Kristin Hull, Founder, CEO & CIO of Nia Impact Capital, is putting feminism into our finances.


Motivated by a deep sense of social justice, Kristin Hull is helping changemakers connect the dots between investment practices and the world we want to see, from gender equity to sustainable food to climate consciousness. And as a member of the Host Committee for this year’s Grazing at the Kitchen Table, we are honored to highlight her work through this year’s theme of celebrating the women changing our food system.

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Growing up in Oakland, Kristin Hull discovered an innate sense of justice: who got to sit where on the bus; who had first pick of the picture books or reading activities. So it was a natural transition when she began her career as a classroom teacher, viewing education as a starting point to create change in her community. In 2007, after years spent observing the gap in financial literacy within the American education system, and society as a whole, she realized there was an untapped opportunity for impact in another way: through teaching individuals how to connect the dots between their investment practices and the world they want to see.

Within her world of fellow activists, Kristin saw many of her peers spending their careers fighting against the societal status quo, and yet when it came to their finances they either lacked the awareness, knowledge or confidence to veer from the norm. Very few existing companies were offering alternative solutions, let alone providing education to their clients. Enter Nia Community Investments, which Kristin launched in 2010 and is today Nia Impact Capital. The company takes a completely innovative approach to what they call “conscious investing,” looking to disrupt the industry on all levels. Kristin describes this approach as “being aware of where our money is… We jump into a life engaged in finance but are not aware of its implications. If your money isn’t at home in dollars bills, where is it? Does it sit in a bank, or does it get loaned out to terrible pipeline projects that we spend our days fighting.” In short, you can choose the companies that you invest in, and they can be aligned with your vision of the world.

Nia Impact Capital focuses their investment portfolio on six key themes that align with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and are necessary for both people and planet, including “natural and organic foods” and “sustainable planet.” Kristin shared that it felt important-- both personally and to the company-- to include both because we are at a critical point in time. As populations (& climate crises) rise, people will still need to eat and be healthy, so how do we do so in a way that also regenerates the earth and soil.

Woven throughout this work is an emphasis on gender equity that she refers to as “putting feminism into finances.” Within the company, it’s embedded from top to bottom (Nia is women owned and led) and through programs such as the Impactful Women Series, a networking and education event for women who want to be in the impact investment space and the Changing the Face of Finance internship for high school girls and college-aged young women. Recently, Nia was the first ever recipient of the GEN Certification, a new data-driven standard for assessing how U.S. businesses show up for gender equity. The process was similar to that which Nia undergoes with their portfolio companies, assessing how their practices and processes support gender equality. And given Kristin’s passion for the movement, the results were not at all surprising. “Turns out we were doing almost everything right, but we also learned the research about why it’s important.”

Kristin applies the same lense to Nia’s portfolio. “Instead of starting at the top, we start with whether the core products and services are beneficial to women and girls, and then take a look at their practices and how many women are on the board or within leadership.” Take online marketplace powerhouse Etsy, which offers its sellers (89% of whom are women) entrepreneurship training around how to merchandise and market their products, and just so happens to steal part of the market share from less socially-conscious companies like Amazon.

When it comes to their clients, Nia Impact Capital continues to encourage an awareness of how their portfolios align with their own values around feminism. For example, if you’re following the #MeToo movement, attending the Women’s March, you should extend that consciousness to where your money lies. Are you investing in companies that don’t have women in leadership, or are harmful towards women’s rights in other ways?

Another of Kristin’s goals around gender equity is to train the next generation of women to feel empowered around their finances and career choices. On her blog, The Money Doula, Kristin offers tips around talking to advisors about their options, the merits of choosing female advisors and how to bring Nia’s investment philosophy into one’s personal finances. When asked what professional advice she would give young women similarly interested in social change, she shared: “the world is changing. Before there would be a specific sector to go into, and yet maybe because the planet is heating up, or the rise of the #MeToo movement, or increased awareness in racial justice, we each need  to bring our passion into wherever we work. Choose a place where you can bring your full self. Be strong about saying no to the status quo.” And because change is what our planet needs right now, Kristin assures that your career will reward you for it.

What is Kristin most excited in regards to the upcoming Grazing at the Kitchen Table? “I am excited about this event, getting the word out about why Kitchen Table Advisors’ work is so important right now. To meet women chefs and farmers doing awesome work, and being able to celebrate them, feels exciting.”

