Between farm and table, a broken chain

After years of being urged to “eat fresh, eat local,” residents of the Sacramento region are responding. From neighborhood dinner tables to big institutional kitchens, locally grown foods are in high demand.

But every spring, locally grown produce is rotting in the fields of the small family-run farms around the region.

Between that abundant supply and the strong demand, the market has broken down. There is no good way to get those crops from the farms to the people who want them at a price consumers are willing to pay.

Photo from Sacrmento Bee.

Bob Corshen wants to fix that.

Corshen is director of local foods for the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, based in Davis. The alliance and its partners are about to build the link that will close the gap in the local food supply chain. At the same time, they may be putting into place the first piece of a far-reaching social mission to bring more fresh foods into the region’s low-income communities.

The new link in the food distribution chain will be known as an “aggregation hub.” But that is really just a fancy name for a cold-storage warehouse.

Farmers will bring their harvests to the hub. A contractor working for the alliance will inspect those small shipments of strawberries or asparagus or carrots and combine them to fill the larger orders that come from the customers. Then those boxes – identified as locally grown and traceable by county and farm — will be sent into the community aboard the same trucks that already carry produce from around the world.

If all goes as planned, the small farmers will enlarge their markets and their profits. Sacramento shoppers and diners will get the local foods they want. Distributors will have a way to meet the demands of their customers. And the contractor managing the distribution hub will earn money for its role in making it all possible.

Corshen’s group is behind the “buy fresh, buy local” campaign that is now working better than anyone had hoped. Suddenly local food is on top of everyone’s wish list.

“We are involved in this for the simple reason that this whole concept of local foods is booming,” Corshen said.

Corshen said a recent issue of Packer Magazine, which he calls the “bible” for the food distribution industry, asked readers which word had more influence on their customers: organic, sustainable, or local. Local won in a landslide.

“All in the sudden the distributors give a damn,” he said. “They realize there is a need for it.”

The problem is that the existing system for distributing fresh produce in the region is built for large-scale shipments. It is too time consuming, and too expensive, for produce distributors to deal with dozens of small and sometimes unreliable farms when they could get the same product in one large lot from a farm anywhere in the world. And get it, in many cases, for less money.

“When we go to market, we have to have a consistent supply,” said Nate Parks., vice president of sales for Durham-based ProPacific, a major produce distributor in Northern California. “I have to go to my customers and say I have these 35 or 40 items, and I have them consistently for you.

“A lot of times with local farmers, his crop may come out for a week straight, and then on day 8 he is out of product. It’s hard for distributors to switch gears and identify another source. The distribution hub is a great way for us to have that consistent supply chain lined up before we go to market.”

The alliance tried a similar project a few years ago, known as the Sacramento Growers Collaborative. Working with a beat-up van, the collaborative tried to pick up boxes of locally grown produce from small farmers and distribute them to customers. But neither the farmers nor the distribution network proved reliable enough to survive.

The key difference with the aggregation hub is that it will not try to replicate the existing distribution network. Instead, it will piggy back on top of it.

“Those distributors already have trucks on the road,” Corshen said. ”They are already delivering to schools, hospitals, universities and restaurants.”

Smith Panh grows strawberries on a tiny plot of less than 2 acres that he leases from a friend in Antelope. He sells most of his berries at a roadside stand and was able to sell some to a local school last year. But not all of them.

“I had a lot I could not sell,” he said. “I just had to leave them in the field.”

This year he is starting fewer plants to reduce his waste. But he would rather grow more and sell them all.

The same is true for Dennis Xiong, who grows strawberries on 4 acres near the corner of Jackson Road and Sunrise Boulevard. He sells his harvest at a roadside farm stand. But in May and June, when his berry plants are bursting with ripe fruit, he often cannot sell them all and watches as they rot in the fields. Last year, when the berries were at their peak, he was able to sell only about half of his potential harvest.

“I want to sell outside, but I don’t know where to go,” he said.

Before moving to Sacramento, Xiong grew strawberries in Merced County. There, he had far more land and more production. But there was a company that would buy any berries he did not sell at his stand. He does not have the same advantage here. A distribution hub for small family farmers, he said, would be a huge help for him.

“That would be great,” he said.

Access to markets is just one hurdle Southeast Asian American farmers confront. The language barrier is another, according to Jennifer Sowerwine, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who works with this group of growers.

Many of the strawberry farmers are ethnic Mien. The vegetable farmers are mostly Hmong.

“They don’t have the skills or the know-how in our California food culture and system to approach a potential customer, present their product and negotiate a fair price,” said Sowerwine.

One potential customer that has gone largely unserved because of these barriers is the Sacramento City School District. District spokesman Gabe Ross said the city schools have been trying to bring more local foods onto school menus and would welcome a distribution hub that would make that task easier.

“It’s a conversation our food service staff has been having over the last couple of years,” Ross said. “The issue in the past has always been distribution, from a logistical standpoint. If there is a way to work those issues out, absolutely, this is something we would love to explore.”

Unlike similar hubs opening in Los Angeles and Oakland, the Sacramento hub is likely to have an additional element: a public service mission aimed at bringing more fresh food to low-income communities, educating those communities about whole foods and nutrition, and employing youth who would otherwise be jobless. The expanded hub might also have cleaning and processing facilities so that the produce can be shipped in ready-to-use bags that large institutions, such as schools and hospitals, prefer.

That part of the project is being funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and managed by Soilborn Farms, an urban farm with land near the American River in Rancho Cordova.

Shawn Harrison, a founder and director of Soilborn, envisions a food center that will serve farm stands in urban neighborhoods, farmers markets, corner stores and food box programs that deliver fresh produce directly to peoples’ doors.

“For these underserved communities, what the food hub does is one, give us the ability to source local, and then it creates momentum around these kinds of incubator mechanisms, to get food into the community,” Harrison said.

But Harrison does not see this as something only for low-income communities. He and others would like the project to be the beginning of a long-term reversal in the trend toward shipping locally grown food out of the region while importing most of the food that Sacramentans eat.

More local consumption of local food would reduce transportation costs and pollution while freeing more farmers from the wild swings of the international commodity markets.

“This isn’t something that is going to happen over a year,” Harrison said. “This is a 20-year process where we begin to shift the food that we have the ability to grow in this region, that has typically gone out, we can shift it to come back in.

“Ultimately, people living in the Sacramento region will more than not be getting food from places where they know where it is coming from and they know the quality of that food. That will be their preference and they will be able to do it in an affordable manner, in an equitable manner.”

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