Valley Consumers Help Drive Local Farm to Fork Culture, Economy
It’s not just farmers who are taking part in this new trend that is reshaping agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley. It’s also consumers. From pop-up “farm to fork” meals to acclaimed local chefs perusing the goods at a rapidly increasing number of local farmers markets, our relationships, our food and those who grow it are changing. And even in an area where fast food and chain restaurants are king, eating local is proving to be more than just a trend for many Valley residents.
Chris Shakelford is on a quest for perfect produce.
“I kind of am looking for mostly herbs, heirloom tomatoes," Shakelford says.
He’s the owner of Trelio, an upscale American restaurant in Clovis. He shops at Valley farm stands and farmers markets, like the Vineyard Farmers Market at Blackstone and Shaw in Fresno.
“Every day I come and kind of look at everybody’s stuff and make a game plan about what looks the best and what presents the best," Shakelford says.
He says the produce and game these small farms offer add flare and freshness his restaurant’s cuisine. Each item on Trelio’s menu is labeled with the farm or rancher its ingredients come from.
“For us it gives us uniqueness," Shakelford says. "It’s allowed us to be really in tune with the season’s menu wise. We tend to write and design our menus based on what's available at all the farmers markets that we go to."
Tomatoes are a main ingredient in much of Trelio’s food, but the fleshy fruit served in the restaurant aren’t picked green and aren’t artificially ripened. Instead, their cherry and heirloom tomatoes are from what might seem like an unlikely source - a backyard garden near downtown Fresno.
“My first foray into hunting food down was Tower Urban Family Farm in that I really didn’t expect to really buy anything," Shakelford says. "But when I got there and they product they were growing I wasn’t expecting to a middle of downtown farmers food on my menu."
Tower Urban Family Farms, otherwise known as T.U.F.F., got its start when 33-year-old Nolan Schmidt decided that fallow ground in urban Fresno should be used for farming.
“The concept is to farm either unused or blighted land, backyards that are being used for grass and using water, but not producing anything for homes that are struggling," Schmidt says. "So we can take land, put in a vegetable garden and show people that it’s commercially viable to use a backyard and sell to restaurants and do a farmers market with.”
Schmidt's organic operation started off with one backyard garden the summer of 2012, harvesting mostly tomatoes. Schmidt and his two brothers now run four backyard plots with over 500 tomato plants and run a weekly farm stand selling over 20 types of tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and more.
Seven restaurants in the region offer TUFF’s produce on their menus.
“As a farm we are willing to cater to the smallest restaurant," Schmidt says. "We’ll cater by the pound or to the ounce.”
That’s what Leo Rios appreciates. He runs Cafe Corazon, a Fresno based coffee shop known for its in house roasting.
He started serving brunch a year ago using TUFF’s produce.
“Tower Urban Family Farm is six to eight blocks away," Rios says. "When a purchase is made here you're supporting this business and supporting the local community and by virtue of that I’m able to buy this tomatoes from this farm that’s also very local and it keeps all the dollars and supports the community around us.”
Rios says Cafe Corazon’s brunch wouldn’t be profitable if it weren’t for T.U.F.F.’s produce.
“When you’re able to buy it when it’s very ripe and when it’s from around the corner basically it tastes that much better," Rios says. "We’re not under the gun to have to purchase three weeks’ worth ahead of time and have to store it. We’re able to order it on request and have it for the next day or two.”
Ryan Jacobsen, the executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, says small farms in the Valley are becoming more and more driven by local consumers. He says a movement in the region is brooding over where food originates.
“There are consumers out there who want to learn more and more about where their food is from, and as consumer demand increases, so does the niche for certain farmers to fill those niches and supply that information those consumers are looking for," Jacobsen says.
Gail Feenstra from the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis says that local food trends are helping boost the bottom line for small farmers.
“I was looking at national and California statistics about farmers markets for example. And they’ve continued to rise over the past 20 years. You’re just seeing more and more small to midsize scale family farms showing up and farmers markets and more and more consumers interested in buying local food.”
She says the sooner a product from a Valley farm can meet a consumer's taste buds, the better.
“The idea is that people want to know where their food comes from," Feenstra says. "They want to know that it’s fresh, nutritious and they like the idea of supporting a family farmer so that agriculture stays viable in their area.”
And she says that’s prompting more young people to consider careers in agriculture.
"One of the things that we have noticed up here at UC Davis is that a lot more students that are interested in this whole area," Feenstra says. "A lot of them are trying their hands at farming or going back to their family farms in some cases.”
But the growing demand for boutique agricultural products isn’t just benefiting local farmers. There’s also dozens of “value added” business that use locally grown food to make and market their own delicious products.
Take for example 30-year-old K.C. Pomering from Madera County. The daughter of a fourth-generation farmer, Pomering is gathering some of the region’s best, gluten free food and selling it across the nation. Each month, subscribers get a shipment of tasty and healthy California treats, which she calls the G-Free Foodie Box.
“Really the box is about my favorite stuff," Pomering says. "The products that I and the team that works for me think are incredible.”
Pomering, who holds degrees in agriculture from both Cal Poly and Fresno State, says people from around the country crave what's grown in the Valley - and many will pay top dollar for it.
The August box includes natural grenadine, figs, pie crust mix, gluten free graham crackers and more.
"The whole thing about being a G-Free foodie is that I don’t want to eat anything that tastes bad and I don’t want to eat anything that has a bunch of ingredients that are unidentifiable," Pomering says. "Those are the products foodies want and we are finding some of the crossover.”
The three month old company has gone from selling 35 boxes a month to 100, and is now being scouted for national distribution.
Back at Trelio, Chris Shackleford says his goal is for 75 percent of each plate to serves to be sourced from local producers.
"To be total farm to fork is the tuna dish, because literally every last ingredient has come from somebody that has either caught it or grown it themselves, basically only the salt and pepper are the only things that I can’t guarantee are local," Shakelford says.
And it’s those connections between the land and the table that are keeping Trelio’s doors open.