(Author’s Note: Scott Cratty manages the Ukiah Farmers Market and is General Manager of the Mendocino County Farmers Markets. He is also the proprietor of the Westside Renaissance Market in Ukiah and is helping to entrepreneur the new “North Bay Made” effort to broaden the food localization movement into the greater region of other nearby counties. -DS)
Since early in High School, I have been involved with a variety of social issues. However, prior to moving to Mendocino County in 1999 those efforts were limited to non-working hours. My first full-time job was as a communications technician for AT&T in the Bay Area. Twelve years, and lots of experience later, I left AT&T as a Manager of State Government Affairs for California to become the second member of a consultancy firm that focused on working in telecommunications reform and regulation on a more national level. During that time I moved to Mendocino County.
In Ukiah, the notion of “localization” as a political and practical focus came to my attention. For me, that brought together lots of things I care about and it felt like the movement I had been waiting for. Working on things locally allows individuals to make direct connections. It’s humanly manageable and you’re interacting with people who are relevant to your own life… so it’s building resilience and security in our own community. Unlike many other issues, localization is more unifying than divisive. Practically everyone appreciates that things like fresh produce from a local farm and stronger community connections are good things. Working from the perspective of what is good for us collectively as a local community makes it relatively easy to start conversations and, more importantly, to include people who are not part of any specific “choir.”
As I was looking for ways to be more involved locally, there was an announcement of the first meeting of what was called the Greater Ukiah Localization Project (GULP). I was invited to join the Coordinating Committee and, at first, led the “local business” sub-component of GULP. We did things like starting a “Shop Local” campaign and hosting films like “Independent America.” I also become involved in existing local business organizations such as joining the Board of the Ukiah Main Street program. Interestingly enough support for “Local” has become ubiquitous in a relatively short time frame. Just a few years back when GULP was starting out the Greater Ukiah Chamber of Commerce rejected the idea of joining a shop local network because of concerns about things like not being able to include WalMart. Now when you drive down main street, a couple of times a year you will see a “Shop Local” banner that I believe is supported by both the City and Chamber.
After awhile, GULP started fading. The same core people were doing most everything and starting to burn out, and some of us realized that we could accomplish more by individually focusing on what we were most interested in doing.
It was during that phase that I began shifting my focus from business to local food. That is because the longer I spent involved in the localization movement the more I realized that food is the key to localizing our community and our economy. It is a bridge that can get people to sit down and talk to each other and realize they have some common values and areas they can work on together. Our food system is also key to so many other things about our society. If we can just get how we eat right it would improve our health radically, thereby taking a huge burden off health care and allowing resource reallocation, it would take a huge burden off the environment, it would reduce the global warming problem, it would help make us all better off locally by keeping our money recirculating locally, etc.
My interest in local food and economics led to three major undertakings that I am involved in now.
First, six years ago I became the manager of the Ukiah Certified Farmers Market. I am currently also General Manager of the Mendocino County Farmers’ Market Association (mcfarm.org). Farmers Markets are the starting point for local farms.
If we want to have a next generation of small local farms it is critical that we get out and support these markets. They provide an entry way to connect with local shoppers, but they are by no means a magic way to make a living. Indeed, it is not clear that it is economically viable for people farming non-intoxicants in Mendocino County and make a living at it unless they are starting with a large land base or some other advantage. Certainly we have had many young farmers not be able to make it. Finding a new pathway for new farmers to gain access to land without incurring more debt than broccoli prices can ever plausibly repay is critical. I have seen far too many young farmers invest time and their limited capital in improving rented land only to discover that they have to move.
It’s promising that the county Farmers' Markets as a whole have continued to generate more and more revenue for our local farms over the last several years despite overall economic challenges. However, Ukiah, at least, has been particularly challenged this season on two fronts. First, the drought has had a significant impact. Farmers have produced less, some things have failed to ripen or have ripened more slowly and we have also had farms decide simply not to plant what were previously major crops. Second, we have more or less maxed out our core customer base who are the customers that are familiar with farmers markets and who are naturally inclined to make the effort to get to the farmers' market on a Saturday morning… so we have this vibrantly growing farming scene but the same limited dollars spread around it.
Getting new customers to check out the market at this point seems to involve relatively more difficult tasks like dispelling the misconceptions that farmers markets are more expensive or that they are mainly for a boutique shopping crowd. Those are key reasons that a major focus at the Ukiah market over the last couple of seasons has been our food stamp matching program.
