Nosh Pit

Growing Sacramento’s ‘Farm-to-Fork Week’

Sacramento’s inaugural Farm-to-Fork Week is barely a month into the books, but its organizers are already planning for 2014 and beyond.

Preliminary talk suggests that Farm-to-Fork Week will stretch to two weeks in 2014, with the “Legends of Wine” tasting tentatively penciled in for Sept. 18, a free Farm-to-Fork Festival on Sept. 27 and a gala dinner Sept. 28.

That’s to say Sacramento’s campaign as “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital” is growing fast and organizers are working to ride that momentum. The debut Farm-to-Fork Festival in late September drew a whopping 25,000 folks to Capitol Mall for cooking demonstrations, education about the Sacramento region’s agricultural prowess and other showcases related to local food and farming.

Organizers, who include local chefs and the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau, ultimately hope to do for local food what Austin, Texas, does as the “Live Music Capital of the World.” Mayor Kevin Johnson proclaimed Sacramento as “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital” in October 2012, and declared 2013 as the “year of food” in Sacramento.

But what will it take to truly fulfill the vision of Sacramento as the epicenter of all things local food?

Sacramento already has shown a significant appetite for “farm to fork,” but this is just the beginning, and there’s certainly room to grow a ubiquitous local catchphrase into a bona fide movement.

After surveying some local players in the farm-to-fork campaign, here are some ideas to take local food to the next level – what we call “Farm-to-Fork 2.0.”

A larger draw

Turn farm to fork into the foundation of a national trade show.

The wine industry descends on Sacramento each January for the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, which results in the largest convention hosted locally. More than 13,000 attendees from across the country and beyond come to Unified for one of the world’s largest wine industry trade shows, which shows off the latest grape growing technologies and much more, along with a slew of workshops and seminars.

Why not do the same for farm to fork?

A convention dedicated to farming and food has the potential to become an even larger draw than Unified. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the state’s agriculture generates at least $100 billion in economic activity, more than twice that of the wine industry.

Plus, food has more mass appeal than wine. Many people enjoy a glass of wine, but every man, woman and child has to eat daily.

If Sacramento is truly “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital” there’s no better place to hold a national convention to debut new farming technologies. A variety of workshops could be held for farmers, restaurateurs and other interested parties, plus “state of the industry” presentations to share economic data.

The local economic impact from a farm-to-fork trade show would likely be significant. Unified generates more than $2 million annually, and business at many central city restaurants doubles during its run. Imagine the business that could spring from an entire convention dedicated to food and farming.

“When you get like-minded people to town, it’s beneficial,” said Josh Nelson, chief financial officer for the Selland Group and a founder of the farm-to-fork campaign. “An agricultural component would be a natural fit for us. There’s clearly national interest, so why not have Sacramento be the annual think tank?”

Feed the masses

Offer more food options at the Farm-to-Fork Festival.

The turnout for September’s inaugural Farm-to-Fork Festival was such a success that even its organizers were surprised. The Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau estimated that more than 25,000 folks showed up for the free festival, a huge number for a first-time event.

Attendees were privy to plenty of educational brochures about local farms and agricultural activities, plus samples of food and even the chance to pet sturgeon raised locally at the acclaimed Passmore Ranch in Sloughhouse. With four blocks on Capitol Mall filled with booths, Sacramento certainly made a case for being “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital.”

But people who show up to a food-related festival want to leave with more than brochures and a few produce samples. They want a full belly.

The Farm-to-Fork Festival simply didn’t have enough food options, resulting in long lines and many vendors selling out by early afternoon.

Organizers, of course, weren’t prepared for such an overwhelming turnout. But perhaps more of the festival’s focus could be on the actual food, supplemented by the informational booths, petting zoos and other activities that make this a multifaceted and family-friendly event.

Sacramento certainly plays host to many thriving food and beverage festivals, including Sacramento Beer Week, Sacramento Burger Battle, SactoMoFo food truck festivals, Midtown Cocktail Week and Grape Escape. The Farm-to-Fork Festival itself was inspired by the successes of Sacramento Beer Week, which includes a grand tasting for thousands at Cal Expo.

Perhaps these festival organizers could band together and help run the food operations at the Farm-to-Fork Festival, showing off Sacramento’s spirit for food in one grand tasting pavilion. Couple that with plenty of local beer and wine, and the festival would truly be geared toward feeding the tummy and the mind.

Public dinners

Beware of divisive dinners.

The Tower Bridge dinner had the best of intentions: Bring together an all-star cast of local chefs, who would feed hundreds on a Sacramento landmark and raise funds for Farm-to-Fork Week.

However, the $175 price tag didn’t go down easy with many Sacramentans.

In a salt-of-the-earth movement that seeks to promote the accessibility of local foods, the Tower Bridge dinner looked more like a “farm-to-silver-spoon” affair for the privileged few. The idea of shutting down a public bridge for eight hours so Sacramento’s well-heeled and a variety of corporate sponsors could dine also rankled plenty of locals, including the bridge’s maintenance supervisor.

