Friday, February 25, 2011

Sonoma County Food Forum

I'm going to write an off the top, eyewitness account here - before I have to engage all the official data for the report which I'll be working on over the next few weeks.

It was a good day yesterday, with about 300 people over all involved and representing many sectors of our community: agriculture, health, food justice, eco-justice, government, and just foodies.

I still find it difficult to condone men wearing hats inside, but in yesterday's case it was somewhat instructive - a way of sorting the various subcultures. Everything from woolly caps worn over hair that would've been dreadlocks if it had been better cared for to 10 gallon stetsons. (Old men in rural Nevada taught me that real cowboys don't wear their hats inside. Apparently that does not extend to dairy farmers in Sonoma County.) In between: ball caps and a brimmed cap like a certain vintage of men wear when driving, and even one of those dreadful little synthetic hats with the narrow brim. Footwear (boots to birkenstocks) works sometimes, but yesterday it was headgear which revealed the diversity of the crowd.

Two things contributed to the success of the day, I believe. One was the relationships many of us have been building among ourselves, and across the various sectors. The other was a balanced design, where neither those who wanted an old-white-male conference format or those of us who would have liked an all open space format prevailed. Short addresses, panels, a modified cafe process and a response from the politicos provided a balanced day.

The food was great, too. Local as far as possible, beginning with buns and yogurts, wending through a luncheon salad buffet of great variety, and ending with a local cheese tasting.

I always enjoy listening to the farmers, because I always learn something, and realize that across the political divide there is still a lot we have in common. I learned where a lot of wool from all purpose sheep here goes (to a wool mattress maker) and the difficulties of running a diverse produce farm in this county. And I did not realize that the past president of the Farm Bureau has a full organic operation - and was the first FB president for whom that was true, a shocker at the time.

A take home from both the panels was a new appreciation of "value added". I have thought of this as meaning making cheese or jam from what one grows/produces - but often the added value is in terms of relationship - knowing or feeling a connection with your farmer/rancher. Of course, it is!

Tom Scott of Oliver's Market told a story of an experiment - selling oranges marked California oranges for $.99 per pound - and also, in a display featuring more info about the source, a pic of the farmer, etc. for $1.29 per pound - and selling more of the latter. This is instructive, and it's wonderful when it's my local market - not so good when it's Safeway or Whole Foods exploiting people's good will with a constructed narrative.

One of my ongoing concerns is community education, helping people to learn more about food system issues and to do some reskilling in food growing, preparation and preservation. What I realized yesterday is that the hook we have for this is marketing, and working with the markets. A little of this goes on - samples and cooking demos at our local supermarkets - but there could be many more tie-ins, I think. Beyond the local, it occurs to me that a regional chain like Raley's could do more with tips on seasonality and sustainability issues in their free magazine without hurting their business - maybe even enhancing it.

Later, when I've done my preliminary review of the input from the cafe tables, I'll make some informal notes here about priorities in vision and action steps. But for now, I want to say that I do get a kick out of watching the pols and the bureaucrats in action. We had four of our county supervisors there yesterday, some other locals, and a former local who now works for the USDA in DC. They represented many points on the smooth operator scale. Perhaps most interesting was to see the degree to which they really were - or weren't - engaged in the conversation. Time will tell, as our report with priority recommendations for policy and program will go to them.

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