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ALF Fellows Envisioned a Delicious Revolution

Published Friday, September 29, 2017

During the Sacramento region’s Farm-to-Fork month, the Carabiner salutes the ALF visionaries that helped start a movement of farmers, chefs, community leaders and elected officials who envisioned a delicious revolution with lofty goals:  Support the region’s farming industry, be stewards of the land, provide farmer training and apprenticeships, encourage organic methods, and teach what it means to grow locally and cook and eat seasonally. 

Janet Zeller (Class XXI) has been cheerleading Farm-to-Fork since before Farm-to-Fork was cool.  She teaches and preaches the virtues of fresh, local, and organic foods at Soil Born Farms, and sustains a crusade that started in a backyard garden.

With a nod toward social consciousness and feeding the food insecure, Janet and her co-founder set out to help small organic farms find a home in the city, and started one with the purpose of educating youth and adults about gardening, cooking and appreciating the natural world.

Zeller didn’t quit her day job, but worked hard to establish a Center of Food, Health and Environment on 55 acres of potential at the historic American River Ranch, one of the last working farms on the lower American River. The property is owned by Sacramento County. The quagmire of bureaucracy to acquire the land was daunting, but Soil Born Farms persevered, and thanks to the leadership and interest of Rancho Cordova City Manager Cyrus Abhar (Class XXI), the city is now in full support.

“I knew this cause was bigger than me, it is my true purpose,” Zeller added. She said they were also encouraged by a handful of chefs that wanted to buy fresh produce locally.

The Soil Born Farms initiative shared a collaborative spirit and was influenced by the work of Craig McNamara (Class IV).  In 1993, the Winters walnut farmer began working with local schools, and created the Center for Land Based Learning on his property. The Center engages youth in learning experiences on the land that foster respect for the convergence of agriculture, nature, and society. 

“Craig is the Buddha for all this,” says Chef Patrick Mulvaney (Class XIII). “He was the one that realized this was the greatest ag region in the world, and ever since, his fingers are in pies across the nation. He has been a mentor to me. He even taught me how to behave.”

Mulvaney gives credit for Farm-to-Fork to the chefs and restaurateurs who embraced the farms and were the first to tout the availability of locally grown, organic food. Mulvaney, Kate Stille (Class XIV) and Mary Kimball (Class XV) participated in this year’s Farm-to-Fork steering committee. The Carabiner caught up with Mulvaney at his restaurant. He was checking on lambs being prepared for “Day in the Country,” a celebration that gathers the Yolo farmers and the region’s chefs for a lively exchange.  The lambs came from Paul Muller, who along with his family and partners, owns and operates Full Belly Farm.

It was he and Mary Kimball (Class XV) who were the founding members of Yolo Land Trust, another pioneering entity that started at a kitchen table and became one of the most active agricultural land trusts in California. Kimball is also the long-time executive director of The Center for Land-Based Learning and is proud of how far they’ve come.

“We just graduated 17 new farmers on the steps of the Capitol as part of our California Farm Academy Program,” Kimball said.

It was on the steps of City Hall about five years ago where political interest was brewing to make official what was already the region’s authentic farm-to-fork character. Mulvaney liked the concept. “I’m not a fan of banging your chest, but we own this.”

He says Mayor Johnson was interested, but he needed stories to sell it, and Cassandra Jennings (Class III), the mayor’s chief of staff at the time, said if this is to be successful, it has to be a regional effort. Everyone must take part.

Julia Burrows (Class XII) now the director of the Governing Institute was an instrumental advisor to Mayor Johnson on the economic benefits of promoting a green economy at the time, and Bill Mueller (Class XII) from Valley Vision was there too. Mulvaney says their concept was about convening. “If anyone brings out the ALF in our community, it’s them.”

So, they met and talked. To convince the electeds, Mary Kimball talked about their work at the Center, and Janet Zeller told their amazing Soil Born story. The officials were enlightened as the advocates talked about a movement worth naming.  All of a sudden it was a go.

“Boom. This real. We are Farm-to-Fork,” they proclaimed. Jennings arranged a press conference, invited all the electeds from the region, and of course the farmers and chefs. And because it was not one bit contrived, the moniker and the associated benefits from it grew way beyond the dream.

