This story appears in the September 2013 issue of SACRAMENTO. Sign up for a subscription to SACRAMENTO magazine here.
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Everybody eats. Food is universal and quotidian, an everyday part of every human’s existence. But when it comes to food, there’s been an undeniable shift in Sacramento over the past decade.
Increasingly, food is more than mere sustenance. It’s our joy, our passion, our sense of ourselves, our very identity. Food isn’t just a necessity. It’s fun. It’s exciting. It matters.
Last year, Mayor Kevin Johnson officially proclaimed Sacramento the Farm-to-Fork Capital of America. It was recognition that Sacramento is more than just the governing capital of California, the land of state workers and bureaucrats. By virtue of climate, soil and topography, our region also is home to some of the most prolific farms on the planet. From the apple orchards of El Dorado County to the verdant fields of Capay Valley, we produce a vast and amazing array of fruits, vegetables, livestock and other foodstuffs. Eventually, all these things land on our forks and in our mouths, in the process making this a better, happier place to live.
We’re redefining what it means to be farm-to-fork. It’s everything from sustainably raised caviar to the craft cocktails we sip at local bars. It’s the grass-fed cattle raised by a local restaurateur for his own kitchens, and the hops recently reintroduced to the fields along Interstate 80 for use at the artisanal breweries popping up all over the place.
Clearly, people are excited about the food here. You can see it at our crowded farmers markets and at food events such as SactoMoFo and Bacon Fest. When 650 tickets to the Tower Bridge dinner celebrating Farmto- Fork Week went on sale at $175 a pop, they sold out in a few short hours.
Leave it to Darrell Corti, Sacramento’s original foodie, to point out that farm-to-fork is an old idea. When America was an agrarian nation, everyone ate seasonally and locally. But everything old is new again. Sacramento is embracing its farmers. They’re our past, our present and our future, and we salute them.
A FARM THAT LOOKS TO THE FUTURE
KINGBIRD FARMS is just 30 miles by car from Sacramento, but it’s a world away. Located just outside Galt on a narrow private lane that cuts through the verdant Cosumnes River Nature Conservancy, it is breathtakingly gorgeous— a 3-acre slice of heaven created by a Sacramento couple who are passionate about the future of farming.
Charity Kenyon and Mike Eaton are rather unlikely farmers. Before retiring, Kenyon was a high-profile media attorney who represented The Sacramento Bee and other outlets seeking access to information in the trial of Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski. Eaton spent his career in conservation and environmental policy, working for the Sierra Club, the Resources Legacy Fund and The Nature Conservancy. Married for 38 years, they lived in Land Park, raising a son and growing organic vegetables in the backyard.
But ever since meeting as college students at UC Santa Cruz, Eaton and Kenyon had dreamed of having their own small farm. In Land Park, they became friends with Suzanne Peabody Ashworth, Sacramento’s legendary grower and seed saver. Ashworth, who lived nearby, served as their mentor, doling out seeds, advice and inspiration.
About a decade ago, they jumped at the chance to buy some property next to the conservancy where Eaton had worked. They spent the first few years ramping up: clearing land, planting summer and winter crops, building raised beds, learning what did (and didn’t) work. Making money was never the goal. Whatever they grew, they gave away to friends or donated to local food banks. Theirs was (and still is) an incredibly biodiverse farm, producing multiple varieties of tomatoes, melons, corn, eggplant, peppers, cucumbers, squash, radishes, beets, cabbage, broccoli, kale and more. There’s an orchard with 120 fruit trees—plums, nectarines, apples, quince, pomegranates and persimmons—and about 50 chickens, as well as 16 varieties of hops.
At Kingbird Farms, Eaton acts as farmer-in-chief, while Kenyon oversees the landscaping and helps out with chores such as weeding and trimming. She spends much of her time volunteering for the Slow Food organization, which promotes local food production. As a regional governor for Slow Food USA, she recently traveled to Istanbul and New Orleans to meet with other Slow Food organizers. Kingbird Farms is an unusual small farm: equal parts demonstration project, informal teaching institution and agricultural conservator. A rotating cast of young would-be farmers live and work on the farm through an organization called WWOOF—World Wide
Opportunities on Organic Farms, an international program that matches volunteers with organic growers. In exchange for the young WWOOFers’ labor, Eaton and Kenyon provide room and board and teach them how to farm, with an emphasis on traditional organic ways of growing and processing food. (When the couple planted flint corn, for instance, they also built a small electric mill on the property to grind the corn for polenta and grits.) Throughout the past four years, they’ve hosted well over 100 visitors from all around the world. “It’s like a foreign exchange program,” says Kenyon.
