Business & Real Estate

Farm-to-Fork’s rapid growth stuns its Sacramento organizers

On Halloween 2012, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, flanked by chefs and restaurateurs from throughout the region, stood in downtown’s Cesar Chavez Plaza and proudly proclaimed Sacramento “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital.”

Not everyone was convinced.

Even Mike Testa, who would take on much of the “Farm-to-Fork” marketing efforts as senior vice president of convention sales and business development with the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau, admitted that “if you had told me on that Halloween that it would grow as quickly as it has, I would have told you that you were crazy.”

As it turned out, the city’s annual Farm-to-Fork Celebration – which kicked off Friday with a parade of tractors down Capitol Mall and runs through Sept. 28 – took off so quickly that Testa admitted last week that “we were overwhelmed.”

With only the second Farm-to-Fork Celebration now in full swing, this year’s expanded gathering includes dozens of Sacramento-region restaurants, scores of growers, numerous grower- and food-related businesses and plentiful wine producers. Organizers expect thousands of Sacramento-area foodies to celebrate the region’s locally grown and cooked food and beverages. Reservations to marquee Farm-to-Fork events have been snapped up within minutes of being offered.

Sacramento is not the sole practitioner of the farm-to-fork movement. Nationally, it’s touted by regions, states, cities and small towns. Oregon’s Farm to Fork Event Co. is gearing up for 2015 with multiple events celebrating farmers, brewers, winemakers, food artisans and chefs. Other farm-to-fork movements in the United States promote specific products, such as natural foods or organically grown crops.

From the beginning, Sacramento’s farm-to-fork focus has been on growers and those who prepare food. The culinary loop also includes wine producers. Organizers have touted the number of farms and wineries within a 50-mile radius of Sacramento, the nearly 10,000 acres of “boutique farms” in the area and more than 50 regional farmers markets. Restaurants and chefs who incorporate locally produced food into their menus are celebrated.

Testa claimed that Sacramento has the advantage of such a wide range of crops, growers and restaurants in the region, plus a bonus: Farming is done year-round in the Sacramento area, thanks to a mild winter climate not seen in other parts of the country. He also said the ever-growing relationship between Sacramento-area growers and restaurant operators and chefs has fostered a “beneficial regional business environment ... that helps the economy.”

Event organizers and economists said that putting estimated dollar amounts on Farm-to-Fork’s effect on the Sacramento region is difficult, in part because the celebration is only on its second go-around. But the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau offered some clues that make the case for Farm-to-Fork’s wildfire-like growth.

For starters, it estimates that the event’s local advertising value equivalency – a marketing term to measure the effect of publicity that otherwise would have been paid for in advertising dollars – over the past year at more than $1 million.

Testa said Farm-to-Fork was mentioned numerous times on the PBS “America’s Heartland” series, reaching hundreds of thousands of viewers.

Last year’s cattle drive on the Capitol Mall, which helped christen Farm-to-Fork Week in 2013, resulted in coast-to-coast media coverage. Testa noted: “The cattle photos with the Capitol in the background were in newspapers all over the country, from Indianapolis to Arizona to Arkansas. That kind of publicity would cost a fortune to buy.”

More than 25,000 people swamped Capitol Mall for last year’s Farm-to-Fork Festival and its daylong activities showcasing local foods and farmers.

The attendance stunned Testa: “I thought we’d have maybe 10,000 or 12,000. It just shows you the kind of regional embracement that we have.” The free festival celebrating food is set for Sept. 27 this year on Capitol Mall.

Another 2013 Farm-to-Fork event, the Tower Bridge dinner, saw the $175-per-seat tickets snatched up in a heartbeat as 600 showed up for a lavish meal served on the closed-off Tower Bridge. Hundreds of tickets for this year’s Sept. 28 gala dinner on Tower Bridge sold out in less than five minutes. This year’s four-main-course, locally sourced menu was devised by 40 of the area’s top chefs.

It’s not just local foodies. Sacramento-area restaurants have signed on in big numbers.

The California Restaurant Association Sacramento, which helps produce Farm-to-Fork activities, said last week that nearly 50 restaurants are participating in this year’s event, with an accompanying pledge that a portion of Farm-to-Fork menu sales will go to regional food banks and the Food Literacy Center.

“For two weeks, we can come together as an industry and do everything we can to truly showcase what the region has to offer in terms of agriculture, creative cuisine and philanthropy,” said Chris Jarosz, CRA Sacramento president.

Wine is also on this year’s menu. Sacramento-region wine will be showcased at twilight Thursday on the west steps of the Capitol. The Farm-to-Fork Legends of Wine event includes 35 wineries from locales that include Clarksburg and El Dorado and Amador counties.

This year’s highlights include FoodStock, a combined music event and giant pig roast today at Raley Field, with proceeds benefiting Sacramento Food Bank. The chef overseeing the food is Patrick Mulvaney of Mulvaney’s B&L restaurant in midtown Sacramento.

Testa said Mulvaney was a driving force in moving farm-to-fork from idea to reality in Sacramento.

“He’s someone who embraced farm-to-fork in his cooking for years, and really, that’s something that has been a big part of the growth,” Testa said. “You’re seeing more folks take ownership in this, which is great, and the public has responded. The fact that it has gained traction so quickly is really the public embracing it.”

Mulvaney agreed, saying that “Farm-to-Fork for me is Sacramento embracing its identity. I think the reason that it has grown so fast is that it’s something that everybody identifies with. It’s gratifying to me as a chef to see the farmers and producers and everyone involved in the food world get their due.”

Mulvaney said interest in farm-to-fork has expanded beyond growers and restaurateurs, with fiscal and time commitments from regional educators, hospitals and businesses.

Both Testa and Mulvaney stressed that regional cooperation among various food, agriculture, education and business sectors has been critical.

“To have this kind of collaboration as a region has been gratifying,” Testa said. “It’s the best of Sacramento and the region.”

Mulvaney confessed he was “a little skeptical” that the farm-to-fork concept would be embraced by public officials, but once it was, “We in the restaurant community knew it would work. It’s what we do. We welcome people into our homes, show them hospitality.

“It’s cool because it has been embraced by everybody ... almond growers, Apple Hill, San Joaquin farmers. ... It lifted the conversation about food throughout the region.”

Farm-to-Fork’s name recognition among the public was evident last week during interviews with weeknight diners downtown.

“I don’t remember hearing about farm-to-fork as a national movement until it was announced (in Sacramento),” said Shirley Dean, a 46-year-old downtown worker walking along K Street Mall to meet three dining companions. “Now, I hear it all the time, and I think, ‘Hey, that’s our claim to fame in Sacramento.’ ”

Jim Howard, a 31-year-old Sacramentan working for a local retailer, said he was “glad some of our great restaurants and growers are getting some recognition. It’s like we ignored their hard work for years or didn’t pay them enough respect. I’m glad we’re putting them in the spotlight now, and I think it helps Sacramento business.”

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