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Small farms, feeding a hunger for real food


By: YubaNet exclusive by Don Baumgart

NEVADA CITY, Calif. March 4, 2013 - As World War II ended Americans began their infatuation with frozen foods; convenience replaced quality and small farms began to be replaced with something called Agribusiness. Now things seem to be moving back in the other direction.

Last year Briar Patch Co-op in Grass Valley did business with 56 local farms, according to David Benson, the co-op's produce manager. "Roughly 20 of those had sales to us between five and forty thousand dollars for the year. We have a biannual process where we plan and make commitments with quite a few local farms for produce," Benson said.

As in most businesses, the final connection between producer and consumer is vital and small local farmers pay attention to weekly outdoor markets.

Riverhill Farm's Alan and Jo
"I think farmers markets are just about the best way" to get fresh local food into the hands of consumers. That's the opinion of Alan Haight, co-owner of Riverhill Farms outside Nevada City. "During the 2012 season we doubled the volume of our sales at the Nevada City Farmers Market."

Locally the number of farmers markets remains the same. "The goal of all the markets is to increase patronage of existing markets, rather than creating more markets," Haight said. "All the markets could use more patrons."

Riverhill Farm sells most of its produce within ten miles of where it's grown. Owners Alan Haight and Jo McProud want to build and maintain a farm "...that will serve this community for generations to come." The farm was started 12 years ago on ten acres of the last level terrain before a 1500 ft. drop into the Yuba River canyon.

"I had worked on a farm in my late teens, went to college, got a degree and did other kinds of work for many years," Haight said. He was a landscape contractor in the Bay Area, "...which was as close as I could get to farming in an urban context. When I moved here it made sense to look for my own farm"

His partner, Jo McProud, has worked the farm with him since 2006. "She's a landscape architect and we are very much involved in it as partners, doing the planning and work."

Is the small community farm a growing movement?

"I would say, overall, nationally, yes," Haight agreed. "There are more and more young people who are committed to finding a path to either land ownership or some other form of land access that enables them to meet the growing demand from citizens for local fresh produce."

Locally, there are hurdles to be climbed.

"There are some significant limitations on the extent to which it can grow locally," Haight says of Nevada County produce farming. "One is markets. We're a rural community and a relatively small percentage of the total population here patronizes sources of local food. With 100,000 people in this county, probably the total number of local C.S.A. shares is, optimistically, 400."

And, what's a C.S.A. share? It stands for Consumer Supported Agriculture and it works this way: A buyer contracts with a farmer for a season's worth of produce, paid in advance. "More than half of what we're going spend over the course of a season we spend between January and June, at a time when we have nothing to sell," Haight said. That money is the difference between being able to survive and not being able to, he added. "We take that capital and buy seeds, fertilizers, pay labor, so that when June comes we go to the farmers markets or we open up our farm stand with a full load of everything we have to offer."

There's risk involved. "People are paying money to someone they don't know to buy something they're not going to get for months," Haight said. The participants are buying into the hope of a good harvest. Farming is a gamble, no matter the size of farm.

Boxcar Farm's red mustard, lacinato and red russian kale, rainbow chard, broccoli, flat leaf parsley, mint.
C.S.A. support is really important to her farm, according to Amie Fenwick of Boxcar Farm, where local produce is grown near Nevada City on a half acre of land. "By doing a C.S.A we get a fifty percent deposit up front, which provides money to invest in the growing season. Even more valuable for me is knowing that every box will be filled and go out and be consumed, so I can plan for that market." Her web site says Boxcar's 2013 C.S.A offering is nearly all gone.

Haight points out the importance of other ways of distributing the food.

"There is a high level of commitment on the part of Briar Patch Co-op to buy from individual farmers." An increasingly greater part of Riverhill's production is going to Briar Patch and to farmers markets.

Last year Briar Patch's produce department did over $3 million in sales. "Just over half a million of that was local produce; farmer-direct products, delivered to our door," produce manager David Benson said.

Arranging for produce for Briar Patch customers is much like making a shopping list. A list of wants is sent to local farmers twice a year. "We project our growth and add that to the historical numbers," Benson said. "The farms respond with an availability list, which is what they'd like to grow for us. We end up with a finalized commitment list for each farm." One of his biggest requirements is communication. Weather can affect plans and Benson wants to be kept apprized of potential shortfalls.

"Local season comes on really strong in April, May and June. The lion's share of local produce that we move is in July, August, September and into October," Benson added.

Benson said the local food movement is probably the biggest thing to come down the pike for produce since organic certification. Consumer demand is growing. "We have yet to fulfill that demand. We sell out of the local produce fairly quickly.

"There's a ton of room to grow," he concluded.

Amie Fenwick's Boxcar Farm is growing.

"Our produce is never exposed to herbicides, pesticides, or synthetics," she says on her farm's web site, "and emphasis is placed on seasonal crop rotation, minimal tilling, and strong soil health."

Along with sales to Briar Patch Co-op and at the Nevada City Farmers Market, Fenwick sells her produce to many local restaurants.

"When I find that I have excess of a certain crop I've been reaching out to local restaurant chefs. I sold most of my basil to Cirino's in Grass Valley. They processed it for pesto and they've been using it all winter and spring. The owner of Jernigan's in Nevada City added new menu items to accommodate what I had."

Fenwick, now moving into her second growing season, thinks it's crucial to have small farms up here. "I admire this community so much for the emphasis it puts on locally grown foods. I achieved everything I had hoped for and so much more in my first year and I'm so glad to be a part of the small scale farmer community here."

With degrees in English and sociology she came to farming after doing social work. "Being indoors under fluorescent lights and in a chair all day - I really wanted to use my arms and legs. Farming is the only job I've had that doesn't feel like work." Now she's seeking a balance between "work and play."


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