The couple recently decided it was time to earn a little income—just enough to hire 24-year-old former WWOOFer Lynne Sabourin as farm manager, giving them a little break from day-to-day farming. To cover Sabourin’s salary, they started filling CSA boxes for 20 subscribers in Galt and supplying produce to Magpie Cafe in downtown Sacramento. Magpie chef/owner Ed Roehr “is a very creative guy,” says Kenyon. “He finds ways to use whatever we plant.” When woodpeckers bored holes in the farm’s almonds before they had a chance to mature, Kenyon offered the nuts to Roehr, who put trout with green almonds on his menu. He also features the farm’s eggs and corn in a weekend breakfast special called Kingbird Farms Eggs and Grits.
From the start, the pair gravitated toward heirloom varieties. In a world in which agriculture is increasingly concentrated in a few hands and less profitable varieties are abandoned in favor of more reliable genetically modified products, many heirloom crops would surely become extinct without the efforts of small farmers such as Kenyon and Eaton. Some of the corn, bean, cucumber and squash varieties they grow are listed on Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, a catalog of endangered plant species.
Kenyon and Eaton live on the farm in a house designed by Sacramento architects Andrea Kincaid and Mark Groen. It’s a sophisticated take on a modern farmhouse, with a separate studio apartment for Sabourin, two guestrooms for the WWOOFers and an outdoor kitchen. They frequently open up the farm for fundraisers and special events. This summer, for instance, they hosted a beer camp for homebrewers, and Eaton taught local school-garden volunteers how to plant winter crops.
Like many small-farm owners, they worry about the future: waning biodiversity, the loss of heritage varieties, the rising cost of land, the concentration and corporatization of farming. Kingbird Farms is their response to those vexing problems. “We believe in diversity, building relationships with consumers and educating people,” says Eaton. “We’re not a model for an economic operation, but we might be seen as a model for a resilient approach to farming.”
MEET MORE FARMERS
A HAPPY ACCIDENT
At first glance, Carpe Vino and Maria’s Mexican Tacos couldn’t seem more different. But the two Auburn restaurants have one thing in common: Both source their lamb from Flying Mule Farm, a small Placer County ranch specializing in grass-fed sheep. Owner Dan Macon and his wife, Samia, got into the sheep-raising business by accident 23 years ago when Samia, then in vet school, adopted an injured ewe. At first, raising sheep was just an interesting hobby. But as their flock grew, they decided to turn it into a business. The couple now has about 200 ewes on several hundred acres of leased land. For Dan, it’s a full-time occupation that keeps him busy from sunup to sundown. “Livestock are a seven-day-a-week job,” he says. The biggest labor demand is during lambing season (late February to mid-March), when as many as 30 ewes give birth every day. That’s when Samia, a large-animal vet, comes in handy. Through cross-breeding, the Macons produce an exceptionally tender, flavorful lamb that they sell at the Roseville and Auburn farmers markets; to a handful of local restaurants, including Hawks in Granite Bay; and to Smokey Ridge Charcuterie, an artisanal sausage maker in the foothills. “It’s exciting to see chefs embracing local products,” says Macon, who raves in equal measure about Maria’s lamb tacos and Carpe Vino’s lamb shoulder confit. When it comes to lamb, he just can’t seem to get enough: “I could probably eat it seven days a week.”
THE FAMILY THAT FARMS TOGETHE R
Anyone who read Michael Pollan’s influential book The Omnivore’s Dilemma surely remembers Joel Salatin, the Virginia farmer who treated his cows and chickens with respect and espoused a philosophy of environmentally responsible agriculture. Salatin serves as the role model for Shirley Field and Bob Sorensen. At Coffee Pot Ranch in Sheridan, about 10 miles north of Lincoln, the married couple raises grass-fed beef and lamb, corn-fed pork and pastured chicken on about 20 acres of land. Their meat is all natural—no antibiotics or hormones—and compassionately raised. Like Salatin, they move the chickens around their property in portable “chicken tractors” that allow the birds to forage for bugs and naturally fertilize the soil. Coffee Pot Ranch is a family affair: Field’s daughter Taran Harper runs the chicken operation and operates the family stand at several area farmers markets; Sorensen’s son and Field’s other daughter help out whenever necessary. This year, the ranch will process 200 hogs, 30 cows and 50 lambs. In addition to selling their products at farmers markets in Placer and Sacramento counties, the couple supplies local restaurants, including The Chef’s Table in Rocklin, Source Global Tapas in Granite Bay and Buonarroti Ristorante in Lincoln. They encourage customers to come out and see the ranch for themselves. “They can know exactly where their food is coming from,” Field explains. “It’s a really nice bond between us and the diner.”