To learn more about Nia Impact Capital’s innovative approaching to investing, or read Kristin’s tips on how to bring feminism into your finances, visit www.niaimpactcapital.com


Grazing at the Kitchen Table takes place from 6:30pm to 9pm on Thursday, October 4, 2018 at Dogpatch WineWorks in San Francisco. Follow #GrazeAndGive2018 for updates. 

Photos courtesy of Nia Impact Capital.

The (secret) journey of a head of lettuce
 
You’re seated at your favorite neighborhood restaurant, getting ready to dig into a crisp summer salad. You can just picture how, earlier that day, a grinning, overall-clad farmer—let’s call her Maria—picked that perfectly curly head of lettuce, placed it gently in a handwoven basket, walked over to her red pickup truck, and headed to the city to hand it over, still glistening with morning dew, to Chef John.
 
Well… let’s pause there for a second. The reality is that many of us who didn’t grow up on a production farm have a deeply romanticized vision of farming. That’s not to say that farming isn’t beautiful or that feeding people isn’t romantic; but it also requires extended, often monotonous labor and generates quantities of fresh produce that, as individual eaters, we cannot quite comprehend.
 
When Maria harvests several pallets worth of lettuce in a day—and still has to tend to the other 20 crops on her farm, repair the shed, and balance her books—she cannot possibly deliver that lettuce a few pounds at a time to thirty restaurants. And on the flip side, a chef who is scrambling to prep for the dinner service cannot afford to visit a separate farm for each ingredient on his menu. 

So how does that lettuce make it to Chef John’s kitchen, and why does its journey matter?
 

Food distributors: master choreographers
 
To answer that question, I visited Veritable Vegetable, also known as VV, a San Francisco-based distributor of fresh organic produce that has been in operation since 1974. (Yes, that’s more than four decades!)
 
Every single day, the staff of Veritable Vegetable - some 135 people in total - put on a flawlessly choreographed performance to get that lettuce from the farm to your plate. That performance involves 65,000 feet of warehouse space in SF’s Dogpatch neighborhood, a green fleet of 30 trucks, an extensive pricing list, banana boxes stacked like Jenga, and innumerable customer calls.

It’s a performance you may never hear about: food distributors like Veritable Vegetable work behind the scenes to aggregate, transport, store, and then redistribute produce to smaller buyers, such as restaurants, food cooperatives and independent grocery stores.
 
But even though they are out of sight, food distributors are absolutely indispensable to the health of our food system. In the words of Veritable Vegetable’s CEO, Mary Jane Evans, “Food distributors are like the gear in the middle that makes the wheels move in the same direction.” And according to a 2015 USDA survey, along with institutions such as schools and hospitals, distributors are responsible for as much as 39% of the direct farm sales of food nationwide. [1]

Just ask Krystin Rubin, co-owner of San Francisco’s Mission Pie and a VV customer for more than ten years: “Farmers’ markets are sexy, but honestly, if I need to buy 400 pounds of peaches, I'm not going to buy them at the farmers’ market. I don't have a big enough hand truck.” She adds, “We continue to feel like, ‘Wow! What a resource to our business this is.’ We couldn’t do what we do without them.”
 
Veritable Vegetable: a food hub on a mission
 
Given their role as intermediaries, food distributors can have a big impact on their surrounding foodshed. For instance, they can decide whether to pick up from remote locations, what the minimum quantity is that they will purchase, and what kind of certification they require. Decisions like these can impact whether or not a farmer has a profitable season through greater access to markets.
 
Thankfully, the produce that passes through Veritable Vegetable is in good hands. Initially operating under the tagline, “Food for people, not for profit,” Veritable Vegetable was the first organic wholesaler in the nation. At a time when the National Organic Program didn’t even exist, VV’s founders were visiting farms to understand how the produce was grown and make sure the shed wasn’t full of chemicals. This is important, because while many of us associate organic with ‘sustainable’ or ‘good for the planet’, certification is also associated with higher farm profitability. [2] VV also educated farmers about food distribution to ensure that they were preserving the quality of their produce by picking at the right time and using the right packaging, for example. 
 
Today, the company remains values-driven: it is a certified B-corp, is women-owned, diverts 99% of its waste from landfill, has invested in a zero-emissions truck fleet, strives to pay workers a fair wage, and so much more. To ensure that it can continue to do things right, Veritable Vegetable works hard to remain independent by virtue of a diverse client base, in which no single customer accounts for more than 5% of business.
 