It’s understood that dinners like this are expensive to produce, which requires assembling makeshift kitchens, coordinating with the California Highway Patrol and other public safety agencies, and renting enough plateware and glasses for 600 people. The dinner ultimately cost more than $92,000 to produce, with ticket sales and table sponsorships raising $142,000. The net proceeds helped fund the free Farm-to-Fork Festival and a cattle drive near the Capitol.

The Tower Bridge dinner was inspired by a series of brunches held on Portland’s Hawthorne Bridge. Tickets in Portland, however, cost just $25 and additional food could be purchased from featured vendors. Sacramento would do well to take more inclusive approaches to bridge dining.

For a movement that’s geared to support the humble local farmer, too many folks are priced out with dinners to celebrate them. Whether it’s the Tower Bridge dinner, or other precious feasts held on local farms, good luck finding a farm dinner that costs less than $100 a head.

Sacramentans are an especially price-conscious bunch. Given the recent history of state worker furloughs and a region that’s been slower than others to recover from the Great Recession, people are always looking for food bargains, instead of yet another blow to the family budget.

There’s certainly room for all levels of dining in this town, even red carpet-style dinners on a public thoroughfare. But for the farm-to-fork movement to succeed, its message has to resonate beyond an upper crust crowd. The last thing farm to fork needs is the impression that only a select few can sit at its dinner table.

Build momentum

Spread the farm-to-fork message to a wider swath of regional restaurants.

A strong foundation for Sacramento as “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital” has been set. The next challenge is to continue this momentum and tout its merits beyond local foodies and restaurants that have long flown the farm-to-fork flag.

Sacramento’s farm-to-fork movement is largely built on its consortium of local chefs, with many of them coming from acclaimed downtown and midtown restaurants. Exceptions certainly exist through such eateries as Hawks in Granite Bay and Broderick Roadhouse, which hosted a $40 “Off the Bridge” meal featuring locally sourced ingredients as an alternative to the Tower Bridge dinner.

Sacramento’s central city remains a hub of the culinary scene with its high concentration of quality eateries. However, the bulk of the 1.4 million people who call Sacramento County home live outside the downtown/midtown grid, whether it’s Elk Grove, Roseville or Folsom. While some restaurants in these suburban areas hosted “Sacramento Farm-to-Fork Restaurant Week” food showcases, such as Mary’s Pizza Shack and Sienna, plenty more could participate.

South Sacramento boasts an especially dynamic restaurant scene that’s a popular destination for discerning foodies. First-rate Mexican bakeries and taquerias and all varieties of Asian restaurants call this area home, but there’s barely a peep about “farm to fork” in this part of town. The abundance of ethnic restaurants in Sacramento makes this a great town for food, and these eateries deserve to be included in the farm-to-fork conversation and related activities.

Mom-and-pop restaurants exist throughout the area, and the more inclusion and outreach with them, the better. Otherwise, the farm-to-fork movement risks looking like a cliquish coalition of special-occasion eateries.

Dedicated leadership

Establish a structured organization behind the farm-to-fork movement.

“Farm to fork” developed in a fairly organic fashion, with local chefs, restaurateurs and purveyors rallying behind the local food cause and then getting support from civic officials. Nobody was elected to be in charge, and its amorphous shape was one of the movement’s strengths. The open-ended feel meant farm to fork could be interpreted in a variety of ways, be it a food tourism initiative or ethos of local eating.

“I’m a big fan of the ambiguity,” said Patrick Mulvaney of midtown’s Mulvaney’s B&L. “For each of us, we get to say what it means to us rather than being a marketing tool. Yes, it’s about the chefs but also safe to say it’s important to the rest of the community.”

While this style of “Occupy Sacramento Eating” helped get farm to fork off the ground to great success, the movement’s rapid growth also demands some structure.

Farm to fork encapsulates many moving parts and variety of participants, whether it’s the chefs in their pan sauce-stained white coats or suit-and-tie civic leaders. The Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau has taken the lead on the civic end as a chief organizer of Farm-to-Fork Week while such chefs as Mulvaney, Randall Selland and Oliver Ridgeway serve as figureheads and rallying forces.

But the convention bureau and consortium of chefs can’t do it alone. As the movement grows in scope, even more event planning and logistics will need to be worked out. A board of directors or official organization might do well to help focus all efforts, or else Farm-to-Fork Week could turn a little too unwieldy for its own good.

There’s already talk of establishing a nonprofit organization behind farm to fork, and even creating a dedicated job to help further the cause. That sounds like a move in the right direction.

“I think you do need a ringleader to sift through what the opportunities are and see if it merits being part of the initiative,” said Mike Testa, senior vice president of the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau. “This year certainly came off well, but does farm to fork need to be formed with a dedicated leadership? I think we’ve seen enough there for a full-time job year round to do this.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee