How Sacramento can really become America's farm-to-fork capital

This week's Farm-to-Fork events celebrate locavorism, but Sacramentans only eat 3 percent of the food grown here

Local farmer Thaddeus Barsotti says that it’s actually really cheap to ship food across the country—or the world—one of the reaons why Sacramentans eat so little of its local bounty.

Local farmer Thaddeus Barsotti says that it’s actually really cheap to ship food across the country—or the world—one of the reaons why Sacramentans eat so little of its local bounty.

photo by wes davis

Sturgeon caviar, wine and some of the city’s most enthusiastic foodies will convene this Friday evening for a party along the Sacramento River. The mixer is the kickoff event for Farm-to-Fork Restaurant Week, 10 days celebrating the abundance and diversity of edibles grown in the farmlands surrounding Sacramento. It’s been almost a year now since Mayor Kevin Johnson applauded Sacramento as the nation’s “farm-to-fork capital,” prompting what has become a city initiative to make use of the locally grown bounty in homes and restaurants.

But amid white tablecloths and stemware, the hype and the fanfare, there are critics of the farm-to-fork movement, saying that it’s largely a lavish celebration of privileges among the city’s higher rollers. To participate in these dinners, after all, isn’t cheap. The caviar party on September 20, costs $85 a person, and the signature event—another wining-and-dining locavore extravaganza scheduled for September 29—sold out long ago at $175 a head.

And while other events will aim lower on the socioeconomic hierarchy by providing free discussions and information on matters related to food, farming and cooking—including market tours for kids—there remains the question of whether Sacramento, for all the talk, is even a hot spot of locally oriented agriculture at all.

In fact, it isn’t. The Sacramento Valley and the Delta are phenomenally productive, producing more than enough food to feed the local population. Thing is, virtually all the food grown here is exported from the region immediately, sold into national markets or overseas.

Meanwhile, the local population’s collective food consumption consists of just 3 percent of locally grown goods.

Patrick Mulvaney, chef and owner of Mulvaney’s Building & Loan in Midtown, has been involved in Farm-to-Fork activities and planning from the start. He says that while the week is largely a restaurant-oriented program, it will also bring schoolchildren into direct contact with farm-fresh goods, as well as explore enhancement measures for food banks.

“The concept of healthy eating isn’t only for a certain level of the socioeconomic scale,” Mulvaney says.

But Jessica Bartholow isn’t convinced that all strata of society are receiving equal portions of locally grown goods. She works with the Western Center on Law and Poverty in Sacramento, and says local food events and activities, often spearheaded by well-to-do authors and upscale restaurateurs, tend to exclude less fortunate people through a “pay to play” approach often hinged around trendy farmers markets and expensive restaurants.

Other critics of the farm-to-fork movement have mocked it as the “Farm-to-Silver-Spoon” campaign—a phrase coined by a Sacramento Bee writer—and a parallel effort pushed by Yolo County officials is going by the name Farm to Every Fork, plainly recognizing that many people within the fertile Sacramento Valley are not finding access to farm-fresh food.

So, as chefs and sommeliers are carefully planning the best pairings of hors d’oeuvres, wine and beer for the coming week’s festivities, a few local activists and economists are thinking about more effective ways to reshape the region’s agricultural industries from the ground up. And how to really become farm to fork.

They want to make small farms more profitable and make it feasible for all of society to afford local foods—if not, perhaps, caviar, cocktails and sparkling wine.

Farm to fork ain't easy

Several times each day at a Whole Foods Market, a surprise visitor shows up at the back parking lot. One or two staff members are drawn from their tasks indoors to meet the person, who steps out of an old pickup truck, dust caked under its windshield wipers. The hatchback is drawn open, and several boxes of Capay Valley melons are unloaded. The group makes a quick exchange, pens scribble in spiral notebooks, and they shake hands. The farmer goes on his way to the next grocery store, while the melons are hustled inside to the produce department.

These direct exchanges are how a great deal of locally grown produce reaches any given supermarket, but they aren’t a very efficient means of delivery.

In fact, while there are multiple reasons that local foods are relatively uncommon in our community—such as lack of local crop diversity, regional specialization in one or two species, and demand from outside areas for California-grown goods—one of the main factors is that sourcing food locally is not especially easy, even in the rich Sacramento Valley. Here, as almost everywhere else, the existing agricultural economy is geared toward large volumes, big distances and national markets, and for supermarket managers who depend on a steady, high-volume supply system, working with local farmers can be a clumsy and labor-intensive process of person-to-person communications that hampers business as usual.