THE KING OF QUAIL
When famed chef Wolfgang Puck needs quail, he places a call to Brent Wolfe, who raises the tiny game birds on a 56-acre ranch outside Vacaville. Wolfe Ranch supplies 75,000 quail a year to some of the country’s top restaurants, including Chez Panisse in Berkeley, The French Laundry in Yountville, Per Se in New York City and Puck’s Spago in Beverly Hills. The San Rafael native, now 51, started raising quail for fun when he was just 11. He was a pre-vet student at the University of Arizona when he read a story in the San Francisco Chronicle about a quail shortage affecting Bay Area restaurants. With just a semester and a half to go before graduation, he quit school, returned to California and bought a 2½-acre property in Vacaville in order to start a quail ranch. Along with cattle rancher Bill Niman, Wolfe was one of the pioneers of California’s pasture-to-plate movement, selectively breeding his birds and feeding them an all-grain diet with no hormones or antibiotics. The result? A flavorful quail that’s two to three times the size of his competitors’. Wolfe, whose quail has been served to both former president Bill Clinton and Spain’s King Juan Carlos, is hands-on and passionate about his work. Helped by a small staff, he does everything: breeding, hatching, growing, processing and delivering the birds directly to customers, including Sacramento restaurants Grange, Mulvaney’s Building & Loan and Plan B.
FROM FORK TO CAVIAR SPOON
When you hear the words farm to fork, caviar probably isn’t the first thing that pops into your mind. Perhaps it should. After all, Sacramento is the U.S. capital of farmed caviar, accounting for about 85 percent of domestic caviar production. Sterling Caviar, based in Elverta, produces the lion’s share of that product—10 metric tons in 2012 alone. Farmed caviar became a necessity when overfishing depleted the stocks of wild Caspian Sea sturgeon. Since 1993, Sterling has been raising white sturgeon in large, indoor freshwater tanks. Raising sturgeon for caviar is a long-term process; it takes seven to 10 years for the female fish to mature. Workers harvest the caviar in the spring, when the eggs are ripe. After the fish’s ovaries are removed, the eggs are screened, rinsed, cleaned, salted and placed in aging tins that go into a freezer for at least three months. Later, a taster samples caviar from each fish, grading it by size, texture and taste. The top grade is shiny, gray and uniform in size and has a creamy, buttery, briny taste and a firm texture, with eggs that pop in the mouth. Known for its quality and consistency, Sterling Caviar is sold at Zabar’s in New York City and served at some of the country’s top restaurants, including The French Laundry in Yountville and Eleven Madison Park in New York City. Locally, you can find it at Corti Brothers and Taylor’s Market, and on the menu at Ella, The Kitchen and Mulvaney’s Building & Loan. Sacramento isn’t a big caviar market, according to the farm’s general manager, Peter Struffenegger. But Sterling hopes to change that. On Sept. 20, it will mark its 20th anniversary at a splashy Farm-to-Fork opening reception along the Sacramento River.
LITTLE GREENS, BIG FLAVOR
Meet microfarmer Craig Oliveira. In 2012, the 45-year-old began growing microgreens in a small greenhouse behind his Land Park home. Now, under the name Goat and Arrow Herb Farm, he produces minuscule herbs and vegetable shoots to order for two of the region’s leading restaurants, Hawks in Granite Bay and Enotria. Microgreens are the darlings of the food world: The tiny edible plants are harvested when extremely young and are used by chefs at high-end restaurants to give dishes visual appeal and delicate flavor. Oliveira worked in the food and beverage industry until back surgery put him out of commission. He turned to farming at the suggestion of his wife, who was interning at Hawks and knew the kitchen was having trouble finding consistently good micro herbs and greens. Oliveira started growing micro basil, then moved on to micro fennel, red shiso, lemon balm, cilantro, summer savory, corn shoots, and edible flowers such as borage and nasturtium. He learned on the job, doing research on the Internet and experimenting with light, soil and water. Flexibility was the key to his success: He was willing to work to chefs’ specifications, growing products at their request and selling to them in tiny quantities, as little as 1 ounce at a time. At Enotria, Oliveira’s tender pea shoots might show up as a garnish for ricotta-stuffed agnolotti, or his micro shiso might adorn a dish of cured hamachi. “When it works and you see it in a dish, it’s very rewarding,” he says. Oliveira has plans to expand his herb farm to his in-laws’ 10-acre property in Galt. But he doesn’t want to get too big. As it turns out, he’s a microfarmer in every sense of the word. “In Land Park, I utilize every single inch,” he says. “It’s good practice. I want to maintain that resourcefulness and not eat up all the land.”