Perhaps most importantly to the Kitchen Table Advisors audience, Veritable Vegetable continues to be deeply invested in the well-being of farmers. Christine Coke of Coke Farm, a Veritable Vegetable vendor since the 1980s, describes the distributor as “very supportive of growers”. Staff works with growers on crop planning for the following year to ensure that they are growing fruit and vegetables they will be able to sell and remain economically viable. When a farmer unexpectedly finds himself with triple the volume of honeydew melons he expected to harvest, the purchasing team picks up the phone, calling everyone in their network to place the surplus. More broadly, Veritable Vegetable strives to represent all of a farmer’s product that does not go into direct marketing, such as CSAs or farmers markets. 

This work is invaluable for the health of our foodshed. Christine Coke explains, “One way Veritable Vegetable (and similar businesses) really impact the food system is that they support the small growers, the niche growers and give them an opportunity to thrive by giving them access to the market. They are interested in having a thriving, diverse agricultural community - smaller and larger, specialty and mainstream.”

Food activist, vegetable lover
 
By this point, you must be wondering who is behind this too-good-to-be-true enterprise.
 
I first heard the story of Bu Nygrens—Veritable Vegetable co-owner and director of purchasing—at a Real Food Real Stories event. That evening, Bu and fellow co-owner Karen Salinger shared their journey into organic food distribution with an eager group of listeners, speaking not just about produce, but also about collaboration, passion, and transparency. It was there that I learned that Bu first started thinking about the movement of food when her family was driving through one of the tunnels that connects Manhattan to the rural areas that supply much of its food. Looking out of the window, Bu wondered, “What would happen if the tunnel collapsed? Where would we get our food?” 
 
I was thrilled to catch up with Bu again on July 4th. This was the only day she could catch her breath, as many of her customers were lighting up their grills, instead of placing orders for pallets of watermelons. We were sitting in her office, a stack of eclectic books balancing in one corner, a couple of peaches lounging in a bowl nearby, and the intercom periodically announcing customer calls.
 
Bu has been with Veritable Vegetable since the beginning, and I wanted to understand what keeps her going forty years later. Perhaps it’s a love for fresh produce. Bu loves English peas, cucumbers, and ripe tomatoes; she also has a soft spot for passion fruit. “Virtually any vegetable tastes good when it’s fresh! I thought I didn’t like green beans until I started tasting them here at VV to check their crispness. It turns out, I do like green beans! I just didn’t like my mom’s green beans,” she exclaims, laughing.
 

Photo from left to right: Mary Jane Evans, CEO, Karen Salinger, Director of Sales, Bu Nygrens, Director of Purchasing.

Photo from left to right: Mary Jane Evans, CEO, Karen Salinger, Director of Sales, Bu Nygrens, Director of Purchasing.

In reality, Bu explains that what keeps her going is the opportunity to touch so many different aspects of society and culture through food. Food carries memories, it brings comfort. But it is also a powerful tool for achieving social justice: “Nobody ever wonders who are the bus boys, the truck drivers, the apple pickers—they’re just not part of the public discourse. We need to empower them to tell their story.”
 
Bu has been a lifelong food activist, working toward a more equitable food system. She urges, “We need to understand how money flows in the system—it’s not just about who grew this, but also about who owns the land it grew on, and who earns the profit.” She has a point. Remember that lettuce we’ve been talking about? According to the National Farmers Union, a farmer earns just 26 cents out of an average retail price of $1.69 for a pound of (conventional) lettuce. [3]

This lack of transparency drives Bu and her team to work extra hard on information sharing, something their customers clearly value. To quote Christine Coke once again, “[Veritable Vegetable’s] communication is just really good. They don't play the market, they don't try to profit at the expense of growers. They make you aware of information they have. There's honest discourse, which we really appreciate.” Krystin from Mission Pie refers to VV as a “brain trust” that has educated her along the way.
 
My conversation with Bu meanders through other big topics, including the importance of democratic infrastructure, the loss of farmland to development, the role of agriculture in alleviating climate change, and the power of female decision-making. These are the kinds of issues that motivate Veritable Vegetable’s work and bring Bu to the office on Independence Day.
 