Randy Ducummon, Whole Foods’ regional produce coordinator, concedes that local farms complicate his job. It would be simpler, he says, just to overlook the community of local farmers scattered across the flatlands surrounding Sacramento and utilize outside-producing regions, receiving bulk deliveries via the chain’s Bay Area distribution center in Richmond instead.

“These backdoor deliveries are not an easy process,” says Ducummon, who oversees produce sales at the Northern California and Reno-area Whole Foods stores. “At every location, we have seven or eight farmers who show up every day, and around the region I have 126 farmers that deliver directly, without using our distribution center. A lot of them are selling the same item at the same time. If you buy 10 cases of celery from one guy, you can’t do the same with another.”

The conveyor-beltlike efficiency of a supermarket, he says, is broken when local farmers, sometimes fresh out of the fields with mud still caked on their boots, come calling.

“Every truck that pulls up, you’ve got to go outside and see what they’ve got, and whether you need more of it and process the invoices,” he says.

At Raley’s, the supermarket chain based out of West Sacramento, store managers face the same issue. Greg Corrigan, director of produce for the chain, says that working with local farmers one at a time is not particularly effective business.

“Some people think it’s more efficient to go out and work with one little farmer here and another there, but it’s not,” Corrigan says. “It definitely interrupts the efficiency of things.”

Though it seems to defy logic, bananas from South America, harvested in bulk and transported via ship and rail, may arrive at a local supermarket more fluidly than a flat of fresh figs grown near Winters or a crate of Asian pears near Rio Vista. This is the paradox that food retailers face everywhere, and most of them answer to economic logic: They stock their shelves as simply and as cheaply as they can. That’s why we see food products from around the globe on store shelves, most of them at competitive prices. Such goods, cheap and plentiful, undermine local farming movements.

Chef Patrick Mulvaney reminds that Farm-to-Fork week isn’t just about fancy dinners. He’s taken kids from south Sacramento to farmers markets, for instance, and gotten them hooked on beets and asparagus.

photo by wes davis

How can foods from half the world away be so cheap?

The truth, it seems, is that a product’s place of origin has relatively little influence on its cost. That’s what farmer Thaddeus Barsotti says. Barsotti is a co-owner of Capay Organic in Capay Valley, which he operates with his two brothers. He says there is a simple reality that many people immersed in progressive food discussions overlook: To ship food thousands of miles is cheap.

“Most of the money and energy invested in food is spent on the production end,” he says. “It’s actually not very expensive to send food across the country. That cost compared to the cost of the energy that goes into the field is minimal.”

Cost efficiency is gained, then, not by minimizing travel distances, but by streamlining an industry’s production end. Bigger farms are more effective, since overhead operation costs can be spread thin across vast quantities of produce, be it almonds, tomatoes or grains.

Consider a truck filled to capacity with crates of squash. It can travel great distances, and fuel costs will be absorbed by the quantity of product sold. What’s more, it must travel long distances, since it may be carrying too much squash for the local population to consume. This is why large farms must look across land and sea for buyers. They are, from the ground up, geared for the international food system.

Food from these large farms is sent to centralized depots, where semitrucks and railcars are packed to capacity, then driven across the continent. The system works well, providing people everywhere with food from everywhere, regardless of season. Minnesotans can enjoy almonds thanks to this system, New Yorkers rice, Hawaiians beer and Sacramentans pineapples. It’s a system that brings us coffee, tea and chocolate, and which has made the tropical banana the world’s most ubiquitous fruit. It is a system that seems to work miracles.

Food still travels from farm to fork. It’s just that half the world may lie in between.

Why Sacramentans don't eat local

Clearly, this food-supply-and-distribution scheme, which feeds the 7 billion people on the planet, is anything but broken. Yet local-minded activists want to fix it.

For them, there are obvious reasons to enhance locally oriented agriculture. Barsotti at Capay Organic points out that, firstly, a region’s self-sufficiency and food security is boosted if it can provide reliably for itself. Secondly, he says, if all buying and selling, producing and eating occurs within a given radius, then all or most economic gains are enjoyed by that region. It also behooves a community, he says, to involve more people in agriculture and food production.

