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.