With such inspired and thoughtful leadership at the helm, it is only natural that we can see Veritable Vegetable’s commitment to improving our food system extend beyond its direct business. The company has inspired many others and has built long-term partnerships with like-minded organizations to serve the community. You hardly even need to ask, and the praise starts pouring in:
 

Food is the root of civilization; without farms, there is no food. For the past 40 years, Veritable Vegetable has pioneered efforts to support organic farmers and bring eaters closer to fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables. In the past four years, Kitchen Table Advisors has increased the long-term economic viability of our region’s small farmers. I am honored to be a part of both of these organizations and to support farmers in the vital work they do each day to feed our communities and build a thriving and resilient food system.
— Nicole Mason, Director of Marketing & Community Engagement at Veritable Vegetable, Kitchen Cabinet Member at Kitchen Table Advisors
Veritable has been an extraordinary partner and inspiration for Bi-Rite for years. Our relationship goes so much deeper than just a mere transaction. From collaborating on EcoFarm presentations to better understanding how we can use B Corp Certification to better measure and improve our positive impact, VV has fueled our mission of creating community through food. Their sourcing and farm relationships were instrumental in guiding our product sourcing mission, and their impact in the greater community continues to inspire our community engagement, and furthering the positive impact we can make on our people and planet as we pursue our B Corp mandate to be a business as a force for GOOD.
— Sam Mogannam, Founder of Bi-Rite [4]

Be curious, be persistent
 
So what can you, as a reader and as an eater, do to support the journey of the lettuce? Bu offers some wisdom, ranging from the extremely practical, to the more philosophical:

  • Keep shopping with your eyes, your nose, your hands. Look at the produce, touch it, smell it.
  • Show up politically at the local and regional level. This is where you can really make a difference and make sure people get the kind of information they need to choose the food they buy.
  • Be curious, be persistent. If you stay curious, that means you are interested in the world, in people, in nature. If you are persistent, you won’t give up in the face of disappointment, which is inevitable when there is so much work to be done.

In the meantime, Veritable “still has so much to do,” according to Bu. She lists education, systems improvements, the adoption of ever-safer practices, new developments in green tech, and support for underserved communities.
 
But the area of need she underscores most is succession planning—not just for Veritable Vegetable, but also for other organizations in the food and agriculture space, as well as for farmers. The food movement relies on a handful of leaders who are “great”, but Bu wonders what will happen once they step down. Similarly, many older farmers are looking to retire and—with their children now living in the city—looking for ways to transition their operations. USDA expects 10% of farmland to change hands by 2019. [5] We need solutions to support this transfer in a way that prevents further loss of farmland to development.
 
Whether we are talking about young farmers, food activists, or warehouse operators, we have to develop ownership paths for people that prepare them to take the lead. Only in this way can we ensure that fresh, ethically-grown lettuce will continue to reach our plates. Luckily, this is also top-of-mind for KTA, so I’m sure there are exciting opportunities for collaboration ahead.

Photos courtesy of Veritable Vegetable. To learn more about Veritable Vegetable, please visit their website or contact Jennifer Doan with questions.

Kitchen Table Advisors is grateful for Veritable Vegetable’s generous support of this year’s Grazing at the Kitchen Table. The fundraiser will take place from 6.30pm to 9.30pm on Thursday, October 5, 2017 at Dogpatch WineWorks in San Francisco. Tickets go on sale August 10. Follow #GrazeAndGive2017 for updates.


[1] USDA, “Direct Farm Sales of Food: Results from the 2015 Local Food Marketing Practices Survey,” Dec. 2016, available from usda.gov.
[2] http://www.pnas.org/content/112/24/7611.abstract
[3] National Farmers Union, “The Farmer’s Share,” available from nfu.org.
[4] This testimonial was kindly made available by Real Food, Real Stories. Learn more about them
here
[5] AgWeb, “Did You Know? 10% of Farmland Will Change Hands by 2019”, Aug. 29, 2016. 

On February 28, 2017, 300+ people gathered at UC Davis for the annual CalCAN (California Climate and Agriculture Network) conference. Farmers and ranchers, government and non-profit agencies, policy advocates and funders came together to learn, share best practices, and problem solve around agriculture and climate change.

