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Trish Kelly Talks “The Business of Food and Ag”

On Thursday, March 14th Sacramento Business Journal hosted the second Business of Food and Ag event at the Milagro Center in Fair Oaks. The event, sponsored by Bank of America, was a moment for regional leaders and those vested in the progress of this industry sector, to come together and dive into some of the most pressing issues relating to food and Ag.

Valley Vision’s Managing Director Trish Kelly was invited to participate as a research expert on the food and ag industry cluster, as well as on related workforce issues. Trish joined Thaddeus Barsotti, Chief Farmer and Co-CEO of Farm Fresh to YouBill Easton, President and Winemaker of Terre Rouge & Easton Wines, and Joel Wilkerson, Food Safety Manager for Produce Express on a panel called “Food for Thought: Challenges and Changes in the Sacramento Agricultural Industry.” The conversation was an opportunity to identify situations affecting the landscape, understand how we can better support the region’s food economy, and the steps we can we take to do so.

One of the most significant changes happening in agricultural, as well as other industries, has been the adoption of increased technology in response to new labor regulations, labor shortages, and the decline of farm owners and operators, given that the average age of farmers is 58 years old. But for Bill Easton, whose wine grapes sit high in the Sierra Foothills, mostly inaccessible to large farm equipment, he depends heavily on a migrant labor force to pick and sort his vines. Thaddeus, who is supportive of the new minimum wage, notes that increased labor costs mean farmers, like himself, must adjust and offset those costs to continue business. “Labor is an issue for all companies, even at the large scale farming operations we see crop selection move away from things that require hand harvesting or certain crops leave the state entirely.” It is no secret that the Central Valley provides a considerable portion of the country’s fresh produce. Understanding that the landscape is changing, organizations like Valley Vision, and the Sacramento Area Council of Government (SACOG), are working to provide research and information on which crops could be better value replacement options and how to create more localized supply chains that will support the region’s food economy.

Trish cited the opportunity for increased purchasing of locally grown produce and new market opportunities for farmers through institutional procurement by schools, hospitals, and other entities such as the Golden 1 Center. Valley Vision is conducting a case study on the Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD)’s successful food procurement model. SCUSD is working to increase the amount of locally purchased food products directly from both growers and local food distributors for their student meal programs. So far, they have been highly cost-effective in serving 45,000 meals a day, which has allowed the SCUSD to expand its sourcing of locally grown food, qualify more families for free and reduced-cost meals, and provide fresher, from scratch, meals to the students.

Likewise, at UC Davis Health, Executive Chef Santana Diaz is shifting the procurement process to locally sourced products, providing healthier and fresher foods to patients, staff, and visitors, and doing their part to support the regional economy. In the last year, Chef Diaz increased the amount of locally purchased food by 40%, reducing its greenhouse gas emission along the way! Similarly, Produce Express, which is a supplier of fresh produce to both SCUSD and UC Davis Health, has recognized the potential for serving institutional clients, expanding its operations from serving primarily restaurants to also serving local institutions like hospitals and schools, which often have more challenging procurement processes.  According to Joel: “These places have huge commitment to feed a lot of people… We hang our hat on the Farm to Fork model and are committed to helping it grow.”

Connecting the conversation to future opportunities, Trish noted that the Brooking Institutionwhich conducted an analysis of the Capital region economy in 2018, identified the food and Ag cluster is a cornerstone for growth and leadership in sustainability. In response, Valley Vision, the Greater Sacramento Economic Council, the Sacramento Metro Chamber, and SACOG, along with other partners, are developing a more cohesive strategy to catalyze the cluster. As part of this effort, Valley Vision is assisting the region’s community colleges, workforce boards, and employers strengthen the region’s ag-related education and workforce programs. See research and proceedings from the recent workforce forum held at Woodland Community College that presented new data from the Center of Excellence at Los Rios. As technology becomes an even greater aspect of the business of ag, the workforce will need new skills to be ready for the future of work. Programs like the newly-certified farm and farm manager apprenticeship program developed by the Center for Land-Based Learning are including technology skills in this non-traditional training program. Ag is truly a sector that is rooted in our history while looking toward a dynamic future.

Overall, events like the Business of Food and Ag are imperative if we are to move forward and to bridge the divide between people and helping them understand the food they eat. Making these connections, that otherwise would go unnoticed and misunderstood, is critical if we are going to ensure our region remains the Farm to Fork Capital.

Emma Koefoed is a Valley Vision Project Associate contributing to the 21st Century Workforce and Food and Agriculture impact areas.