We started taking Calfresh Advantage food stamps in Ukiah 6 years ago. At first, almost nobody used it. Three and a half years ago we received a small Community Foundation grant to do a matching program where we match the first 15 dollars people use of their benefit so that the customer gets 30 dollars to spend at the Ukiah farmers market. As word got out food stamp sales took a leap which is great for a number of reasons. Food stamp funds are federal benefit dollars that are going to go someplace… isn't it great if we can redirect them to the small farmers in our community? It certainly makes a huge difference to our farmers who are just scraping by. Currently the program is adding about 10 per cent to the income of produce farms at the Ukiah market. It’s also huge for our customers, who come into a whole new atmosphere. It brings new people to the farmers market each week and those people are no longer pushing a cart, grabbing generic boxes under fluorescent lights in a generic setting… instead they’re coming to a place where they are interacting with people who are excited about the food they grow and tell them how to do new things with it. And there’s music and community and conversation. It also improves health. A lot of our food stamp match customers say that the match is the only way they get fresh vegetables into their diet. Some say it’s the only way they are going to eat anything other than Top Ramen at the end of the month.
So we did it for a few weeks and ran out of funds. The next year we got help from North Coast Opportunity to get some funds from United Way to start it up again. Since then we have kept the match going with lots of help from our community. However, it has taken a substantial effort keep fund raising for the match program going, and we are once again close to running out of funds. Hopefully we will be able to find a way to keep the program running as it is the single most effective way of bringing people from outside of “the choir” into the local food movement.
My second major project is the Westside Renaissance Market (westsiderenaissancemarket.com) on Clay Street here in Ukiah. It is Ukiah's last “neighborhood market” and now focuses on local, family made foods. It is a relic of the local food infrastructure that has vanished, but is also starting to return in a new format. We don’t have a kitchen because we want to be the entry point for local people who want to get into local food production… which is a necessary adjunct to small farming. There is an affordable commercial kitchen available at the Willits Grange, and the new California Cottage Food Act (www.cdph.ca.gov/programs/pages/fdbcottagefood.aspx) permits a specific list of stuff that has been deemed safe enough for someone to do at home and sell.
A significant motivation for having a small-scale, neighborhood market is that I’ve learned enough about how the industrial food system works to be really scared of it. The more you know about processed and packaged foods the more you are likely to turn your back on them and run the other way. If when you walked into a place with generic processed foods you could see the back story of the creation of those products, the working conditions, how they were produced and preserved, how much the original producer got out of it, and how much of the total package went to efforts like marketing and transportation, you would probably reject that shopping experience. Most large stores are designed to strip away that story. You don’t know where it came from, how it got there, what was done to the people involved in making it. One theme of the Westside Renaissance Market is to connect the story and our local products. Other key themes are embracing inconvenience and finding the right price for local products.
It wasn’t too many decades ago that everyone mostly ate local and there was a network of small stores everywhere supporting that food system. However, over the last few decades we have taken our focus off of where our foods come from and instead become primarily concerned with convenience and the perceived price. Bucking that trend the Westside Renaissnace Market calls itself Ukiah’s Favorite Inconvenience Store. We always try to have what the neighborhood wants, but we layer that with the largest collection of local, family-made things you will find anywhere in the county. For things that are available locally we stick with the local. So, for example, the produce section is always 100 per cent local. And that’s part of the inconvenience thing. You may love the local blackberries we carried last week, but they are now gone for the season and we won’t have blackberries again until next year. If you want to support the local economy are you also willing to be inconvenienced a little bit? If you are dead set on spinach and there isn’t any local spinach available right now, maybe you could do with chard?
On our new website we say “we go the extra several miles to source the best local products for our customers, so you only have to go the extra couple of blocks.” Convenient enough, but still more work than most of us are used to these days. We are hooked into this life of convenience because we are embedded in a system that seems to demand a huge effort to make a living and a life. That drives us to pick convenient options. However, things are convenient because they are mass-produced in very large amounts by very large entities. They can only be made by somebody with already deep pockets and when you buy them you are voting to enrich the pockets of somebody who already has very deep pockets… not someone you care about in your own community. Convenient is convenient because it is the same everywhere, preserves well, and stacks well. Convenient is convenient because it allows you to easily make the same thing again in the same way which, when you think about it is not memorable, natural or seasonal, and is certainly not something that will maximize your local economy.
So, you can chose between that bagel that comes from someplace unknown that makes a million bagels from flour that comes from who knows where from how long ago and be paying for a world engineered for your convenience… or go a bit further to find a local baker, probably pay a bit more, and buy a small part of a world you would rather live in.
