The little northern California town of Winters (pop. 7,212) is a local-foodie destination on the verge of turning its strategic location and “beautiful produce” into a new crop of non-farming jobs.
“Most of our residents commute to urban centers for work,” said Winters’ city manager John Donlevy. “They head out before 6:30 in the morning and return after 6:30 at night.”
That’s about to change, he said. New economic analysis details the success that regional market-focused food manufacturing and distribution sited in Winters could have.
“Five venture capital groups have visited in just the past three months,” Donlevy said. He sees real opportunity in their potential investments for local people to work closer to home. “That’s huge for quality of life,” he said.
How this investor interest in Winters came to be is a story of the nearby Sacramento metropolitan region taking a fresh look at the lay of its land. Its new view of outlying rural areas has prompted a full-scale mobilization of area leadership in recognition of how much the region has to offer, and to gain from, soaring demand for local food.
Metro Sacramento’s six counties are at the northern end of California’s agriculturally diverse and rich Central Valley. They produce $4.2 billion worth of food and agriculture products. The metro also includes the local- and organic farming-rich Capay Valley, which is just north of Winters.
Sacramento regional planning, however, had not really included agriculture.
Sacramento had at least used the color green to designate agriculture on its planning maps, said Ed Thompson, California Director at American Farmland Trust. Most of the time those agricultural areas are just white, as if they’re empty and waiting for some other “higher and better” use.
Nevertheless rural areas were still just one big blob in most minds, said David Shabazian, manager of the Rural-Urban Connections Strategy at the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG).
The first thing Shabazian and staff did when launching Rural-Urban Connections was to fill in agricultural areas on SACOG’s planning maps with soil types, crop detail, water use, sales, employment, and more.
And that has made all the difference.
“It really started getting people thinking holistically about what we are as a region, how the land base is made up of both urban and rural spaces and that both are needed to really thrive,” he said.
Two big realizations are now fueling a move to build more “local-serving” agriculture into the region’s food and farm economy.
One, only two percent of the 1.9 million tons of food consumed in the Sacramento area comes from food and farm businesses in those six counties. In other words, Sacramento eats the same produce the rest of the country eats — grown for long-distance shipping and run through distant, massive warehouse and processing facilities.
Two, new analysis shows significant farm-to-table development potential. Rural communities can strengthen their economic position by developing supply chain facilities and services, like food manufacturing, that more “local-serving” agriculture needs. In turn, the city of Sacramento and surrounding counties gain the fresh and local food they want and need for both health and wealth.
“We’re exporting so much of our own bounty, we miss taking care of ourselves,” said John Nicoletti, a supervisor in metro Sacramento’s rural Yuba County.
The irony is motivating a full spectrum of interests to take action, said Trish Kelly, senior vice president of Valley Vision, a 16-county leadership organization.
“We are really getting to scale,” she said. “You go in a room now for discussion, and there’s a food bank person there, a food distributor, a grower, an elected official, a chef, someone from local economic development, someone from regional planning, or a professor from the University of California-Davis …”
These regional leaders now function as the Local Food Economy Partnership, which the Sacramento Area Chamber of Commerce hosts. They are taking seriously their job of supporting the food and farming innovation they want to see.
The Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau took a big first step when it declared the city “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital,” which launched a major public awareness and engagement campaign.
Valley Vision led the regional food economy team in a bid to win major federal support for building more farm-to-table food supply chain services and facilities into the Central Valley’s agricultural economy. The region’s new Economic Development Administration designation as an “Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership” will support regional food hub development, food business incubation, workforce development and more.
Along with new agricultural detail in its maps, the SACOG Rural-Urban Connections Strategy put together a groundbreaking toolbox of parcel-level data and decision-support tools. It puts nuts and bolts on the many opportunities metro Sacramento has with its Mediterranean growing conditions, access to markets, and its agricultural capacity and heritage.
County-level reports project the relative profitability and desirability of different directions food and agriculture entrepreneurs in a particular county could take. Case studies compare return on investment, cash flow, and other variables such as labor, water use, and greenhouse gas emissions. SACOG has also developed actionable pro forma business planning information to help entrepreneurs, local governments, and investors take action.
SACOG’s toolbox has “driven a much higher level of consideration of how to make these things happen,” said Winters city manager John Donlevy.
Return on Investment
The toolbox is prompting regional leaders, for example, to look more closely at what’s available and what they can do with it, said Valley Vision’s Trish Kelly.
“We’re asking local jurisdictions: ‘Do you have facilities, do you have vacant properties, do you have sites ready, do you have broadband, what capacity do you have?”
Detailed scenario planning is also helping capital find its way to places like Winters.
SACOG analysis shows the rural town is in perfect position to provide its nearby local and regional food sector, west of Interstate 505, with the light industrial services it needs, like processing and distribution.
Winters is near a large concentration of local-serving farms and innovative sustainable agriculture enterprises in the Capay Valley. They include 400-acre, 30-year-old Full Belly Farm and nearly 40 more that market and distribute together through their regional hub, the Capay Valley Farm Shop.
“Ninety-eight percent of what we grow is consumed within 100 miles,” said Full Belly Farm co-owner Paul Muller.
As a municipality, Winters has some other key strengths to build upon.
“We have the infrastructure; we have the wastewater system,” Donlevy said. “We’ve also been progressive about how we look at things … We are a small town but what we do here is food.”
Winters is now on the verge of having the best of both worlds, he said. “We can develop jobs through the processing and industrial side of regional food. That combines with our town as a great place to live and visit, with its excellent restaurants, atmosphere and fresh food.”
This article was first published at the Wallace Center Good Food Economy Digest.