In a time when outsourced produce and national distribution are the norm, eating locally isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds. Even in a place as fertile and food-forward as Sonoma County, most food in restaurants and markets comes from hours away—sometimes even if it’s grown or raised just down the street.
Take beef, for example. Anyone who’s heard the shocking statistic that four companies account for more than 80 percent of U.S. beef production might look hopefully to those famous Happy Cows grazing the Sonoma and Marin hills. But although locally sourced marts like Whole Foods and Oliver’s stock their meat counters with sustainable, grass-fed alternatives from North Bay farms, inefficiencies often litter the path from pasture to refrigerated case—notably, a local shortage of USDA-approved slaughterhouses.
North Bay ranchers surveyed in a 2009 study conducted by the University of California Cooperative Extension reported an average 97 minutes of one-way travel time between ranch and slaughterhouse, meaning that meat which might have been raised only miles from your home traveled an extra three hours before getting to your plate.
Farmers discussed this concern at a Sonoma County Food Forum in 2011. A report from the event reveals an even longer haul. “It is crazy that small farmers have to haul pigs and poultry all the way to Modesto and back just to be slaughtered,” one participant said, according to the document, detailing the nearly five-hour round trip. Another rancher outlined trips to the central valley, saying, “Our carbon footprint is a size 16.”
Of course, while this is troubling from an emission-conservation standpoint, it easily beats importing beef from Greely, Colo., home of Cargill Meat Solutions, or Springdale, Ark., home of Tyson Foods. But it illustrates a glitch in the hyper–local food movement—a web of distributors, packagers and regulators operating on a national or international level.
According to Oliver’s Stony Point manager Eric Meuse, Sonoma County products account for almost half—40 percent—of the store’s total sales. But how those products get to the store can be complicated.
“Sometimes we’ll have someone walk in off the street,” he says. “But produce is a little odd. Local growers can generally get more at farmers markets, but to sell to a grocery store often takes a cut in their profit. We have to look at what’s a reasonable sell point.”
Oliver’s tries to work with local distributors for Sonoma County products, Meuse says, but larger distributors can offer discounts and incentives for buying products in bulk that smaller outfits can’t.
And it’s not just Oliver’s.
“The centralization of food distribution is a major obstacle to closing the gap between local farmers and local consumers,” according to the “Sonoma County Community Food Assessment” from 2011. The report details the many obstacles facing producers and growers attempting to sell, including high distribution costs, low prices, storage and transportation issues and a disconnect between small-scale, seasonal produce and the needs of larger year-round buyers.
It outlines as many as five steps—post-harvest facilities, manufacturers, shippers, brokers and wholesalers—between the rancher and the retailer.
The old-timey, write-a-bluegrass-song-about-it model of putting your produce in a pickup truck and driving it to the grocer is also still in existence, but despite all its romance, it may not always be the most efficient means of distribution.
“We deliver directly to Whole Foods,” says Brian Sullivan, owner of Dry Creek Peach and Produce in Healdsburg. The fruit grower also sells to Mollie Stone’s and a handful of Sonoma County restaurants.
However, he adds, Dry Creek’s crop is small and inconsistent, and the direct model may not work for larger farmers or producers who sell to more vendors.
“It can be helpful to the grower to make one delivery rather than multiple,” he says.
Direct delivery would be difficult for a more widely distributed product like Straus milk. The Tomales dairy utilizes several distribution tiers, according to CFO/COO Bob McGee—local, regional and national.
“The distributor will pick up products from several different manufacturers like Straus, as opposed to Straus having to go to multiple retailers,” he says. “It’s more efficient for companies like Straus.”
One such smaller-scale local distributor is FEED Sonoma. The Sebastopol company acts as a go-between for small-scale Sonoma County farmers, like Bloomfield Farms and Felton Acres, and Bay Area restaurants.
“We’re trying to help the farmer and the restaurant,” says co-owner Michelle Dubin. “While we want to encourage direct relationships, it doesn’t make sense for everyone to have a large truck, and at some point there’s a break, where it’s tough for a chef to call 10 farms.”
It’s also potentially costly and inefficient for a restaurant to buy all its food directly, according to Lowell Sheldon, owner of Peter Lowell’s in Sebastopol, though this is primarily what his restaurant does.
“If I wanted to hire a new chef, it would be a very labor intensive endeavor,” he says. “I would have to train him about the 50 different vendors I use and how they negotiate pricing—it takes a lot of work to develop that, as opposed to if I hired a chef and brought everything in through distribution companies.”
Sheldon brings up another issue for serious locavores. Sonoma County food isn’t just leaving and coming back—some of it is leaving altogether. Buying local apples is very difficult, he points out, along with local seafood.
“Wild-caught fish is just zipping right through Sonoma County,” he says. “We can’t secure it.”
FEED cofounder Tim Page adds that as these local products leave, nonlocal products are imported to take their place, which he sees as a consequence of our deeply ingrained nonseasonal eating habits.
“We have an amazing history of heirloom apple production,” he says. “But if you go to any market, they have an array of apples 365 days a year. People are buying apples every day of the year.”
Bound by a northern California climate, local growers just can’t keep up, he says.
Dubin and Page are aware that they are primarily serving a high-end niche market of restaurateurs, but their vision is more egalitarian. However, with public subsidies helping to fund corporate agribusiness, a market demand for year-round crops and all the deals that come with ordering large shipments in bulk, they seethat it’s a challenging vision.
“McDonald’s is in the way,” Dubin says, when I ask what stands between a majority of consumers and eating local food. “Until it’s just as easy to make better food choices, most people won’t make a lifestyle change.”
“The answer is to go local, but how?” Page says. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”