Sonoma County Food Forum

Inaugural Sonoma County Food Forum focuses on ag, food and economy

Sometimes a hundred Post-Its speak louder than words. Tiling a 20 foot wall of the Sonoma County Fairgrounds Showcase Cafe oversized, hand-written notes passionately outlined what local farmers want to see change in Sonoma County over the next ten years. The answer: A lot.

Bringing together more than 300 of Sonoma’s food producers, farmers, agricultural policy makers and local politicos, the inaugural Sonoma County Food Forum, held February 24, 2011, was a day-long gathering to hash out broad-reaching issues facing the local food system. Co-hosted by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, the University of California Cooperative Extension, Sonoma County Department of Health Services and Sonoma County Food System Alliance, it was an unlikely mix of suits and ties rubbing shoulders with muddy workbooks and jeans.

The idea: To give voice to Sonoma County’s dairies, produce farms and livestock ranches, often under-represented in the increasingly vine-covered landscape. That, and bring together the sometimes factionalized, political and geographically disparate local agricultural and food organizations in the county. 

Between several panel discussions participants engaged what may have been the most constructive part of the day: Breakout sessions that logged their needs, worries and concerns. At hand, issues like the high cost of farming, barriers to entry, continued funding deficits and increased regulation, difficulties in marketing to the local population and increased needs to feed the hungry in our own community to name just a few.

By day’s end, the group chose just a handful to present to the County Board of Supervisors for possible action: A centralized processing center, cooperative marketing, assistance with regulations and better public education. 

Want more details? Here’s an aggregated breakdown of the major issues presentd at the Forum…

1. The Public’s Engagement with local food: With up to 70% of our local foods leaving the county, there’s clearly a disconnect between Sonoma County customers and producers. Farmers say they can get better prices in Marin and San Francisco, where the audience is more eager to pay what the food costs to grow and produce. Local stores like Oliver’s and Pacific Market, along with farm markets showcase local producers, but without more education and interest, many consumers seek out lower prices at big box stores rather than looking for local foods. On the flip side, Oliver’s Market president Tom Scott said that 27% of his total revenue comes from products produced in Sonoma County.

2. Education and Financial Assistance : Food needs to be accessible. Many farmers would like to see more school gardens and relaxed restrictions on locally grown foods getting into the school lunch programs. Community garden projects remain a high priority. Many were supportive of new EBT policies at farmer’s markets to allow food-stamp clients to shop at the markets, but wanted to see accessibility to healthy, and locally grown food increase. One recommendation: School harvest days where children are encouraged to help pick and glean local foods. “The normal public is so removed from agriculture. I”d love to see five or six farms com together and have farm tasting rooms,” said Doug Beretta of Beretta Dairy. With a large number of hungry seniors, families and children in the county, efforts are also being focused on how to spread some of the bounty to those in need. “Thirty-five percent of those coming to the food shelters have to choose between food and other necessities,” said David Goodman of the Redwood Empire Food Bank. And junk food calories, he said, are almost always cheaper, citing a figure of $18.16 for 1,000 calories of nutrient rich fruits and veggies versus $1.76 for the same number of processed food calories.

3. Better processing and distribution: At the top of the list was the need for a centralized “hub” for Sonoma County food distribution. Many farmers waste precious time and money driving their produce throughout the county, when a centralized warehouse could allow for drop-off and pick-up in one location. Also high on the list: A multi-species meat processing center. Animal ranchers drive hundreds of miles to northern and central California meat-processing plants, which is stressful for the animals and costly for the producers.

4. Marketing: Several campaigns to label and market Sonoma-grown products have launched an failed over the years. Many are eager to see a new, better-funded program for cooperative marketing, also elevating the status of “Sonoma Grown” for consumers. “Sonoma County got mixed up into the world market and we lost our identity. Now we really need to sell local,” said Joe Pozzi, a Sonoma County lamb producer.

5.  Help Farmers: One of the most-discussed topics were ways to make farming a more viable profession. From creating better government infrastructures for land access, streamlining permitting, policy changes on what they categorized as burdensome laws and zoning to a more ag-friendly policy on water, more just treatment of the labor force and saving the WIlliamson Act (which provides lower property taxes for dedicated farmland). Larry Potter of Petaluma Creamery also sees the need to make commitments to future farmers. “It’s about succession,” he said. Potter said he is currently working on a large-scale plan to buy properties for young farmers willing to work the land.

6. Eco-friendliness and Biodiversity:  From solar panels to getting GMO’s out of Sonoma County, farmers are key proponents of environmental standards for the county. Monoculture and a lack of biodiversity were also key issues.  Justine Ashton, a farmer from Glen Ellen is working to build solar panels on their property. “We need clean air and clean water. Let’s tell the truth, the air and water in this county is bad,” she said.