Stuart Leavenworth: What local governments can do to make Farm to Fork real

Stuart Leavenworth
Stuart Leavenworth

Is Sacramento’s Farm to Fork movement a revolution? An evolution? A return to the past? A marketing opportunity?

At this point, it looks like all four – and more. Sacramento’s first Farm to Fork Festival, which launches next Saturday at Capitol Mall and culminates with dinner on the Tower Bridge a week from Sunday, is getting lots of attention, as it should after more than 19 months of planning. But as its organizers will tell you, this festival and bridge dinner are just ornaments on a tree that keeps growing branches.

Truly grass roots, Farm to Fork has no formal leadership and a variety of causes. That bothers those who desire some form of structure. Yet as Chef Patrick Mulvaney said back in June, “Just get over the discomfort and go do stuff.”

One thing that needs to get done is for local governments to evaluate whether their policies are friendly to farmers and consumers who want to access locally grown food.

Some are. Some aren’t. Starting in June, I organized a series of roundtables with local food experts to assess the region’s successes and challenges in advancing the local food movement. From those discussions, and others of recent months, have come several ideas for making Farm to Fork real, and making it regional:

•  First off, all cities and counties should convene public hearings to review their general plans and zoning codes. They should invite farmers, food processors and others who have a stake in local food, and get feedback on what is working, and not working, for food producers.

•  From those hearings, local officials would likely hear concerns about agricultural zoning laws that make it difficult, or impossible, for farmers to engage in small-scale food processing. Some agricultural zoning prevents construction of new buildings on a piece of property, preventing, say, a fruit grower from building a facility to can or preserve his or her produce. Numerous farmers would like to build bed and breakfasts to create the “agritourism” experience that visitors enjoy in Europe. But inflexible rules make such ventures difficult or impossible.

•  Urban encroachment remains the biggest threat to farmers and farm-related facilities. The most classic example is the rendering plant in Sacramento County that once operated in virtual seclusion, until Sacramento County approved thousands of homes in an area that is now part of Rancho Cordova. Rendering plants are essential for the local livestock industry, but endless complaints by residents now downwind of this facility virtually ensure this plant will have to relocate – again. (It previously was in Land Park.)

•  Counties especially need strong conservation plans in place to preserve farmland and open space. Yolo County, and more recently Placer County, have been leaders in this field. But Sacramento County has yet to adopt a south-county Habitat Conservation Plan, even as it approves new developments in far-flung locales. This conservation plan is probably 20 years late. When will the county get it done?

•  If the region is serious about growing more food for a local market, farm labor needs to be part of the equation. Farmers growing specialty crops need more farm hands than those producing grain or other products for the commodities market. Yet in nearly every county of this region, there is a lack of housing and services for farm laborers and their families.

All these ideas above would help with the supply side of encouraging more locally grown food. But we also need to help consumers access more locally grown food, and build the market so farmers will have an incentive to grow for local consumption. Some ideas:

• Cities, counties, convention centers, hospitals, schools and other public institutions should adopt procurement policies to encourage more purchases of locally grown food.

• Cities that own vacant parcels of land should examine whether some of these parcels could be used for community gardens.

Some of this is wonky stuff, possibly a distraction from the simple need this week to celebrate the amazing bounty the Sacramento Valley offers us. But none of us wants Farm to Fork to be just a flash in the pan. After the final morsel is savored on the Tower Bridge, the hard work will continue on turning F2F into something real and lasting.