A San Joaquin Valley Quilt: Stitching Together a Region's Prosperity, Nutrition and Sustainability

Final Report for SW10-801

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2010: $14,935.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: Western
State: California
Principal Investigator:
Daniel O'Connell
Sequoia Riverlands Trust
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Project Information

Abstract:

This Western SARE grant was awarded to Sequoia Riverlands Trust (SRT) in February 2010 for the duration of 1.5 years. The project’s principal investigator was Daniel O’Connell, SRT’s Farmland Conservation Director, in close collaboration with Holly King, the previous Director of Agricultural Programs at the Great Valley Center and who was a consultant on this project. In total, approximately 50 farmers and food system advocates participated in a series of producer meetings and subsequent engagement on other project deliverables and outcomes.

The grant was successfully completed. By utilizing a cadre of five (Leonard had to drop from project) regional producers as “ambassadors” in conjunction with expert consultants, SRT brought together 30 producers and approximately 20 additional food system advocates in a series of three meetings, supplemented by four subcommittee meetings. The project has functioned as a catalyzing opportunity, culminating in a strategic implementation plan toward invigorating producer involvement in their foodshed and local food movements. In addition, action steps were developed from the project’s data collection, literature review and producer feedback, which created a basis for continued engagement of participants, expansion of the coalition and leveraging additional funds to realize identified priorities.

Project Objectives:

There were four objectives for this grant. The first was to “develop a strategy to move forward, addressing the issues that are constraining progress and providing a roadmap of actions that will create a more sustainable food system in the San Joaquin Valley.” The Western SARE Strategic Implementation Plan is attached as Appendix A to this document.

The second objective was to “educate and connect farmers beyond the five producers involved in the project through farmer-to-farmer networking and co-learning opportunities about existing practices and activities, expose them to resources to help address issues, and engage them in the strategic planning process.” A series of three initial producer meetings, which were well-attended by additional farmers beyond our initial “ambassadors,” offered opportunities for sharing experiences, problems and solutions between producers. In addition, experts in fields like agricultural finance and sustainable infrastructure development gave presentations and answered questions from participating producers. Finally, some producers who had expressed interest in reviewing drafts of the strategic implementation plan were solicited for feedback during the drafting process.

The third objective was to “establish the local framework to integrate with the expertise and resources that will be brought to the region through the Foodshed (Urban Rural Roundtable) and Food System Alliance projects.” Again this goal was significantly met, as several participants in this project have become members of the Fresno County Food System Alliance (FSA) facilitated by Ag Innovations. In addition, the facilitators of this project are also actively involved in the FSA and continue to engage members of the SARE project as opportunities arise. Several of the goals and projects chosen by the FSA, will either compliment the action plan of the SARE group (farm to school project to develop new markets) or will provide an opportunity for implementation collaboratively (Regional Food Assessment). Additionally, the FSA has decided to host the Urban Rural Roundtable Foodshed project in Fresno County.

Finally, the fourth objective was to “have a fundable plan with which to seek implementation funding from sources like the Specialty Crops Block Grant Programs, Farm Credit/Ag Bank, etc.” This objective was met through the completion of the Western SARE Strategic Implementation Plan (Appendix A). Through this document and by successfully completing our initial producer education and learning project under this grant, SRT recently applied to the Columbia Foundation for a grant to continue our work with farmers and food system advocates in the San Joaquin Valley.

Introduction:

The background problem framing the inquiry of this investigation was to the need to increase our awareness of the multiple and overlapping problems within our regional foodshed. These included high rates of health problems and nutritional deficiencies, inadequate regional infrastructure to aggregate and distribute locally produced foods, and limited markets for local producers, among others. A primary concern and focus of the effort was on promoting the economic viability of small- and medium-scale farmers by connecting them with the substantial community of food insecure residents throughout the San Joaquin Valley.

Some of the specific issues that we identified at the start of the research included:

• A lack of infrastructure to provide for adequate distribution channels.

• Consumers had minimal awareness of where and how to access product in the regional foodshed.

• Land use decisions on the urban-rural edge impacted farmers with pressures that drove up land and production costs.

• The San Joaquin Valley’s disconnect from broader, statewide foodshed and food systems thought, policy changes and the economic benefits from localized trends like value-added processing.

These problems were addressed through data collected directly from participants through facilitated, co-learning opportunities. In addition, outside experts were brought in to fill in information gaps. The project’s facilitators also conducted a brief literature review primarily in seeking applicable models and information to find solutions that could inform upon the problems in our region.

Literature Review:

Agriculture in Metropolitan Regions (AMR) of U.C. Berkeley and Valley Vision. (2008). Sacramento Region Local Market Assessment.
Boyer, J., Dillon, P., Melone, B., Thistlethwaite, R., and Yashar, D. (2005).

The Face of Food on the Central Coast. Salinas: Agriculture & Land-Based Training Association.

California Community Colleges (CCC). (2011). Agricultural Value Chain – California. Chancellor’s Office.

Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF). (2011). Establishing
an Aggregation & Marketing Center for California’s North Coast.
Hedden, W. (1929). How Great Cities Are Fed. Boston: D.C. Heath and Company.

Humiston, G. (2010). Jobs, Economic Development and Sustainable Communities: Strategizing Policy Needs and Program Delivery for Rural California. United States Department of Agriculture, Rural Development.

Pothukuchi, K., Joseph, H., Burton, H., and Fisher, A. (2002). What’s Cooking in Your Food System? A Guide to Community Food Assessment. Venice: Community Food Security Coalition.

Cooperators

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  • Paul Buxman
  • Michael Dimock
  • Holly King
  • Cuyler Leonard
  • Bob McKellar
  • Kyle Reynolds
  • Gary Schnitzler
  • Tom Willey
  • Niki Woodard

Research

Materials and methods:

The primary method of this grant was to convene regional, sustainable and organic farmers, food system advocates and agricultural industry experts together in a co-learning process. In three producer meetings, conversations and qualitative data were collected directly from producers who experience a variety of problems in marketing their product, meeting regulations and running their agricultural businesses. In all, over 30 farmers attended workshops, contributed to our research objectives and shared information with each other. Agricultural experts were identified and invited to fill the gaps of knowledge and expertise that facilitators and participating producers could not.  

Each of the producer meetings occurred at the Fresno Farm Bureau’s Office in the City of Fresno. The materials that were used included computerized powerpoint presentations, stencils and dry erase boards and printed material.  

Research results and discussion:

A tremendous amount of experiential and qualitative data was derived from the workshops and expert testimony. Portions of the first two producer meetings involved an overwhelming array of complex, interrelated issues that were highly difficult to systematically classify, let alone analyze. Yet, after repeatedly reviewing the material and comparing the producers’ data to literature on sustainable agricultural development and food systems’ research, facilitators began to organize the information into categories that related to other similar studies. The “Summary of Proceedings, Collected Data and Conclusions” is attached as Appendix B.

The participating producer’s needs began to coalesce as the experiential research setting and educational co-learning opportunities moved forward. Eventually, substantial interest gathered around the concept of building an aggregation and distribution center for the small- and medium-scale, sustainable farmers. Such an institution would enable these smaller producers to combine agricultural product, which in turn could be marketed to larger institutions like schools or urban markets. Simultaneous to their identified need to work cooperatively in marketing their product, producers wanted to brand the values and practices that they used, hoping that this may bring better returns and demand for their agricultural products.

As participants and facilitators began to look at the potential for developing an aggregation and distribution center, the need for a community or regional food system assessment arose. Such an assessment often involves participatory, action research that builds potential implementing coalitions while examining the economic feasibility and infrastructure that currently is available to address the systemic problems in the food system.

Overall, five actionable items were recommended:

• Form a Food Policy Council
• Conduct a Regional Food Assessment
• Develop a Marketing and Strategic Plan
• Build an Aggregation and Distribution Center
• Articulate a Development Strategy

Research conclusions:

• A Strategic Implementation Plan was developed, partners are being identified and further funding has been and will continue to be sought.

• A much closer coalition has been identified and coalesced, establishing the local framework to integrate with the expertise and resources that have come to the Valley, i.e., the Food System Alliance and the Urban Rural Roundtable/Foodshed Project.

• A learning opportunity for the participating farmers as they shared networks and knowledge both in the meetings and outside of the meetings. They also expanded their networks.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

A detailed Summary of Proceedings and Collected Data was drafted from this process and is included as Appendix B. The Summary has four primary components:

• Review of the qualitative data derived from producer meetings in Fresno.

• Input from outside experts such as Farm Credit representatives or lessons shared by other successful sustainable farmers.

• Review of alternative, fiscally viable aggregation and distribution centers.

• Description of the utility and parameters of a (community/regional) food system assessment.

This document was completed and shared with participating farmers for their review. The final document has been shared with the participating farmers. Additionally, each participant has been asked for the referral of five additional parties that would be interested and could benefit from this work. As those referrals are received, a copy of the Strategic Implementation Plan and the Summary of Proceedings and Collected Data will be provided.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

There was no substantial economic analysis that was involved in this Western SARE grant.

Farmer Adoption

It is difficult to assess farmer adoption of the production and marketing advice that was formally and informally shared during the Fresno Western SARE producer meetings. Often these farmers could be seen sharing information and asking advice from each other. More than on-farm adoption of practices, this educational process involved educational dialogue and collective problem-solving on many issues that these farmers confront outside of their fields as they try to market their product and tell the story of how hard they work, and how difficult their task is in getting product to market.

Recommendations:

Areas needing additional study

There are a number of subsequent studies that can extend the findings and delve into further research questions that arose during this Western SARE-funded project. Perhaps of primary importance to farmers was the need for an aggregation and distribution center, perhaps in the form of a cooperative. At the very least, further study is required to determine the economic feasibility and viability of such an enterprise. In addition, further development of civic and citizen involvement in their food system is necessary to catalyze education and marketing of sustainable agriculture in the region.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.