A local pig farmer coined that word just as a cowbell echoed through the grange hall in Sebastopol. At that signal, a few dozen farmers took their seats on one side of a long row of tables, while an equal crowd of food buyers—chefs, distributers, grocers, even school cafeteria managers—arranged themselves on the other. And with a flurry of handshakes, this annual Farmer/Buyer Mixer kicked off for the third year in a row, a speed-dating-styled undertaking to increase local food purchasing throughout the North Bay.
Most people think of Sonoma County as a locavore’s epicurean Mecca, once deemed by the famed horticulturalist Luther Burbank as “the chosen spot of all this earth as far as Nature is concerned.” And with year-round growing and fertile soils, in the century following Burbank’s arrival, this region spilled over with a bounty of apples, eggs, pears, wheat, prunes, milk—enough to feed the local community and still have enough left over to ship all across America.
But this past December, in that bustling Grange hall in Sebastopol, all those agrarian speed-daters were in fact engaged in something that today is quite radical: bringing back the love. Because despite the recent proliferation of farmers markets, farm-to-table eateries and a love affair with the buzzword “local” by marketers, we in Sonoma County rely more on imported food today than ever before.
Where has the growmance gone?
With skyrocketing costs in land and housing, together with onerous regulation and a deluge of cheap imports from factory farms in the Central Valley or as far away as Mexico and China, local agriculture has struggled to keep up. Value-added products such as wine, artisan cheese, and now hard ciders have helped preserve much of the county’s remaining farmland. According to last year’s crop report, well over 60,000 acres are currently planted to winegrapes. But divvy up the 600 acres of vegetables among the half-million people who call Sonoma County home and they’d each get just a seven-foot-by-seven-foot parcel.
Doing her part to offset that ratio is Caiti Hachmyer of Red H Farm. Just south of Sebastopol, Hachmyer represents a new generation working to re-diversify the region’s bounty. Young, small-scale and focused on ecological practices, Hachmyer arrived to December’s Farmer/Buyer Mixer hoping to expand beyond just farmers markets and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture, a weekly subscription-based model). To do so, she knows that her success hinges not just on market forces but upon relationships, too. “I’m a pretty small-scale grower,” she says, “so I need to find buyers who can work with me, who can be flexible or even sit down and help coordinate my planting schedule with their menu.”
The pace of agriculture can’t always keep up with the pace of the food industry. And food trends, says Hachmyer, sometimes change faster than she can farm. “Padron peppers might be hot [no pun intended] one season, but by the time I plant, cultivate and harvest them, suddenly chefs are asking for shishitos. Knowing what to grow is kind of a chicken or egg challenge, which is why the [Farmer/Buyer Mixer] event was so valuable. I got a better idea of what to grow, when, how much and at what price.”
Held in winter, the event’s aim wasn’t simply to match existing supply to existing demand, but to cultivate long-term relationships in preparation for the coming season, partnerships like those that Hachmyer has forged with chef Tom Adamian of Woodfour Brewing Company.
“Of course going through some big distributor would be easier,” says Adamian. “And that’d be fine, if I didn’t care where my ingredients came from. But for me, it’s worth the extra effort to know who’s growing your food, how they farm, their philosophy.”
Adamian doesn’t simply know his farmer by name, but visits Hachmyer’s land, learns about her no-till soil techniques and why that matters. “The ability to see something growing and serve it that same evening is incredible. Most people come to the restaurant and just want good food and to enjoy a beer. And that’s fine. Though lately we’re getting folks calling in ahead to ask how we source, where the food comes from. It’s nice validation for the extra effort we take—though I’d probably do it one way or another,” he says.
Those phone calls are part of a growing trend. One in three people surveyed by a national market research firm recently claimed they’d pay up to 25 percent more for local food. But while food businesses like Safeway have responded to a disparity between demand for and supply of local food by stretching their definition of “local” to encompass a sometimes 800-mile radius, the businesses that arrived to last December’s Farmer/Buyer Mixer are choosing to be more proactive. By forging relationships with local farmers—including many new farmers just getting started—these businesses are helping to incubate their own supply.
Tim Page, local food distributor of FEED Sonoma, admits he showed up to the event with low expectations. Already working with nearly 60 local farms of every shape and size, Page assumed that if they were growing food, he already knew them.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” he says. “I met farmers that I didn’t even know existed, plus several energetic new folks getting ready for their very first season.”
FEED Sonoma works to build efficiency in the local food system, pledging a fair and transparent link between family farms and businesses of every kind, including Woodfour Brewing Company (it helps that FEED’s loading dock sits just a couple hundred feet from the Sebastopol brewpub’s entrance). “Ultimately, an event like this is super important because while bigger farms might have sales and distribution reps, smaller farms need collaborative relationships. We need cross-pollination,” says Page.
Not only did Page leave with a whole list of new farmers, but by the following week trucks were leaving FEED Sonoma with a brand new delivery of yacón, a crisp, sweet-tasting root vegetable that originated in the Andes but is now grown right here in Sonoma County. “Instant gratification!” says Page.
Despite the huge progress made by FEED, everyone here agrees: we’ve got a long way to go before achieving a truly sustainable local food system. In short, says Page, “We need more farms! Take a closer look and you might discover that our system isn’t as efficient as we think. It needs healing. We in Sonoma County should be setting an example for other communities. If we can’t do it here, who can?”
From farmland access to Big Ag subsidies, Hachmyer recognizes the limits of “voting with your fork,” pointing to the systemic obstacles facing small-scale, family farms. But despite that, she says, “It really does come down to individual relationships and communication. Talk to your waiter, tell restaurants what you want, open up dialogue with your favorite food business and politely request more local options.”
Knowing there’s more demand for local produce and buyers willing to work with farms like hers, Hachmyer feels more confident scaling up her operation. There are never guarantees in agriculture, but Hachmyer looks forward to 2016. SD
Red H Farm, Sebastopol
FEED Sonoma, Sebastopol
Woodfour Brewing Company, Sebastopol
6000 Sebastopol Ave., Hwy. 12