Bringing the farm (and truly local food) to the city

Brian Baer/Special to The Bee

On any Sunday morning, thousands of Sacramento shoppers converge under Highway 50 to pick and choose from a rainbow of produce. They weave their way past dozens of vendors, selling fruit and vegetables that were still on the vine, bush or tree less than 24 hours earlier.

From asparagus to zucchini, the market’s diversity dazzles the eye, nose and taste buds. In spring, sweet blueberries and strawberries sell out rapidly. In summer, tree-ripened peaches scent the air and make mouths water. In fall, colorful pumpkins and hard squashes draw ready customers. In winter, locally grown apples and pears await bakers.

Every week, local chefs peruse the produce, looking for ingredients at their peak of flavor. The choices change with the season, but the bounty is always remarkable.

Sacramento’s reputation as America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital starts at its farmers markets.

“We’ve been farm-to-fork since 1980,” said Dan Best, who manages the Certified Farmers Markets of Sacramento County. “The original concept of farmers markets is to bring farmers and consumers together for mutual benefit. It cuts out the middleman. The farmers who grew this produce are literally standing behind their products.”

When it comes to farm-fresh produce, few if any cities can equal what’s available at local farmers markets. In terms of farmer representation, the Sunday market is the largest in the state with 110 farms selling produce in summer and 70 in winter, Best said. In recent years, the markets have expanded to include meat and seafood.

“Some ‘farmers markets’ are large community events with more crafts sellers than farmers,” he added. “Our priority is farmers.”

And most of that produce is truly local, grown within 100 miles of Sacramento.

“We’re certified California grown,” Best said. “This produce was grown in this state, guaranteed. We have one or two growers come up from the south; a few times a year, a date farmer brings his dates from Indio. But otherwise, almost everybody drove four hours or less to sell here.”

California has about 700 certified markets with about two dozen in the Sacramento area. Besides being California grown, the produce must be sold directly by the farmer; no resales allowed.

A stroll through the farmers market proves these points. Posted at every stall is the farm of origin. Martinelli Hood Ranch offers apples and pears, grown in Hood. Peaches and plums came from Hamlow Ranches in Denair. Vierra Farms offers a wide assortment of melons, tomatoes, pumpkins, beans, corn and other crops, all grown in West Sacramento.

To get it to market, these farmers stayed up late, then got up extra early.

“It’s not just a job; it’s a lifestyle,” said Jamie Dettmer, who manages the Tuesday Fremont and Thursday Florin markets in Sacramento. “I’ve just always liked the atmosphere. I like buying local produce, cooking and eating it. I feel very lucky.”

“People wonder why some farmers aren’t at more markets,” Best said. “They can’t; they’re too tired. Coming to these markets is exhausting work for them, so they only sell at one or two. They have to have some time to farm, too.

“When you walk into the market, you immediately know the season,” he added. “These guys eat what they grow.”

What sells at farmers markets? According to a nationwide survey, 69 percent of farmers sell vegetables and 47 percent sell fruit or tree nuts.

Veteran farmers become familiar faces to market customers.

“I like bringing the good stuff straight to the people,” said Shawn Martin of Vierra Farms as he helped customers pick out watermelons at the Fremont market. “I’m not selling something people don’t need. We all need food and it’s local. I want people to come back and say, ‘Oh my god, that was the best watermelon I ever had!’ I live for that.”

A 10-year market veteran, Tim Bresnehan brings strawberries from Watsonville to two Sacramento markets every week from early March through September. His 22 flats almost always sell out. His hands turn red from handling so many berries.

“It’s enjoyable to sell something people really like,” he said.

Bresnehan has noticed a recent shift in market demographics. “I see more local people because of the gentrification of (midtown and downtown) neighborhoods. (Our patrons) have shifted from state workers to neighborhood residents. In Elk Grove, we see a greater number of ethnic shoppers than we did 10 years ago.”

Farmers markets also helped inspire Sacramento’s annual farm-to-fork celebration.

On Saturday, Sacramento celebrates its food and farmers at the fifth annual Farm-to-Fork Festival on Capital Mall. Last year, an estimated 65,000 patrons turned out to taste local produce, either fresh or featured in recipes.

Working with Blue Diamond, Patty Mastracco of Folsom is among the local food experts who created recipes specifically for the festival. She used some of her favorite late summer ingredients for Jalapeño Corn Cups and Smoky Polenta Bites with Heirloom Balsamic Tomatoes, which will be served as appetizers at the festival’s Almond Breeze booth.

“People wonder what Almond Breeze is doing at the festival, but Blue Diamond is based right here in Sacramento,” Mastracco said. “Almonds are an important local crop and Blue Diamond is a cooperative of thousands of growers. It includes a lot of small farms.”

For a nationwide food tour, Mastracco also created more recipes.

“I used quintessential and classic ingredients for each region,” she said. “The recipes for Sacramento feature tomatoes because we’re all about tomatoes, but we also grow wonderful corn and peppers and much more; we’re the region with all the good stuff.”

