Local growers prosper
Small operations like Farmelot in Vina benefit from Buy Fresh Buy Local, which lines supermarket shelves with their produce
When James Brock bought 15 acres of ag land in Vina 10 years ago, he envisioned a farm that would be sustainable in all senses of the word.
“Fifteen acres doesn’t sound like a lot,” he said, “but that’s a lot of land to farm, especially when you’re doing diversified crops.”
His operation basically consists of four people—himself, wife Karla and adult daughter Laura, along with Dr. Bruce Balgooyen—“utilizing regenerative land practices” to grow “heirlooms and old-world varieties” as stated on the website for the venture, called Farmelot.
The farm’s location is great for growing but not for marketing, Brock said. Vina is relatively isolated—not a prime spot for community-supported agriculture, retail or restaurants—so he needs to look outward to sell produce. Yet, Farmelot is not large enough to fill major wholesale orders.
That’s where Buy Fresh Buy Local makes a difference.
Farmelot is one of around 100 growers, vendors and eateries participating in this agricultural marketing program. Buy Fresh Buy Local launched in 2009 as a food-systems project of the Northern California Regional Land Trust, geared toward small- and medium-sized farms (defined by the USDA as grossing under $250,000 annually).
“It’s definitely more ag of the middle scale,” explained Noelle Ferdon, director of local food systems for the land trust who coordinates the program. “Like the growers who are too big to sell only through farmers’ markets or direct markets, but are too small to sell to some of the more mainstream distribution companies, because of economies of scale—those companies require a larger level of production.
“We’re really committed to taking a couple extra steps to work with the smaller or mid-sized growers to help them get their product to wholesale markets, even though they may not grow quite as much.”
Farmelot does sell at farmers’ markets (in Chico and Sacramento) and at local co-op grocery stores (Chico Natural Foods and Berryvale Natural Foods Grocery in Mount Shasta). However, the Brocks’ produce also goes to Holiday markets across Northern California—the type of wholesale account Ferdon highlighted.
Other aspects of the program include networking events to connect growers and buyers; training sessions in skills such as social media and marketing strategies; labeling of members’ products with the Buy Fresh Buy Local logo, and publication of The Eater’s Guide to Local Food. Guides came out in 2011 and 2013, focused on the three North Valley counties the program serves: Butte, Glenn and Tehama.
“The main point of Buy Fresh Buy Local is to raise the visibility of the people who are working hard to produce food locally and those who turn around and sell it or use it, like the restaurants and regional stores,” Ferdon said. “And then, of course, bring the consumer and producer closer together as well.”
Brock didn’t come to the North State a full-fledged commercial farmer, though he did have agriculture in his upbringing.
He grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, where his family had to fish, hunt, hike to streams for water and grow their own vegetables. He worked as a social studies teacher and served as both a county commissioner and county manager in Applegate Valley, Ore. There, he also grew produce for sale at a roadside stand.
During his final 18 months in county office, Brock spent weekdays in Oregon and weekends in Vina cultivating his farm. Karla and Laura did their share of the labor. Interns have helped, too.
Bolstered by the local expertise of Balgooyen, who has a doctorate in seed cultivation, they’ve planted a variety of crops: walnut trees, fruit trees, heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, onions, garlic, peppers, lettuces …
Yes, you read that right, lettuces—year-round.
“I let the food decide what’s local,” Brock said. “If it’s lettuce, it’s very local because it’s very perishable. If it’s more durable, it can go more regional and travel a greater distance.”
Farmelot has both types of clients.
“Now we’re at a tipping point,” said Brock, who’s 59. “We’re getting traction.”
Buy Fresh Buy Local has helped.
“Being in the local food movement, you pick up on ideas, and that’s really helped me dial in a lot of these accounts,” Brock said. “Right now we have a lot more demand for our food than we can produce, and it’s hard to leave money on the table. It’s one thing to farm on paper; we need to produce all the food to optimize all the accounts we have.”
That could be why local agriculture is a nexus for economic growth. Ferdon jokes that she feels like an economist despite never taking an economics class because she’s frequently consulted by entities promoting tri-county commerce.
“There’s an emerging relationship between food-systems work and economic development,” she said. “People are really seeing food systems—and local food systems in particular—as a way to do targeted economic development and workforce development as a way to support small and mid-sized businesses.
“That’s another way we’re seeing our impact going much more beyond what we even imagined.”