I had never been to the CalCAN Summit before, but left feeling blown away by the quality of people and conversation. I clearly sensed the deep intersection of our work supporting the economic viability of sustainable small farms and ranches with CalCAN’s coalition and policy work supporting ecological land stewardship and climate resilience on farms.  Several of the farms we support at Kitchen Table Advisors had a presence at the conference: Javier Zamora of JSM Organics was on a farmer panel in the opening plenary; Emma Torbert of Cloverleaf Farm participated in a workshop; and Alexis and Gilles Robertson of Skyelark Ranch hosted a farm tour.

It was great to be in dialogue with seasoned farmers like Judith Redmond of Full Belly Farm and Albert Straus of Straus Family Creamery; non-profit partners like POST, California FarmLink, Point Blue, and the Carbon Cycle Institute; thoughtful policy advocates like Renata Brillinger at CalCAN and Dave Runsten at CAFF; and key supporters like Sallie Calhoun of Paicines Ranch, Michael Roberts and Joanna Lehrman at 11th Hour Project, Susan Clark at Gaia Fund, and Nancy Schaub of New Priorities Foundation.

The day after the CalCAN Summit, 70+ people spent the day visiting three farms in the Capay Valley to walk the land, touch and feel the soil, and hear from farmers on the ground about healthy soils, agriculture and climate change, and how they understand the connection between operating an economically successful farm while stewarding the land.

The first stop was at Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation Farm & Ranch, owned and operated by the Wintun Nation tribe, to hear from ranch manager Adam Cline about his efforts to raise cattle while improving soil and ecosystem health. Co-leading the tour was Corey Shake, a partner biologist with Point Blue who is part of a statewide rangeland monitoring network providing advice and conducting wildlife and plant species monitoring to learn about the impacts of grazing strategies on soil health.

The group moved on to Full Belly Farm to enjoy a delicious organic lunch prepared on farm with their fresh organic ingredients. Co-owners Judith Redmond and Paul Muller shared their experiments and experiences with minimizing soil disturbance, using various cover crop mixes, and rotating livestock to enhance soil organic matter and carbon sequestration.

The last stop on the farm tour was with Kitchen Table Advisors client Skyelark Ranch, a 40-acre pastured livestock ranch operated by Alexis and Gillies Robertson who receive business advising from our Farm Business Advisor based in Yolo County, Thomas Nelson. Alexis and Gilles are a young couple who have been farming since 2010. They sell their pastured lamb and pork through the Davis and Oakland Jack London Square farmers’ markets, and their pastured eggs to institutions like Airbnb through food hubs like the Capay Valley Farm Shop.

We walked under the canopy of an old almond orchard where Alexis and Gillies rotate pigs and chickens next to fields where they grow hay and graze their sheep. The focus of the conversation was, of course, around how they manage the animals and their land, and how the land stewardship practices of farms like theirs are helping fight climate change.

After we walked under blue skies to the top of the hill that overlooks their farm, Alexis and Gillies reminded us that this conversation about their efforts to steward the land, sequester carbon, and battle climate change has to be considered in the context of the long-term viability of their farm business and their ability to make enough to support their family.  They have a one-year-old daughter, Isla. The family has been working hard and fighting an uphill battle to build Skyelark Ranch to be a farm business that raises livestock in a humane way that is in balance with the land and their community, and provides a living for their young family.

It’s more than clear to Alexis and Gillies that they need to have a farm that is economically viable in order to be sustainable. They need to be able to cover business expenses and investments in long-term farm infrastructure; cover their family’s living expenses; and hopefully have the chance to eventually save a little money. Because if they can’t do that, then despite their best intentions, they will not be able to continue stewarding the land in a way that is in line with their values, incorporating practices that sequester carbon, and building healthy soils.

As the sun was getting low in the sky, we closed our conversation surrounded by sheep in one of their pastures. We talked about how long-term farm viability is a necessary piece of the puzzle to nurturing ecological farm land stewardship, and how farmers like Alexis and Gillies need to focus on running their farm as a business AND build a network of support. It became apparent that all of us gathered together at the CalCAN Summit, standing in a circle around Alexis and Gillies in their pasture, were part of that network: seasoned farmers who provide advice and support; groups like the Capay Valley Farm Shop and Fibershed that market, aggregate, and distribute their product; non-profits like Kitchen Table Advisors and California FarmLink that provide business advising and financing; and organizations like CalCAN that advocate for policy solutions that create an environment in which farms like Skyelark Ranch can thrive. And we each rambled off into the lazy sun of the afternoon to go back to where we came from to play our part in this ecosystem.