Year-round, Mastracco regularly shops farmers markets for ingredients. The festival is an extension of what’s regularly available at farmers markets.

“To me, farm-to-fork means you can eliminate the middle man,” she said. “It means fresh. The produce didn’t sit in a warehouse for who knows how long, then get shipped to stores.

“I like working with small farms instead of huge corporations,” she added. “I definitely try to educate people about what’s in season and when. If it’s not the proper season, where did it come from?

“Our local farmers markets have really blossomed,” Mastracco continued. “Farmers markets are really enjoyable instead of just walking into a grocery store. Even though I cook for a living, every trip I see something I haven’t seen before. You can talk to the farmers who grew this food. You see people walking out with big bunches of fresh flowers; it’s such a pleasant escape.”

Mastracco has favorites for each season.

“Tomatoes are fantastic right now,” she said. “To go with those tomatoes, fresh basil is still available. Figs are just ending, but pears are now coming into market. We’re seeing butternut squash now, too.”

The markets do more than feed people. They help farms survive.

“Farmers markets are vital to keeping farmers on the land,” said Virginia Jameson, interim California director for the American Farmland Trust.

That’s a big part of the trust’s mission, she added. “Protecting farmland is meaningless and not sustainable if there’s no one to farm it.”

California, which grows more than 400 crops, is rapidly losing farmland to development, Jameson added.

“Statewide, we’re losing about 40,000 acres of farmland a year,” she said. “In 2014-2016, we lost nearly 1,500 acres of farmland in that two-year period just in Sacramento County. We could lose 2 million acres (statewide) by 2050 and that would be the end of California’s farming economy.”

The markets are a source of income that can be the difference in not just sustainability but survival, she noted. They also help attract new farmers into the business.

According to a 2015 survey by the trust, about half of the farmers selling at markets have been farming for less than 10 years, Jameson said. Half are female and 16 percent are under age 35; that’s double of all farms nationwide. The average age of American farmers is 58.

“We’re in a bit of a crisis,” she added. “We really need to get more people into the business. Farmers markets are a lab for young farmers; that experience is vital.”

Farmers markets have become a haven for older small farmers as well as beginners.

“I’m very protective of these guys,” Best said as he surveyed the market stalls. “A lot of them are one season from going out of business. Some of them are just starting out; the market gives them a place to learn how to sell, not just grow.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Farm-to-Fork Festival

What: Hundreds of local restaurants, craft breweries, wineries, farms, ranches, markets and other vendors take part in a salute to Sacramento’s farm-to-fork bounty. Cooking demonstrations, food samples, music and more make this a gigantic Sacramento block party.

Where: Capitol Mall

When: 11 a.m.-6:30 Saturday, Sept. 23

Admission: Free


Smoky polenta bites with heirloom balsamic tomatoes

Local food expert Patty Mastracco created this recipe for the Blue Diamond booth at the 2017 Farm-to-Fork Festival. It’s also part of a nationwide tour featuring local seasonal ingredients.

Makes at least 6 servings

1 tablespoon butter

1 clove garlic (minced)

1 cup Blue Diamond original unsweetened Almond Breeze

1 cup vegetable broth

1/2 cup polenta

1/4 cup shredded smoked Mozzarella cheese

2 tablespoons shredded Parmesan cheese

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1 cup diced heirloom tomatoes (or quartered grape heirloom tomatoes)

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

Snipped fresh basil

Lightly grease a foil-lined baking sheet.

Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir in garlic, then add Breeze and chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Add polenta and cook, stirring frequently, until mixture is thickening and bubbly. Reduce heat to low and cook for 5 minutes more or until mixture is very thick, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir in cheeses; season with salt and pepper.

Spread about 3/4-inch thick on prepared baking sheet. Let cool slightly, then cover with plastic wrap and chill until firm.

Stir together tomatoes, oil and vinegar in a small bowl. Season with salt to taste and let stand for 5 minutes.

Cut polenta into 1-inch squares and top with tomatoes. Sprinkle with basil.

Recipe courtesy Blue Diamond

Jalapeño corn cups

Local food expert Patty Mastracco also created this fun and festive appetizer for Blue Diamond’s Homegrown Goodness Tour, featuring local seasonal ingredients.

Makes 36 appetizers

Olive oil cooking spray

36 round potsticker wrappers

2 tablespoons butter

1 cup fresh corn kernels

1 cup minced onion

1/3 cup minced red bell pepper

1 (4-ounces) can diced green chiles

1-1/4 cups shredded chipotle Cheddar or Mexican blend cheese

1 cup Blue Diamond original unsweetened Almond Breeze

2 teaspoons Mexican blend seasoning

3 eggs

1/3 cup minced Blue Diamond Jalapeño Smokehouse Almonds

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. and coat 36 mini muffin cups with nonstick cooking spray. Press a won ton wrapper into each cup, pressing firmly into the bottom.

