More than twenty people gathered on Sunday, March 5 at FarmHouse Café in downtown Hollister to discuss San Benito County’s thriving local food economy.The food enthusiasts were following through on a Dec. 1 meeting at the Paicines Ranch with Martin Ping, founder and executive director of the Hawthorne Valley Association in Ghent, New York. The nonprofit association promotes “social and cultural renewal through the integration of education, agriculture and the arts,” according to its mission statement.
Programs introducing urban school children to working farms and providing a market for small farms to sell their products are examples of their work. Paicines Ranch owner Sallie Calhoun invited local residents to Ping's talk to see how San Benito County can learn from successful models in other parts of the country.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) works with many rural communities on such endeavors and refers to them as "food hubs."
"As we talk to farmers, producers, consumers, processors, retailers, buyers and everyone else involved in regional food system development, we hear more and more about small and mid-sized farmers struggling to get their products to market quickly and efficiently," said Jim Barham, with the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service. "And more and more we hear that these same producers need access to things like trucks, warehouses, processing space, and storage. These things require capital investment, infrastructure maintenance and dedicated oversight – things that small and mid-sized producers often can’t afford or manage themselves."
That's where projects like the Hawthorne Valley Association come in.
“It’s more about building social capital and relationships than anything else,” Ping said at the December meeting.
The group at FarmHouse Café Sunday included farmers, ranchers, chefs and members of San Benito Bounty, the San Benito County chapter of Slow Food. Facilitated by Paicines Ranch Director of Education and Innovation Sharing Elaine Patarini, the meeting acted as a listening session for people to talk about what they would like to see happen for small food producers and consumers in San Benito County.
“I really am passionate about getting children involved in food and farming,” said Ann Fata, a member of San Benito Bounty and local school teacher. “I’d like to see more school gardens and programs that teach children about cooking.”
Patarini led the group through a series of discussions focused on strengthening the local food economy and providing opportunities for farms and ranches to market their products. Sarah and Shaun McFall, owners of Thyme Catering, said they would like to find easier ways to source local produce, dairy and meats for their business.
“I’m here to learn how we can connect with local farmers and ranches to supply our menus,” Sarah McFall said. “We are working on expanding into a Blue Apron-style prepared meals business and would love to use as many local ingredients as possible. Right now I have to go to Restaurant Depot in San Jose to buy San Benito County’s canned tomatoes.”
Jennifer Coile, another member of San Benito Bounty, asked how local producers can reach out to the thousands of new residents who live in new – and older – subdivisions that may not even know about the bounty of local farms and ranches. The majority of San Benito County residents commute to work each day, driving north to the Silicon Valley, and often shop outside of the county.
Kathina Szeto, who owns San Benito Bene, a downtown Hollister shop featuring locally made soaps, honey, olive oil and other goods, said she makes welcome baskets for new residents and would be happy to include local farmers’ and ranchers’ contact information. Another idea was to open a co-op where farmers could sell their produce year-round. Food trucks, local drop-off points, a local butcher shop and a commercial community kitchen were other ideas the group discussed. Some suggested working with major grocery stores like Nob Hill and Safeway to have a space in the produce section dedicated to local farms.
Nants and Tim Foley, who own Quicksilver Farm, breed goats and planted Blenheim apricots in an effort to preserve rare varieties. Their mission is “to educate producers and consumers in responsible, sustainable agricultural practices.” They host field trips and work with school children and 4-H to connect city kids with agriculture. Janet Lomanto, who grows Meyer lemons, also attended and said she hoped to find sales channels to sell her lemons.
The group agreed to continue exploring ways to promote San Benito County’s food economy. Through agri-tourism and education, they hope to see a continued interest in supporting small farms.
“People want a unique experience,” said Mary Rowen who organizes events at the Paicines Ranch. “We’re now offering eco-weddings and offer a discount to brides who want to use local and sustainable products. It's becoming more and more popular.”
For more information about how to get involved in local food activities, contact San Benito Bounty at email@example.com or (831) 524-3816.
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