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Lose ‘Farm-to-Fork’, Sacramento, or you’ll only get farm-to-forklift jobs

Fly over the newly branded water tower

The water tower off Interstate 5 near the Pocket/Greenhaven exit now says "America's Farm-to-Fork Capital" instead of "City of Trees."
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The water tower off Interstate 5 near the Pocket/Greenhaven exit now says "America's Farm-to-Fork Capital" instead of "City of Trees."

My first job on moving to California in the summer of 1970 was in a peach orchard. But the work had nothing to do with farming.

I had been hired by a company called Memorex, one of the swelling ranks of high-tech electronics firms that would soon ensure that that peach orchard in Sunnyvale – along with nearly every other farming operation within miles – would soon be history.

Over the next few years, Santa Clara County, which once laid claim to being the world’s canning and dried-fruit packing capital, shrugged off its rich agricultural heritage. Along with neighboring San Mateo County, it embraced a new moniker: Silicon Valley.

By most measures, that historic transition from farm to factory turned out to be a shrewd move, one that politicians and economic development officials in Sacramento say they want to emulate.

So how, then, is Sacramento branding itself to attract a technologically innovative class of entrepreneurs? What’s the identity we’re trying to project to the world?

America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital. At least that’s what that huge water tower along I-5 proclaims.

The slogan should be scrapped.

For starters, there’s the issue of legitimacy.

Dozens of other cities throughout California could easily contest Sacramento’s claim. Among the state’s 58 counties, Sacramento County in 2015 ranked 24th in terms of the gross value of its agricultural production.

Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork boast is all wrong for a town that yearns to be Silicon Valley East.

According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the county accounted for a mere 0.8 percent of the $55.7 billion value of what California’s farms, ranches and dairies produced that year.

Even joined with the other five counties party to the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (El Dorado, Placer, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba), the region’s agriculture produced less than half of the output of Monterey County’s farms. And even prodigious Monterey ranks well behind Tulare, Kern and Fresno counties in farm production.

And what benefits do we derive from our region’s cornucopia? Are Sacramentans that much healthier or less prone to obesity or diabetes? Are we more apt to share our nourishing abundance with our least advantaged?

Hardly. Nor, with all due respect, is Sacramento anyone’s destination food town. The prestigious James Beard awards for culinary excellence, for example, regularly overlooks the nation’s Farm-to-Fork Capital, even as it routinely lauds eateries from Portland, Ore., to Portland, Maine.

Most egregiously, though, the Farm-to-Fork boast is all wrong for a town that yearns to be Silicon Valley East. Regrettably, the Greater Sacramento Economic Council seems to think otherwise.

Last year, the organization tasked with growing the region’s economy decided to market the region by shipping elaborately painted cowbells to CEOs around the county, inviting them to bring the bells back and take a look at what the Sacramento area has to offer.

Cowbells? Does the council, which insists it wants to persuade bright, frequently hip young minds to bring their startups to Sacramento really mean to imply that, at root, Sacramento is still pretty much the cow town Lakers fans once scorned?

It’s time to step away from the world-class provincialism that has long constrained Sacramento. Let go of the images of our agricultural past, lest our economic future be limited to farm-to-forklift jobs.

Jock O’Connell is a Sacramento-based international trade economist. Contact him at jockoconnell@hotmail.com.

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