Which brings us to price. Our Westside Renaissance Market makes no effort to have the best price because the best price is usually going to be the wrong price. The low price is lower because of something. Some corners were cut, people were paid less… something, often the environment, was treated a little less delicately. As one small, incomplete example, if you are comparing $2.50 garlic from China versus $4.00 per pound local garlic, you are not really comparing the price unless you factor in that the garlic from China generates 49 times the particulate matter, and has 6 times more impact on global warming. Choosing the garlic from China does something to the planet that should be factored into the price tag… someone’s going to pay for it sooner or later. Ditto for what you are actually buying. Same with the nutrients. There are demonstrably less nutrients because of the conditions it was grown in and because of the time it’s being transported around. It is less expensive because you are getting less, as well as causing these conditions, as well as taking a job from a neighbor, and creating a job overseas that is likely as not one you would want yourself or your children… but it may be the only one they can get if we keep making decisions based mainly on what actually gets included in the dollar value at the register.
We do try to find the right price. I tell people who want to sell to us to make sure they know what it costs to make, ideally using local inputs, and what their time is worth so that they will be happy doing it consistently. Sell it to me at that price and I will mark it up with a standard markup. If people buy it, it’s a viable product, and if they don’t we have both learned something.
The third major project I’m involved in, and the one I am most excited about at the moment, is called North Bay Made (northbaymade.org). It is an effort to regionalize the localization effort, which I have come to see as particularly important for rural areas such as Mendocino County. We simply do not have a sufficient population base to support most artisan producers. So, no matter how great your products, if you are limited to a Mendocino County market, you will probably have to have another job and work on the product you are passionate about as a hobby.
North Bay Made is a relatively new project started by Kelley Rajala and Pam Dale who operate the Made Local Marketplace and Share Exchange in Santa Rosa. I joined the project early on and have had the opportunity to help shape it. North Bay Made is a well-integrated, multi-part program that I think could be the next step toward boosting our local economy in a sustainable way.
The first part of the program involves taking the definition of “local” back, which has been co-opted by almost every store of any size that is broadcasting how locally-oriented they are. Our program starts with a set of beautiful graphics that stores can use to to tell their customers which nearby county things on the shelf actually come from. For now there are logos for Mendocino Made, Lake Made, Sonoma Made, Solano Made, Marin Made and Napa Made products.
Part two is to develop a network of independent retail stores that use the logos in the same way so customers can recognize what is really local and where it’s local from. As a member of North Bay Made, when you step into the Westside Renaissance Market you will see that the shelves are tagged with what’s from Mendocino, what’s from Lake, etc.
Part three, which is where it starts to really build some power, is when the store owners in the network start networking with each other about the best local products. When we have a product that we think represents the area, from a reliable producer, we can recommend them to the network. Now the network can become a significant incubator for small, local businesses and simultaneously let local producers focus on making their products by freeing them from having to market themselves store by store throughout the region. The plan is that stores in the network will pre-order an initial batch, which should provide an infusion of capital for the producer so that they can buy in bigger bulk, finance machinery for expansion, etc.
Part four is that the best of the best local products would be offered the chance to include the brand (e.g., “Mendocino Made”) in their packaging and would then start to represent us in even wider markets.
Although it is young, North Bay Made is making inroads in Mendocino County. In addition to the Westside Renaissance Market, Mariposa Market in Willits is an early adopter, as are the Harvest Markets in Fort Bragg and Mendocino. Geiger's market in Laytonville has indicated that it will join as has Surf Market in Gualala. Three Sisters in Ukiah is also an early adopter and is pitching in with the program roll-out.
Meanwhile, our Westside Renaissance Market here, and the Made Local Marketplace in Santa Rosa, have started to demonstrate the power of collaboration. The Made Local Marketplace, which was a craft/hard goods store, has now installed and refrigerator and freezer and taken on some of the best food products from Mendocino. In turn they have helped add a hard goods area to our Westside Renaissance Market.
As with most things the hang-up with North Bay Made is time and resources. The few people working on the project are, like me, way overbooked. So, we are hunting for resources to be able to afford some staff time to push the program forward.
One common part of all three of my projects is that they are about being on a scale so you can reconnect things with their story. Big businesses rely on the amazingly persuasive ability of advertising, and the fact that we are all too busy keeping up with our crazy societal situation so that we don’t have time to check out the origins and story of what we consume. And the way we produce most stuff is eating away at the planet. Sooner or later it’s coming off the backs of the next generations, and sooner or later there will be a big bill. It is incumbent on all of us to be more inconvenienced and slow down.
(Next time: Margaret Fox, legendary restaurateur and cookbook author, Culinary Director of Fort Bragg's Harvest Markets.)