Photos courtesy of CalCAN.

Isla Robertson is the youngest farmer in her family. At seven months old, she spends the majority of her days outdoors, sharing in the work of running Skyelark Ranch with her parents and fellow farmers, Alexis and Gillies. In addition to her budding interest in leaves and birds, Isla is learning what it means to be part of a small livestock farm—raising animals humanely, attending farmers markets, and cultivating direct connections with local food. There’s a lot to understand and even more to do on the ranch, but, for the Skyelark farmers, sharing this work as a family is what sustains their business.

A Conservation-focused Vision

Before Skyelark Ranch and Isla were born, Alexis and Gillies focused their efforts on environmental conservation. After crossing paths in a geography class in Tasmania, the two returned to the U.S. together to explore farming via internships. Gillies’ one and only season picking carrots in the rain confirmed for him that he was definitely not a vegetable farmer. Instead, the couple’s shared background in conservation drove them to pursue livestock management.

Skyelark Ranch is a pasture-based livestock operation located in Yolo County’s Capay Valley. The farm is home to Berkshire pigs, California Red sheep, and a variety of chickens (both broilers and layers). A strong conservation component that prioritizes habitat preservation was a vision Alexis and Gillies had for their farm from the start. Rotational grazing, carefully selected livestock breeds, and low tillage are among their methods for integrating their animals into environmental management practices. The animals spend their lives outdoors, grazing or foraging in one field before being moved to the next. Not only does this approach make for happy and healthy animals, but it also spreads nutrients across the ranch, building soil fertility and supporting forage regrowth.

Alexis and Gillies’ commitment to conservation extends to another major resource on the ranch: water.  Starting their farm during one of California’s historic droughts greatly (and not surprisingly) influenced their irrigation plan. Quite simply, the farmers don’t irrigate because there’s no water to do so. “We have to adapt our management approach to what’s going on in the landscape,” explains Alexis. “With the below average rainfall of the past six years, we’ve learned how to farm in drought and know no differently.”

Capital Crusades

Limited water, fickle animals, and uncertain weather can amount to enormous challenges for first-time farmers. Still, for Alexis and Gillies, some of the most significant hurdles they encountered lay outside of nature. “The hardest part of getting started was access to capital,” said Alexis. Six years ago when Alexis was finishing a master’s degree and Gillies was working full-time, they struggled to get a loan to start their farm.

They relied on credit cards and paychecks to piece their operation together, growing slowly and thoughtfully. “In hindsight, it helped us learn about scale and what’s sustainable for this piece of land,” Alexis reflects. “We were more intentional about what we grow and what the land can support.”

Eventually, the couple got connected with California Farmlink and was able to secure a loan to lease their farm. While the 60-acre ranch continues to be a cherished home for the young family, their ultimate goal is land ownership. As fervent environmental stewards, Alexis and Gillies view land ownership as an opportunity to build sustainability and resiliency into their farm’s ecosystem.

In preparing for this next step, the couple expressed gratitude to California Farmlink and Kitchen Table Advisors for helping them chart a course toward ownership.  Kitchen Table Advisors is advising them on budget development, preparing the farmers to search for properties based on what they can afford. 

"Why is this bacon so expensive?"

Whether sharing about their capital needs or speaking to the unending drought, Alexis and Gillies remain as transparent as possible when it comes to their farm, for two reasons. It is deeply important to the couple that their customers know them as their farmers and understand that they are the only ones behind the food being produced. “I really want people to know that we are a true family farm. Every time you buy from us, you are supporting us directly,” Alexis emphasizes.

As customers get to know Alexis and Gillies, they come to understand the realities of their work. “Why is this bacon so expensive?” is a constant question the couple receives from customers at farmers markets. The question makes for the perfect opening into a discussion about running a small farm business and the real costs of conscientiously produced food. Alexis particularly enjoys talking about the often-overlooked finances of small farming, as she wants customers to recognize that this is their family’s sole livelihood.

Selling at farmers markets has helped facilitate these open and honest conversations. For the past three years, the family has attended Oakland’s Jack London Square Farmers Market on Sundays. With CUESA recently taking over the waterfront market, Alexis already feels a change, translating to more opportunities for one-on-one conversations. Owing to the scale and diversity of sales they’ve been able to achieve at farmers markets, the couple is now adding another sales channel to the mix—wholesale. 