But the tendency for farms to grow larger, thereby improving efficiency while requiring saturation of markets nationwide, undermines all of this. Small family farms often cannot compete. Even though they may be just miles away from a hungry population, foreign products get to these people first, and at a lower cost.

Local foods become expensive—which is perhaps their greatest weakness.

Upending and rewiring this system, then, has become the goal for some analysts. David Shabazian is a researcher with the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, or SACOG, a local organizing and planning committee. He is interested in seeing local agriculture strengthened where it is currently flawed to allow small farms to efficiently access area markets. Shabazian knows this isn’t currently happening, because he has gathered and processed a multitude of data on local-food production and consumption patterns.

He says that the Sacramento six-county region produces 3.4 million tons of food each year. Potentially, Shabazian calculates, Sacramentans could eat about two-thirds of this—but they don’t by a long shot.

About 98 percent of the food produced in the six-county area surrounding the capital is relayed to faraway markets, Shabazian says. Sacramentans, meanwhile, consume about 2.2 million tons of food per year, of which just 3 percent—about 68,000 tons—is produced on area farms.

Shabazian wonders if the same mechanics that make the conventional food system so successful can be shifted to the local level.

“We want to understand, how do you mimic the conventional food system, but do it with local sources?” Shabazian says. “How do we scale up? And if the food must cost more to make a local system feasible, will the market absorb that?”

Farmers markets have been an obvious way to provide a pathway from farm to fork, connecting a community with food grown nearby—but they aren’t always very effective, Shabazian says. While they allow farmers to skip middlemen and make more money per pound of produce sold directly to consumers, relatively few people shop at these venues. Moreover, a farmer may need to spend a full day onsite, handing over food and receiving cash. Farmers markets become unpopular during the rainy season, too, and they are often pricey.

“Supermarkets,” Shabazian says, “deal in high volumes, and that can lower their prices.”

The trick, then, becomes supplying supermarkets with large and dependable quantities of locally grown goods. This, Shabazian says, would require centralized drop-off points—“food hubs,” as he calls them, where trucks from numerous scattered farms would go to unload their goods. Some of these foods would need to be processed to some degree—milled, dried, frozen, canned or otherwise packaged. Then, on the final leg of their journey to the consumer, they would be driven only a few hundred miles or less. The local farm-to-fork system would be complete. The Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op and the Davis Food Co-op, stocked largely with area produce, have worked under this model for years.

A mainstream shift to local foods would generate social benefits in a variety of ways, especially quality of life, with improved health and preservation of ethnic culinary traditions, so believes Tom Tomich, a UC Davis professor and the director of a student-run campus farm. Grade-school children have, for years, made field trips to the farm, Tomich says, and he notes that there is tremendous value to be gained in having farms situated near residential areas so that urban people—especially kids—can visit and learn where and how their food is produced.

“A lot of people who eat processed foods have become completely divorced from the role agriculture plays in their food,” Tomich says.

The economy might also see benefits. “Enhanced regional agriculture can have what economists call ’multiplier effects,’” Tomich says. “There are more jobs in processing, distribution and cooking, and more jobs in construction and related industries.”

Researcher David Shabazian with the Sacramento Area Council of Governments says that Sacramentans could eat two-thirds of the 3.4 million tons of food they produce each year—but they don’t by a long shot.

photo by wes davis

A population’s food security is also bolstered by locally oriented agriculture. As things operate now, if transportation systems broke down, whole regions could be left without food. Places like Las Vegas would starve entirely. Others, like Nebraska, would have little else but corn. The Canadian plains provinces would have lots of wheat and barley.

In Sacramento, in spite of what seems like a bounty, we would also face a form of scarcity.

“We rely on outside food regions, because we can’t live on almonds, rice and alfalfa,” says Barsotti, naming three of the region’s primary crops. Increasing crop diversity, then, becomes essential in a serious farm-to-fork movement.

But complete dependence on local farms could cause a backfire effect, warns Tomich.

“We wouldn’t really want to be 100 percent reliant on local food sources,” he says. “That could leave us vulnerable to unpredictable weather events that destroy entire crops. But full reliance on outside exchanges also leaves us vulnerable.” We must, he says, identify “the sweet spot.”

