realistic,” Liebig said. “It’s been five to 10 years (since the farm-to-fork movement became popularized in Sacramento), and we’re not seeing any huge push to get involved in farming. You may see a few fruit stands pop up here and there, but I just don’t see it taking over and revitalizing the industry in that way.”

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Meanwhile, interest in eating local keeps rising. Americans are expected to consume $20 billion worth of locally-produced foods in 2019, up from $12 billion in 2014, according to a study by market researcher Packaged Facts.

In Sacramento, V. Miller Meats owner Eric Veldman Miller said his customers weren’t showing any signs of farm-to-fork fatigue. Finding slaughterhouses to process the animals is more difficult than finding people and restaurants willing to pay comparatively high prices for premium cuts of organic meat, Miller said.

“Sacramento’s dining scene has changed completely in the last 10 years, and it’s going to double down in the next 10 years,” Miller said. “You’re going to see more independent brick-and-mortar, single-owner restaurants and less and less places like Applebee’s.”

Barring an unforeseen surge in small-scale commercial growing, a screeching halt to the Sacramento area’s population boom or a sudden disinterest in eating locally sourced foods, there are three possible consequences of a drop in farmland clashing with rising interest in local food.

Prices of meat and produce grown within 100 miles of Sacramento could swell as they become harder to come by in a simple case of supply and demand. Alternatively, the already-ambiguous definition of “farm-to-fork” could further expand to include milk from Tulare, strawberries from Monterey and chicken from Fresno.

The third option? If finding small-scale area farmers gets too difficult, more restaurateurs could follow Putah Creek Cafe’s lead and start planting their own gardens.

The Winters institution started growing produce in 20 raised beds three years ago, operations manager Frank Carney said. A garden caretaker describes each week’s upcoming harvest to the restaurant’s three chefs, who base their specials around what’s available.

That meant basil, cucumbers, wax beans, cherry tomatoes, snap peas, Swiss chard and more last week, Carney said. Buckhorn Steakhouse, the cafe’s parent company, also receives some fruits and vegetables from the fenced-off, 4,000-square-foot garden, which now includes citrus trees and edible flowers.

The garden saves the restaurant a small amount of money over equivalent orders from suppliers, Carney said, and offers a place to hold small dinner parties and other events. Multiple San Francisco restaurateurs have made larger investments in Marin and Napa county farms, where they can control everything from seed choice to when cattle go to slaughter, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“It was about giving people another experience to look, touch and feel, to say ‘Hey, look, some of your food came from this garden just across the street,’” Carney said. ”It’s just more personalized.”

But growing your own ingredients becomes harder on a larger scale, Canon executive chef Brad Cecchi said. When Cecchi was the chef de cuisine at Grange, the restaurant paid a farmer near Placerville for an acre of his land covered in peach trees and blackberry bushes, with room to grow other crops if they wanted.

Problems quickly arose. Someone needed to organize an irrigation system, pull weeds every day, check fruits and vegetables for signs of disease — all the little things that make agriculture difficult. More often that not, those responsibilities fell to salaried restaurant managers already balancing their full plates back in downtown Sacramento, Cecchi said.

The farm needed at least one full-time manager with a salary, a significant expense on top of the costs of water and tools, Cecchi said. Grange managers questioned whether Sacramento eaters were willing to cough up the dough to pay for such a grand project, and threw in the towel on their experiment a few months after it began.

“It was just too much to handle,” Cecchi said. “Were we going to be able to grow $40,000 worth of vegetables, or whatever that person’s salary may be?”

So how’s a chef supposed to find reliable, small-scale produce as it gets increasingly rare? By building the same close relationships with growers that birthed the farm-to-fork movement, Cecchi said — close enough, even, that both sides feel comfortable locking into steady contracts.

As executive chef at the Westin in downtown Cleveland, Cecchi bought 60 pounds of spinach every week from a local farmer. That promise gave the grower enough financial security to build another greenhouse and expand his farming operation, he said, while keeping the Westin’s kitchen stocked with juicy ingredients.

When Azolla Farms let Cecchi sample some Juliet tomatoes the owners had intended to mix into a medley, the chef liked them so much he began ordering 70 pounds a week to make into a confit. Cecchi said the Pleasant Grove farm also planted certain crops specifically for the Tower Bridge dinner, for which he is one of the chefs, with a full menu to be released Aug. 27.

Selling a few dozen pounds of tomatoes per week alone won’t keep most farmers in business, Mitchell said. But the flipside looks worse, and not only for small-scale growers.

“If small regional farms selling in their small niche market don’t succeed, I think it’ll have a very negative effect on all those selling on a grander scale,” Mitchell said.

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