And the dream is no accident. Placer Land Trust, Sacramento Valley Conservancy, and California Rangeland Trust (CEO Nita Vail Class XVIII) worked with willing landowners and conservation partners across the region to protect tens of thousands of acres of working lands that produce everything from row crop fruits and veggies, to orchard fruits and nuts, to poultry, lamb, beef and honey, to name a few.

The savvy use of agricultural conservation easements, a tool that prohibits further subdivision development and other harmful land uses — and can provide significant economic incentives that help farmers and ranchers stay on their family land and keep it productive for future generations — has been implemented with gusto.

For example, Placer Land Trust led the effort to protect Side Hill Citrus Farm in Lincoln. Says Jeff Darlington (Class XX), the Trust’s executive director, “It’s the world’s first permanently protected mandarin orange orchard, providing locally grown organic Satsuma mandarins and other citrus fruits to local stands, restaurants, distributors and community events.” 

Vail adds, "California Rangeland Trust has 13,761 acres in Sacramento and surrounding counties including Yolo, San Juaquin, Placer, El Dorado, Sutter, Solano, and Contra Costa permanently protected in Conservation Easement or fee simple."

And Aimee Rutledge (Class XI), executive director of Sacramento Valley Conservancy says Sacramento Valley Conservancy has permanently protected more than 8,000 acres of local farmland, producing local grass-fed cattle, melons, walnuts and many more crops. 

“We work with home-grown farmers and ranchers who have worked the land here for three generations and will for many more due to our partnership to protect both our local food and natural resources,” she relayed to the Carabiner in an email.

Of course every movement needs a bullhorn, and KVIE TV was there to provide it. The public TV station made agriculture real to millions of Americans through its popular public TV program California Heartland and its companion program America’s Heartland. Hundreds of profiles of people and organizations in agriculture in the Sacramento region and beyond have appeared on the two series. And as the show illustrates exquisitely, there was and is no denying the impact of the Central Valley’s contribution to feeding the globe. 

“You can brand your area with the Farm To Fork slogan, as several have, but unless you make impressions in other places, it’s only of limited effectiveness,” says David Hosley (Class VII), former president and general manager of KVIE. The Heartland programs were also unique in reporting about where our food comes from.

And Studio Sacramento (hosted by Scott Syphax, Class VIII), produced by David Lowe (Class XIII), and sponsored by James Beckwith (Class XIII) continues to focus on Sacramento’s farming roots with conversations about the rising interest in local agriculture, a profile of UC Davis’s Helene Dillard, and urban farming, among others. Capital Public Radio (with Joe Barr, Class XVII and Jun Reina, Class XXI) produced various pieces highlighting farm-to-fork.

Where foods come from and questioning are they free of pesticides has been the passion of the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op since it emerged as a lonely farmers’ market more than 45 years ago. Its shopper/owner structure has fueled an enormous passion, as evidenced by its state-of-the-art new store at 28th and R in midtown Sacramento. “I think the Co-op has been critical in the Farm to Fork movement,” says Jan Stohr (Class V).

Mulvaey credits Tom Stallard (Class VII), Darrell Steinberg (Class V) Michael Ault  (Class XIV) and Faith Whitmore (Class II) among others, and says his ALF Class XIII was well represented by the farming industry and people associated with it. In addition to now Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (Class XIII) from Woodland and Stan Van Vleck (Class XIII), president of the 150-year-old Van Vleck Ranch, was Mulvaney’s great friend, the late Dan Silva (Class XIII), a third generation farmer and tireless community leader.

Mulvaney learned about ALF through another mentor, Dan Kennedy (Class II) but it was a meeting with Ami Bera (Class VII) that got Patrick’s attention. When they first met, Mulvaney was struck by the depth and quality of the conversation. He started his ALF adventure about a year later.

“I talk to people all day long,” he says. “But when I talk to people in ALF it is different. It’s more like an unvarnished give-and-take from people you can trust.”

For instance, this winter McNamara and Mulvaney will be traveling together across the state, holding salons to discuss food issues from a farmer/chef perspective to inform a large convening to be held in March.

“Craig said to me, ‘I commend you for this effort because I know how many times the door has been closed in your face.’ That was a Zen Koan for me to chew on and to think about how you push through.  That’s ALF. For me, it helps me stop, and think about how to do things. How to operate in this world.”

 

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