Farm local, go global
Sacramento is already the state's de facto agricultural hub, and now city officials push to make it a mecca, declaring it the nation's ‘Farm-to-Fork Capital'
It was a crisp Sunday morning in late October, and Randall Selland had just found the perfect broccoli.
Selland, who owns several fine-dining establishments in Sacramento, was shopping for his restaurants at the Central Farmers Market located under the freeway at Eighth and W streets. Standing in front of a table manned by the Suyenaga family, which grows vegetables in Natomas, Selland seized a gleaming stalk of broccoli and grinned.
“You can just tell how fresh this is,” he gushed, tenderly holding the produce like an uncut diamond. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Selland has stocked his restaurants this way for the past 20 years. The produce is often picked the same day his chefs prepare it. “It’s always been about serving the food that you’d want to eat yourself,” Selland said.
It’s a simple concept. Veggies from the farmers market arrive directly from local growers instead of a climate-controlled warehouse—the place most restaurants find their grub.
Still, the “farm-to-table” or “farm-to-fork” movement only became popular recently thanks to such gastro geniuses like Alice Waters and Michael Pollan.
Buy local, eat local, they say.
Now, Sacramento wants to corner the market.
Last month, Mayor Kevin Johnson held a press conference at Cesar Chavez Plaza and proclaimed Sacramento the Farm-to-Fork Capital of America.
Not of the Central Valley, not of California, but the whole darn country.
“We want to learn to play to our strengths,” said Johnson, as a crowd of local chefs stood behind him. “We know that one of our competitive advantages is certainly the weather, the climate, the natural resources—and agriculture and food.”
It makes sense for the mayor and city officials. Sacramento is the de facto farming hub of the country’s most productive farming state. California’s largest certified farmers market is here—it’s the one held weekly at Eighth and W streets—along with 7,000 to 8,000 boutique farms and 50,000 agricultural workers.
For those reasons and more, Johnson wants to host a food festival that will launch in September 2013 as a way to push the capital’s new identity as a foodie hot spot. The yearly gastro fest would include a huge farmers market on Capitol Mall, along with (fingers crossed) a cattle drive. Think Austin, Texas, with live music or New Orleans with Mardi Gras—that’s how the mayor wants to pair food with Sacramento.
It’s Selland’s family that actually came up with the idea. His son, Josh Nelson, first pitched the concept to officials from the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau about two years ago.
Nelson said he hopes the mayor’s proclamation, signed by the city council, starts attracting more culinary tourists to the region.
“It was just something that I felt our region had a unique advantage in, and I thought it was an opportunity for Sacramento to brand itself nationally and give it an identity,” he said.
Sactown is, after all, famously known as a cow town to most outsiders. The region certainly has the farms—more than 70 percent of the Sacramento Valley and the Gold Country is covered by open space and agricultural land. But the capital might also have the chops to be a foodie hot spot, according to Linda Zavoral, travel editor and restaurant columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and Bay Area News Group. She said Sacramento’s vibrant culinary scene is underrated.
“Modesto could claim to be a great farm town and Winters and a number of others, but do they have the fine-dining scene? No,” said Zavoral, who grew up in the capital. “Sacramento is in a pretty sweet spot there with both the farms and forks.”
What goes on those forks is the key, said Patrick Mulvaney, who owns Mulvaney’s Building & Loan in Midtown. Mulvaney grew up in Manhattan and considered himself a New York food snob before moving to California.
And now? Well, now Mulvaney has changed his mind.
“I have chefs who have moved to New Orleans and Chicago and New York City,” he said. “Two of them are in Michelin-starred restaurants and say the vegetables aren’t as good [outside of Sacramento].”
But come on—really? This is Sacto we’re talking about. You know, home of greasy spoons serving cheese-skirted burgers and kraut dogs. No offense to the cheese skirts, but isn’t Sacramento overshadowed by classy destinations such as San Francisco and Napa Valley?
Not according to Mulvaney, who thinks Sac’s culinary scene can hold its own.
“I think Sacramento is ahead of those places, and so I’m not really concerned with what the rest of the world thinks,” he said. “I know what we have available to us.”
Roots of a movement
One brisk sunny morning in Natomas in early November, Paul Poore picked baby carrots at Feeding Crane Farms, a boutique organic ranch growing 25 different crops within the city limits.
“That one looks good. Yeah, that’s a yummy one,” said Poore, who is the farmers market manager at Feeding Crane, as he lovingly sorted through a bucket of thumb-size baby carrots. “As we harvest them, every once in a while we’ll wipe them off and eat them as we go.”
Poore smiled and looked around the farm’s 3.5 lush acres of organic kale, squash and other produce that he helps grow.
“That’s the perk of being out here,” he said.
Until recently, most of that produce went somewhere else. Sacramento’s residents only eat 2 percent of the region’s agricultural bounty. The rest gets exported.
City officials say they hope the new “Farm-to-Fork” proclamation will turn those numbers around. Moreover, the goal is that 20 percent of the region’s produce will stay on local tables by the year 2020 .
“This is also how we create a sustainable and local food movement,” Johnson said during the October press conference. “This is how we support our local farmers and chefs and local-restaurant community.”
Tourism could also help prop up the movement. Currently, the area attracts 15 million tourists each year, generating $2.4 billion in revenue for Sacramento and the county. Steve Hammond, president and CEO of the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he hopes that even more travelers will show up looking for something to eat.
“Once you’ve put a spotlight on this [proclamation], then the reputation starts to grow organically,” said Hammond.
No pun intended, of course. But the idea seems to be working, at least for the next generation of Sacramento’s chefs. David Marr is a second-year culinary student at American River College who attended Johnson’s press conference with some classmates. He was excited about the proclamation and what it means for the area’s food scene.
“It shows that we’re taking the time to actually prepare and do all the hard work and make [dishes] taste really good and healthy,” said Marr, 19.
Ultimately, the city’s push for foodie glory probably depends on how well farmers and chefs can work together. For people such as Selland and Mulvaney who buy their ingredients from markets and local growers, that’s the easy part.
Poore also attended Johnson’s press conference last month, although technically, he was working. Poore was busy tending a produce stand at the Cesar Chavez Plaza’s Wednesday market when Selland approached, still wearing his white chef smock donned just for the occasion. He was doing—what else—a little shopping for his restaurants, along with wife Nancy.
Selland warmly greeted Poore while eyeing the piles of fresh squash, carrots and pumpkins behind them.
“How are ya?” Poore asked.
“I’m just showing my wife what you guys do,” Selland said with a chuckle, holding a bulging sack of produce in one hand.
Poore grinned and turned back toward the crowds milling around the plaza. In the background, someone played Radiohead’s “Creep” on saxophone as the market wrapped up. The press conference was long over, but Poore was still mulling over the farm-to-fork movement.
“The whole ’buy local, eat local’ thing is going to help our local economy instead of trying to help people in San Francisco or the Bay Area,” he said. “I wish we would’ve started much sooner.”