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“An Evening with the Next Generation of Food” starts at 5 p.m. Sept. 20, with food and drink prepared by local chefs to benefit The Farmers Guild and its new project, “Follow the Rooster.” Ingredients for the meal will be accompanied by stories from the young farmers who grew them, how they reached the table and what it will take to support the next generation of agrarians.

Healdsburg SHED, 25 North St, Healdsburg

$90 tickets include dinner and drinks.

RSVP required at farmersguild.org.


If you live in Sonoma County, you are no stranger to the concept of “buy local,” but you’ve probably noticed that those purchases are easier at some grocery stores than others. But what does it take for Sonoma County’s small farmers to get their products into these stores? And what does “local” actually mean?

Sebastopol-based farmers’ advocate Evan Wiig is attempting to answer those questions with a campaign called “Follow the Rooster” that aims to “give credit where credit is due,” highlighting businesses that are selling and buying local products, joining CSAs or hosting farm-to-table dinners.

The first step was an informal survey of nine Sonoma County grocery stores, counting how many items on the fresh produce shelves were grown within Sonoma or surrounding counties. The survey was done in coordination with store employees during the same week in September, when local produce was bountiful.

Healdsburg SHED came out on top, followed by Oliver’s, Whole Foods, Community Market, Locastore, Andy’s, Pacific Market and Safeway, in that order.

The next steps of Wiig’s “Follow The Rooster” campaign include publicly recognizing local food champions, helping small farmers raise their visibility and identifying the problems that prevent them from selling their crops to local stores.

The USDA defines a small farmer as someone who produces and sells between $1,000 and $250,000 a year in agricultural products. Many growers in Sonoma County who fit this definition have created consistent relationships with smaller local grocers but have had little success with the large national chains.

“They didn’t really get what we were doing, so we thought, what’s the point?” said Keith Abeles of Quetzal Farms in Sebastopol, who approached Albertsons a few years ago.

While Whole Foods has local produce buyers at select stores who can buy directly from regional growers and producers, Safeway’s model requires that almost all produce go through the main East Bay distribution hub, said Adam Davidoff with New Family Farm in Sebastopol.

“We’re not going to send stuff to the East Bay and then have it shipped back here,” he said.

Safeway does offer store delivery for local companies that “meet our legal and quality standards,” explained Safeway spokesperson Wendy Gutshell, which involves an inspection from a quality control expert. She added that Safeway “has a grass roots approach” and is “always looking for opportunities to carry local items” but at this time in Sonoma County, companies that meet these standards produce primarily packaged food products.

It’s also a matter of “grocery store culture” and consumer expectations, said Jesse Pizzitola from First Light Farm in Petaluma. It’s more likely that customers at some grocery stores will “want all their kale to look the same and to find the same thing every time they walk in,” he said. Small organic farmers who might unexpectedly get their kale destroyed by aphids may have trouble maintaining that consistent appearance and supply.

“We are a bunch of rag-tag farmers in this county,” Pizzitola. said “Our capacity and ability to produce something that is up to the standard of a (large) grocery store is limited.”

While produce buyers at smaller local stores are perhaps more forgiving, they too struggle with this issue.

“The biggest challenge is supply and demand,” said Mike Peterson, produce coordinator for Oliver’s Market. Many of the small farms he now works with cannot keep up with customer demand.

Even though the produce might not be as pretty, Sonoma County customers will jump at the chance to buy from local farms, he said. Last year, Oliver’s bought corn from Santa Rosa Junior College’s Shone Farm in Healdsburg, and it sold out in one weekend.

“It’s like Pliny the Younger,” Peterson said. “They can’t make enough of it.”

Wiig, founder of the Farmers’ Guild and a proponent of sustainable agriculture, is trying to take a proactive approach to help make these changes. At followtherooster.com, people can contribute to a map of “Local Food Heroes” who grow, serve or sell locally grown products. If nothing else, he hopes that by publicly recognizing businesses that are “true local food champions,” their larger competitors might take note.

Oliver’s, for example, made a concerted effort five years ago to support local growers. Buyers also participated in a recent farmer/ buyer mixer that was a “speed dating” opportunity for local farmers to match their products with local retail outlets, from small pop-up restaurants to grocery stores. Another mixer is planned for December.

Peterson, from Oliver’s Market, agrees these efforts are integral to the success of small local farmers. Not only do they help build relationships and educate farmers about how to place their products, produce distribution companies like F.E.E.D. in Sebastopol streamline the process. Instead of coordinating with many individual farms, F.E.E.D. is a hub for farmers and buyers while helping to maintain standards and cut down on phone calls.

Community Market also is taking steps to attract more local growers. Its business model requires that all products are certified organic, which can eliminate small farmers who choose not to certify. Geoffrey Power, the manager of its produce department, says that has been the largest obstacle to buying local produce.

“Our buying program is rather strict,” he says. “Our hands are somewhat tied.”

However, Community Market is planning to offer a place in its stores to farmers who are transitioning to organic, a three-year process. It will soon introduce the label “transitionally grown” in the produce department and hopes to partner with the Farmers’ Guild and California Certified Organic Farmers this winter on a workshop to help small farmers obtain certification.

Wiig said he realizes that not every store or every consumer is going to drastically change their lives to support local farms, but if they take small “everyday” actions, like shifting their food money to businesses that support local farms, they will have some influence.

“However close we can get consumers to the process of agriculture, the better,” he said. And, he contends, the more people speak up and request local olive oil at their favorite grocery stores or post crowd-sourced photos of themselves at farmers’ markets, the more they are empowered to change the larger system.

“You have to scream with thousands of other people to get corporations to change,” Wiig says. “I would rather live in a community without so much screaming.”

Despite the potential gains of the Follow the Rooster campaign, Wiig recognizes that a regional effort like his is not the answer to everyone’s “food dilemma.” Some people will still be financially unable to shop at Community Market or Oliver’s, but he hopes that places like Sebastopol can “create little ethical bubbles,” allowing people to make small changes on their own behalf and “see outside of their bubble at the same time.”