Generations of Family

Amidst the many twists and turns of farming, Alexis and Gillies find motivation and connection from their tight-knit community of growers. Speaking about the older generation of farmers, Alexis recognizes Full Belly Farm, Riverdog Farm, and Fiddlers Green Farm for their pioneering work establishing sales channels and educating customers on local food.

Gillies also expresses appreciation for the multi-generation farmers and their profound expertise in traditional production methods. “Even though our operation is slightly different than theirs, they’re still willing to help us with advice and equipment,” he says. “We’re lucky to live in a community with these resources. And most of the farmers still answer our phone calls!”

From one family farm to the next, the farmers’ shared experiences and cooperation are what preserve the art of producing food. Alexis and Gillies do not know yet if Isla’s future will be in farming; however, their commitment remains to building a farm that can support them. In turn, the family of three can then reach so many more with the food and farm they’ve grown.

Find Skyelark Ranch at CUESA’s Jack London Square Farmers Market on Sundays, alternating with Casa Rosa Farms.

This article is a part of an ongoing series highlighting CUESA farmers and ranchers mentored by Kitchen Table Advisors. Together, CUESA and Kitchen Table Advisors are supporting the economic viability of the next generation of sustainable small farms by offering critical market and promotion opportunities and in-depth business and financial advising. You can read more articles about businesses supported by CUESA and Kitchen Table Advisors here.

Photos courtesy of Skyelark Ranch and Caitlin Crow, Orange Photography.

Chef Aaron Thayer has a deep respect for how food is grown, and sourcing is at the core of the dishes he serves at Petit Crenn. Speaking with me while on a daily run to the farmers market, Chef Thayer, Petit Crenn’s executive sous chef, has an undeniable commitment to local. 

When asked why he decided to cook a dish for Grazing at the Kitchen Table, he shares that a colleague at Petit Crenn suggested he get involved because of his love of local, expertly grown food. He is excited to help promote and honor the work of local farmers. “You can just taste all the care and love in the products that are grown by these small-scale farmers. That translates well into how much love I put into my cooking.”

Chef Thayer cooks in a way that represents his style of eating. His cooking is grounded in comfort food traditions, and he aims to provide a nostalgic and sentimental food experience for his guests. He is inspired by Chef Sean Brock, known for serving Lowcountry cuisine that utilizes lost ingredients. Chef Thayer has a passion for preserving heirloom grains, and loves making dishes like the Southern classic Hoppin’ John to bring these disappearing grains to new audiences.

With the changing of the seasons, comes the changing of Petit Crenn’s menu. One of his current favorite offerings is Gnocchi à la Parisienne. This dish showcases summer’s bountiful sweet corn in a number of unique ways. Aaron shares that corn is one of his favorite foods. That might be because he grew up in Hadley, Massachusetts -- next to a cow farm and across the street from a corn field.

From there, he attended culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Providence, Rhode Island, and cooked in several well respected Boston area restaurants including Mooo, a modern steakhouse in Boston’s Beacon Hill, as well as Ken Oringer’s legendary Clio, that has since closed. Two years ago, he made the move to San Francisco, and couldn’t be happier.

Chef Thayer looks forward to celebrating local growers at Grazing. His goal of the evening is to create awareness of the incredible growers in our community and use his dish as a vehicle to highlight the hard work of these farmers.

Grazing at the Kitchen Table takes place from 6.30pm to 9.30pm on Thursday, September 22, 2016 (this week!) at Dogpatch WineWorks in San Francisco. Get your seat today! Follow #GrazeAndGive2016 for updates. 

Photos courtesy of Petit Crenn & Aaron Thayer.

Nick Balla grew up in the rural Midwest, a far cry from the bustling urban stretch his restaurant Bar Tartine now calls home. When it came to their food, Balla’s family lived by a zero-waste philosophy. If they couldn’t eat something immediately, they would preserve it to eat in the future. Years later, wildly successful and hyper-seasonal Bar Tartine shares this philosophy with the Balla family.

When Nick and his partner Cortney Burns started Bar Tartine, they were clear in their commitment to local and seasonal, even encouraging their suppliers to pursue the same. The restaurant developed an exclusive relationship with Full Table Farm in Yountville, located just 40 miles north of San Francisco. Nick and Cortney met Full Table farmers Juston and Mindy at an event a few years ago, being immediately drawn to their produce. After a meeting on the farm, both farmers and chefs were convinced that a unique and important partnership was blossoming.

