It’s not easy to find markets for your produce when you’re an immigrant farmer or someone new to farming. You can sell your crops at fruit stands or farmers markets, but you may not have the contacts or even the language skills and cultural customs to connect with large-scale produce distributors.

Meanwhile, in restaurants, grocery stores, schools, hospitals and corporate lunchrooms across the state, buyers are clamoring for locally grown food.

“The demand for local, sustainable food is large and increasing,” said Gail Feenstra, food systems coordinator for the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program and the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at the University of California, Davis. “Distributors can’t find enough locally grown produce to meet the need.”

But that’s changing, thanks to a new Small and Ethnic Farmer Market Tour Project which introduces small farmers to conventional distributors interested in offering a line of locally grown food. The project is run by the UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute and funded by CoBank, a national cooperative bank serving rural America, and three farm credit associations: Farm Credit West, American AgCredit and Farm Credit Services of Colusa-Glenn.

“With this round of funding, UC Davis will work with growers from the Monterey/Salinas area and from the Sacramento Valley,” Feenstra said. “We conducted three tours last year — in Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Francisco — and they were wonderfully successful,” Feenstra said.

The tours work like this: Farm advisors and Cooperative Extension specialists identify the small, specialty-crop growers in their areas, many of whom are Hmong, Mien and Latino. The growers climb aboard a bus along with tour leaders like Feenstra and David Visher, an analyst with the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.

 

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“We have translators on board, too, if needed,” Feenstra said. “We drive to terminal markets, produce houses or processing facilities where growers meet face-to-face with distributors who explain their produce needs.”

The program also helps farmers create an action plan for selling their crops and prepare a farm profile — a flyer that explains who they are and what they grow. 

“Workshops and field days are great education tools, but nothing makes markets happen as well as simply introducing a willing seller to a willing buyer and then stepping out of the way,” Visher said. “We help growers tell their stories and make good-value propositions to buyers, but it’s really up to these business people to make their own deals.”

Often, small farmers need to joins forces in order to efficiently sell to wholesale buyers. The program helps them do that, too.

“We hear a lot of great conversations on the bus between growers about how best to aggregate their product,” Visher said.

The farmers and distributors make lasting connections, according to those who participated in last year’s tours.

“We’ve been getting good responses from the promotional flyer David (Visher) helped us prepare for our avocado ranch,” said Los Angeles area farmer Steve Bailey. “Thanks to the contacts and advice, we’ve started selling to local restaurants.”

“We’re always on the lookout for new sources of organic produce and local farms,” said David Weinstein, sales manager at Heath & Lejeune, Inc., a certified organic wholesaler in Commerce, Calif. “Our firm knows firsthand that some of these small farmers will become important suppliers in the future and it is in our interest to help them know how to do business at our level.”

CoBank and its Farm Credit partners say they are happy to help.

“Local food initiatives prove that the food we eat can do more than nourish our bodies,” said Leili Ghazi, Western Region president of CoBank. “They can strengthen and support our communities and create tremendous economic opportunities. The challenge has always been connecting the right people and businesses at the right time. CoBank and our Farm Credit partners are so pleased to support UC Davis in its efforts to help introduce the region’s small, ethnic farmers to those who can truly help them grow their business.”

To learn more about project and how you can participate, contact Visher at (530) 758-2429, dlvisher@ucdavis.edu.

 

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