"UC plants seeds of growth for local farmers"
2013-11-02 by Stacy Finz from "San Francisco Chronicle" [http://www.sfgate.com/food/article/UC-plants-seeds-of-growth-for-local-farmers-4955022.php]:
Flower seller Katie Koch photographs fruits and vegetables during a tour of Washington Vegetable Co. in San Francisco. Photo: Leah Millis, The Chronicle
Emma Torbert, a stone-fruit grower, didn't know what to expect when she got off a bus to tour wholesale food businesses in the Bay Area.
By the time she went home to her farm near Davis, her head was filled with possibilities.
She and 17 other growers, participating in a University of California workshop, learned that being a small farmer is actually a boon in today's market, where consumers are clamoring for fresh and local foods with a story. The demand is great enough that wholesalers are doing something entirely new - passing up large-scale commercial growers for people like Torbert, who farms only 4 acres.
"The trip has been encouraging," said Torbert, 34. "I currently sell to markets in my area, but am interested in expanding. Today, I got the impression that there is a lot of demand."
While some consumers have gone straight to the source, many shoppers are demanding that their neighborhood retailers carry fruits and vegetables from local farmers instead of huge conglomerates that buy from worldwide growers.
Focus on local food -
In 2009, Mintel, a global marketing research company, found that 1 in 6 consumers made it a point to buy food grown regionally to support the local economy. Shoppers also perceived that food produced relatively close to home was fresher, better tasting and better for the environment, according to the firm.
Last year, Mintel found that 52 percent of consumers polled said that it was even more important to buy local fruits and vegetables than organic produce.
Torbert's tour last week was intended to help small growers like her find new avenues to sell their products besides farmers' markets, fruit stands and community-supported agriculture. The tour was organized by the UC Davis Cooperative Extension, the university's Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education Program along with the Agricultural Sustainability Institute.
"Everyone wants to do business with them," David Visher, a project analyst who helped organize the workshop, said of his tour group, mainly farmers from along the Interstate 80 corridor. "We're not advocating that they choose processors over farmers' markets. We're just trying to show them their options and introduce them to the right people so they can make their own choices."
Many small farmers have complained that farmers' markets and farm stands aren't a sustainable way to do business. Transportation and labor are expensive and take them away from the land. Several on the tour acknowledged that they were looking for other, more cost-effective models.
One of the stops was Bay Cities Produce, a large processing company in San Leandro. The company wants to work with local, small farmers and even offers incentives to fulfill Bay Cities' stringent food safety requirements.
"We've gone from 5 percent local to 50 percent in the last three to four years," said Karl Kolb, Bay Cities' food safety executive. "Our clients want quality, and they know that they can get it from the small farmer."
Same demands nationally
In addition to selling produce to grocery stores such as Whole Foods, Andronico's and Mollie Stone's Markets, Bay Cities sells to restaurants, institutional kitchens and hospitals. All have become particular sticklers about having locally grown produce, Kolb said.
"We're seeing it across the nation," he said. "Our clients want to know where the food is sourced, how it's sourced and who it's sourced from. In Kansas they want produce from Kansas."
Kolb said dealing with small farmers - his definition is anyone who cultivates up to 1,000 acres - is more difficult than buying from industrial growers. One bad frost isn't likely to wipe out a commercial producer's entire crop, so the grower is more reliable, he said. Their product also tends to be more consistent in size, shape and color, and delivery times are consistent. Furthermore, the big guys already have safety standards in place.
"But the customer is always right," said Steve Del Masso, vice president of Bay Cities, which was founded by his father. He added that if his clients want small and local, he'll deliver.
Because small growers can't always afford to set up food safety mechanisms on the farms, Del Masso offers financial incentives, including cash, to pay for systems that ensure water and soil quality and ways to trace back produce in instances of food-borne illness outbreaks. Once the farmers comply with Bay Cities' rigid health requirements, Kolb said, "we will meet their price. We pay very well, according to the market."
Broadening his business -
Chip Morris, an heirloom dry bean farmer from Thornton (San Joaquin County), was impressed with the tour. He sells his beans to Williams-Sonoma and specialty markets such as restaurants, but would like to find a midsize distributor to broaden his business.
When the bus stopped at the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market on Jerrold Avenue, Morris started to get excited by his prospects.
"We're not hurting," he said. "We're going pretty strong in California with restaurants. But we haven't done too much with grocery stores, and we don't have a marketing team. If we could find a company like Bay Cities to get us out there, it would be great."