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Making it as a Local Farmer

Sacramento is downright abuzz these days about the farm-to-fork movement, but does the enthusiasm translate into more income for local farmers? Sacramento-area farmers think so. They believe that heightened attention to the value and importance of local food is good for them as well as for the community.

Farm-to-fork movement benefits local farmers

Local farmers have been “doing” farm-to-fork for years—at least 30 years, as measured by the opening of one of the earliest Sacramento farmers markets by Dan and Renae Best in 1980. Even though direct marketing from farmers to consumers has been around for a long time, the new interest from consumers, chefs and local organizations is a boost to farmers’ visibility and bottom line. Although hard sales numbers related to the movement are not readily available, there are still clear effects, ranging from greater consumer awareness of local food sources to more sales opportunities for farmers.

Dave Vierra, owner of Vierra Farms in West Sacramento, said that his farm was on the forefront of the farm-to-fork movement. Twenty years ago, his farm started selling pumpkins at their pumpkin patch. Ten years ago, they began growing produce for farmers markets and stores, and have seen an acceleration in demand in recent years. Vierra believes that the energy of the movement is particularly helpful to farmers wanting to sell to grocery stores. Consumers are asking more often for local food, which has made grocers “much more willing to work with small, local farmers and not just the big guys,” says Vierra. Raley’s and Nugget Markets have been “really opening their doors to small farmers,” adds Vierra.

Feeding Crane Farms, established in 2011 within Sacramento city limits, is a newcomer to the urban farming scene. According to General Manager Shannin Stein, the farm-to-fork movement has “completely shifted sales demand.” Compared with last year, the farm planted 30 percent more this year. “As soon as we tell chefs we have something available, we can’t keep it in stock. We’re getting cleared out by chefs, Community Supported Agriculture boxes and markets,” said Stein.

The upturn in demand is good news for Feeding Crane, although the farm is still working to become financially sustainable. Stein described some of the steps they are taking, such as increasing efficiency as they grow from their initial one acre to six or more acres. In addition, they are trying to find the right balance between growing specialty crops for CSA boxes and restaurants, and cultivating higher-quantity crops, such as tomatoes, that can be sold in bulk to grocery stores. The farm is also establishing community connections through its farmers market presence, relationships with local chefs, community events and cooking classes.

Local, small farmers are more likely than large producers to connect and sell directly to consumers. Whether through farmers markets or U-pick fields, or by selling to chefs and institutions, farmers benefit economically by eliminating the middleman. Consumers benefit from the short food supply chain by having access to fresh, local food and more information about where the food came from and the people who produced it.

Farmers markets, a classic short supply chain, are a hot commodity in Sacramento. California-Grown Certified Farmers’ Markets supporting California family farmers are held in 11 different locations throughout the Sacramento area five days a week. The number of markets sponsored by BeMoneySmartUSA, a nonprofit training organization that provides youth and adults with financial and entrepreneurial training, are rapidly increasing. Their first farmers market opened in August 2009. By the end of 2013, the organization expects to have nine markets in the Sacramento area.

BeMoneySmartUSA’s markets are “a perfect blend of missions,” said executive director Marie Hall. Communities want more farmers markets, but farmers find it expensive and difficult to staff expansion. Hall’s organization trains youth to run the booths and teaches them about agriculture and produce varieties, enabling farmers to rent a teen to help with the farmers markets and expand into more communities.

Farmers markets, farm tours, educational programs and other aspects of the farm-to-fork movement help raise consumer awareness about local farms and products. “Food comes from farms—there is no other way to get it to the table. It helps to tell the story of why small farms close to you are important,” said Dan Gannon of Humble Roots.

Suzanne Peabody Ashworth, owner of Del Rio Botanical, sees the farm-to-fork movement as beneficial, but other factors, such as costs, can have a bigger impact on sales. Although the movement “gets more people on the bandwagon, it doesn’t necessarily increase sales for farmers,” said Ashworth. She explained that local farmers have to compete with lower-priced products from Mexico, Chile and Peru, where labor costs are very low and where fewer requirements are placed on farming operations. In the U.S., the prices charged for local food should increase when diesel, minimum wage or regulatory-related costs rise. The problem is that for restaurants, there is “not a lot of wiggle room” to raise meal prices to support more expensive local food, said Ashworth.

How local farmers survive

The local farmers who make the farm-to-fork movement possible bring a great deal of determination and creativity to their enterprises. Growth in demand due to the local food movement certainly helps, but growers must employ a variety of strategies to survive, such as having diverse market outlets and products, offering specialty crops and uncommon varieties, controlling the supply chain, using natural farming methods and implementing innovative marketing practices.

Vierra’s markets and products are “extremely diversified, and that’s the key to any farm,” he said. Vierra farms 300 acres of vegetables and another 500 acres of wheat and hay. He diversifies by offering fresh produce at farmers markets, selling wholesale, doing general farming (wheat and hay) and retailing (e.g. pumpkin patches, corn maze, Christmas trees and weddings). He also sells specialty produce, such as heirloom tomatoes, black seedless watermelon and six varieties of squash. Even with his diverse approaches, it is “very difficult to be economically viable without borrowing money,” said Vierra.

In the Capay Valley, Full Belly Farm’s underlying formula for success is that “We control everything from seed to delivery, capturing as much of the food chain as we can,” said co-owner Judith Redmond. By comparison, Redmond noted that large producers, such as almond growers, assume a big risk by relying on one crop and one market (wholesale) for their income.

While larger acreage is generally thought to be a key to efficient and lower-cost production, Gannon challenged conventional wisdom. He farms a half-acre farm in Yolo County and manages to make a living by doing “everything different from everyone else.” He does not use any mechanical equipment or petroleum, and his farming practices are “centered on living systems,” meaning he lets worms and chickens manage soil health, fertilize and control weeds and bugs.

Gannon also has innovative marketing approaches using technology. Customers can order his CSA boxes using an iPhone app, and he created an online farm stand where a group of new farmers post their produce. Consumers click on what they want and then pick up their boxes of goodies at a convenient location.

Nonfinancial rewards

Farming is hard work and clearly not a road to riches, so why do farmers do what they do?

The nonfinancial rewards are “the only reason to have a farm,” said Vierra. “You can’t count the hours or labor—it would be well below minimum wage.” He admitted to sometimes questioning why he does it, but then he chalked up his lifestyle choice to, “You’ve got to have the bug.”

Stein said that she worked in the restaurant industry for years, but farming is the hardest job she ever had. Nevertheless, farming offers an “intangible joy … and the pride of being part of something good—the building block of people’s nutrition,” she said.

Making it

Sacramento local growers are discovering their own formulas for making a living from farming, and they see the increased emphasis on farm-to-fork as a boost. Making a living, however, is not just about economic viability, but about lifestyle too. When asked if she finds farming rewarding, Stein resoundingly answered, “Yes, every second of every day.”

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