Melt butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add corn and onion and cook for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in chiles and bell pepper. Place equal amounts of cheese and corn mixture into each cup. Beat together Almond Breeze, seasoning and eggs and carefully pour into cups; sprinkle with almonds.

Bake for 15 minutes, tenting with foil if tops brown too quickly. Garnish with guacamole, salsa and cilantro, if desired.

Breeze Guacamole: Puree 1 ripe avocado, 1/4 cup Almond Breeze, 1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, 1/2 teaspoon Mexican seasoning blend and 1 clove garlic in a small blender or food processor until smooth.

Recipe courtesy Blue Diamond

Peaches on the Grill

Peaches rank as the most popular summer fruit at Sacramento farmers markets. Both yellow or white peaches work in this dessert recipe (as do nectarines), but choose firm freestones (varieties that don’t cling to their pits). Ask the farmer to help pick out peaches with the best flavor or just follow your nose.

Makes 4 servings.

4 medium to large fresh but firm freestone peaches

1 bunch of green garnish (such as basil or mint)

2 tablespoons brown sugar

4 tablespoons butter

Vanilla ice cream

1/2 cup favorite liqueur (Frangelico works well)

Wash and halve peaches; remove pits. Melt sugar and butter together in the microwave or a double boiler. Brush some of this glaze on the cut side of each peach.

Oil grill lightly with vegetable oil. Preheat grill to medium. Place peaches cut side down on grill and cook for 3 minutes. Turn peach halves with tongs; coat halves with remaining glaze. Cook until hot and bubbly; the peach skins will fall off. Carefully remove peaches from grill.

Divide peach halves into 4 bowls (2 halves each bowl). Place a small scoop of vanilla ice cream into each half; drizzle with liqueur and garnish with basil or mint. Serve immediately.

Recipe courtesy Certified Farmers Markets of Sacramento County.

Hot chili salsa

Save some of summer for later with this spicy condiment. Wear gloves while working with peppers. You may combine crisp sweet and hot peppers for a milder salsa.

Makes about 5 pints

1 pound onions

2 pounds hot chilis, seeds and stems removed

5 pounds tomatoes

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

3 teaspoons kosher or non-iodized salt

3/4 to 1 cup white vinegar

Finely chop or coarsely grind peppers. Peel, core and chop tomatoes. (Dip tomatoes in boiling water for 2 minutes, then plunge in ice water; the peels will slide right off.)

In a large non-reactive pot, add onions, peppers, salt and pepper to chopped tomatoes. Heat to simmering; over medium heat, cook 10 minutes.

Pack salsa into clean, hot jars. Seal. Process in a hot water bath for 15 minutes.

Note: This salsa may be frozen. Instead of processing in jars, transfer to 1-pint freezer containers and store in freezer.

Recipe courtesy Certified Farmers Markets of Sacramento County.

Farmers market chunky gazpacho

Unlike other gazpachos, this cold soup is not pureed but chunky. Chop vegetables and avocado into similar-sized small cubes for a more attractive appearance.

Makes 8 to 10 servings

3 large meaty tomatoes, peeled and chopped (3 cups)

1 medium Armenian cucumber, peeled and chopped (1 cup)

3 stalks celery, deveined and chopped (1 cup)

1/2 red onion, chopped (1/2 cup)

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

3 cups tomato juice

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1/4 teaspoon Tabasco sauce

2/3 cup liquid Margarita mix

1 large avocado, peeled, seeded and cubed.

1 cup cooked cocktail shrimp

Salt and pepper to taste

In order listed, combine all ingredients in a large bowl, stirring gently after each addition.

Chill well and serve.

Recipe courtesy Certified Farmers Markets of Sacramento County.

Renae’s Tutti-frutti dessert

Renae Best, who has been active in Sacramento’s farmers markets for decades, created this very flexible and easy recipe. “First decide what fruit you want to use,” she said. “I use berries and peaches; any cookable fruit from your favorite farmers market will do.”

Makes 9 servings

3 cups blackberries or blueberries

3 cups sliced peaches or nectarines

3/4 cup sugar

1/3 cup flour

1-1/2 cup flour

1 cup sugar

1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 egg

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter plus a little extra to grease the baking dish

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Mix together peaches and berries in a large bowl. Mix together 3/4 cup sugar and 1/3 cup flour; add to fruit and mix well.

Butter a 9- by 12-inch baking dish. Spread the fruit mixture evenly in the dish. Set aside.

In another bowl, combine remaining flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. In another bowl, beat egg. Melt butter completely in microwave; allow to cool slightly. Add half of melted butter to beaten egg, whisking to combine.

Slowly add butter-egg mixture to flour mixture. Use a fork to blend, creating pea-sized crumbs. Pour the crumbs evenly over the fruit in the baking dish, pushing crumbs into fruit with the back of the fork. Drizzle remaining melted butter over top.

Bake 40 minutes or until crumbs lightly browned and fruit bubbly. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.

Recipe courtesy Certified Farmers Markets of Sacramento County.