Chef Mulvaney concedes that, from his perspective, the Sacramento area provides all the abundance and diversity he could ever want or need.

“But I’m in a pretty unique little sandbox,” he says. “My wife and I are lucky enough to have a restaurant, so we’re in the center of all this [locally grown food].”

For the majority of people, upscale restaurants provide little to no nutritional or lifestyle value. Mulvaney recognizes this and points out that the Farm-to-Fork campaign will be conducting programs aimed at lower tiers on the socioeconomic ladder.

He has, for instance, taken kids from Oak Ridge Elementary School in south Sacramento shopping at farmers markets, then helped them cook a meal. He has watched kids who initially craved pizza, barbecue and fried chicken graduate to preferences for asparagus, beets, blue cheese and walnuts. In turn, these influences creep into their households.

“The kids then teach their parents,” Mulvaney says.

Hunger amid abundance

Bartholow at the Western Center on Law and Poverty says poorer people have been consistently excluded from the locavore revolution. She says that anti-hunger campaigners and local-food activists “are seated at the same table.”

“However, an elite food culture often dominates the discussion of local foods,” says Bartholow, who recently lectured about the politics of hunger and poverty at an event hosted by the Yolo Farm to Every Fork campaign, the spin-off initiative aimed at bridging the gap left by Mayor Johnson’s vision. “We’ve created a local-food movement that disenfranchises poorer people.”

Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor wants to see locally grown products become accessible to everyone. Saylor has helped brainstorm the Yolo Farm to Every Fork mission, the name of which flatly indicates shortcomings of Sacramento’s vision. The program, designed in partnership with Yolo Food Connect and other groups, will occur during the Farm-to-Fork events and will feature the production side of the food industry more than the white-tablecloth side.

There will be tours of local rice farms, tomato fields and vineyards, plus a honey farm and several farmers markets. This past Saturday, program volunteers harvested several tons of food from Sloughside Farm in Winters that was donated to an area food bank. The idea is to include people who may have been, until now, largely excluded from the local-food revolution.

“I agree with the principles of the Farm-to-Fork program,” Saylor says. “We produce an amazing bounty in the Central Valley, but a truly sustainable agricultural economy has to feed the people who live here. I want to see the Farm-to-Fork activities truly focus on every person’s fork. We’re blessed with a great climate, fertile land, sun. There’s no reason anyone should be hungry in and around Sacramento County.”

Currently, locally grown goods often cost too much to make the farm-to-fork movement relevant to much of the population. Regional, family-run farms exist largely because well-to-do people with expendable income are able and willing to subsidize them. Farmers markets, too, tend to be unaffordable for many people.

But anti-poverty programs are, in fact, getting involved with the area’s farmers. Capay Organic donated about 50 tons of food to the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services last year and regularly gives the organization bargain rates on fresh produce. The farm has also donated food to the Yolo Food Bank, according to Barbara Archer, who conducts outreach efforts for the farm. The Sacramento Food Bank has also expanded its efforts to deliver food to poorer people. It now has 12 distribution points around the city and also offers gardening classes. Soil Born Farms, too, has long hosted groups of schoolchildren visiting its Rancho Cordova property. Many farmers markets in the area are now accepting food stamps.

At UC Davis, Tomich believes the most valuable aspect of regionally focused agriculture may be among the simplest: Food—especially perishables—tastes better when travel time and distance between farm and fork is minimized.

Last week, he says, he visited Manhattan. On Broadway, he entered three produce markets before settling on a single California peach. It cost him more than $2, and it was awful—with pithy, brown, inedible flesh.

“It’s seems to me that having local sourcing is an especially important part of flavor and the experience of eating,” Tomich says.

But Tomich knows that many people have nothing to eat, period. For them, the banquets and tasting parties of Farm-to-Fork Restaurant Week will not provide direct relief.

“The biggest issue we’re really dealing with here is hunger amid abundance,” he says. “It’s a paradox. We have extremely productive agriculture, but also a lot of people who aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from.”

And while there are farms that are donating food to the poor, he says he isn’t sure that it’s their responsibility to do so—and critics of Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork campaign must be careful not hold local farmers, who are now in the peak of their harvesting times, accountable for society’s ills.

“I think we need to decouple local food from local poverty,” he says. “It’s putting too much burden on the area’s small farmers. Why should they have to take on these broad social problems?”