The exclusive relationship between Bar Tartine and Full Table Farm guarantees the farmers a reliable source of income -- one not subject to the whims of chefs, uncertain markets, or even the weather. Whatever Juston and Mindy grow, Nick and Cortney use. Along with having a deeper connection to their ingredients, the relationship also encourages the chefs to constantly rethink and retool their menu. Fresh peppers are dried and milled into paprika –- a popular spice on their menu. “Ugly” produce is transformed into jams, sauces, and other products reminiscent of the canning of Nick’s youth. At the table, Nick and Cortney’s approach is best represented by the iconic Bar Tartine sprouted croquette dish. Composed of whatever sprouted legumes are on hand, the buttermilk byproduct of churning their own butter, and bread scraps, the ingredients for this customer favorite could just as easily be found in the food waste bin in a different kitchen.

Nick and Cortney's zero-waste philosophy extends beyond the produce they source for their kitchen. A meat order for Bar Tartine kitchen usually begins with a conversation with Patricia of Happy Hens Farm. Patricia updates the chefs on what meat is available while the chefs prepare for whatever arrives the next day. As Nick puts it, “We should all be constantly available to think outside the box and adapt the way we think about our relationship with growers. How do we evolve our notion of what we need versus what we want?” To this end, Nick and Cortney are actively involved in developing a sustainable distribution system for small producers, which includes utilizing reusable produce containers to cut down on packaging costs.

Both Nick and Cortney understand that meaningful collaborations move us all closer toward a resilient and interdependent food system. Sharing a passion for the livelihood of small farmers, working with Kitchen Table Advisors was a natural fit for the chefs. Next week during KTA's Grazing at the Kitchen Table, Nick and Cortney look forward to bringing their love of local and seasonal to the community meal.

Grazing at the Kitchen Table takes place from 6.30pm to 9.30pm on Thursday, September 22, 2016 at Dogpatch WineWorks in San Francisco. Don't wait to reserve your seat! Follow #GrazeAndGive2016 for updates. 

Photos courtesy of Bar Tartine.

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If you have the lucky opportunity to speak with Sergio Jimenez on his five-and-a-half acres at Ground Stew Farms or at one of his five weekly farmers markets, you’ll be struck immediately by his bright smile and humility. He’ll probably offer you a taste of his stunning produce while speaking about the immense gratitude he has for all who’ve helped make his farm in San Martin, California a success. He will likely also find a way to weave into the conversation that quality soil is at the heart of good farming.

Finding His Way Back to the Family Business

Sergio hails from Oaxaca, Mexico where his father was a successful farmer. He didn’t immediately fall into the family business, however. As a child, he recalls working long, hard hours helping on the farm while also attending school full time. He couldn’t picture his adult self as a farmer.

Fast-forward to his life in California: Sergio had a number of careers outside of farming, including a role with a manufacturing company and in real estate. The real estate work was incredibly stressful for Sergio. At that time, he had a large backyard and, with little effort, began growing things in his garden for fun and to help relieve stress. Farming in his garden came easily to him, and he soon realized the passion that he had for working the land.

Growing Soil

A relative told him to look into ALBA (Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association) in Salinas. He immediately signed up for classes with them, and learned how to both farm organically and run a business. As part of this program, he was able to lease land at a reasonable price so he could get his business off the ground. His first year (2012), he leased two and a half acres, and, in the last two years he has expanded to five and a half acres.

The current home of Sergio’s farm is ALBA’s Triple M Ranch, located in Northern Monterey County. The ranch is on a 195-acre farm, only 60-acres of which can be cultivated due to a natural land easement, with the rest zoned for conservation in the environmentally sensitive Elkhorn Slough watershed. Being in the slough, Sergio’s farm is not only a haven for beautiful produce, but also a mix of native frog species that include American Bullfrog, California Red-Legged Frog, and Pacific Tree Frog. Ground Stew and the resident frogs have built a harmonious life together in the watershed.

Sergio grows many kinds of certified organic fruits and vegetables, and the stars of the current summer season are his strawberries. Customers buy them weekly because of their incredible flavor. Late summer is tremendously busy for him, like most farmers. Currently, tomatoes, kale, and zucchini are top sellers at the farmers market. (Insider tip: You may see some of his perfectly delicate Little Gem lettuce in local restaurants soon.)

Sergio avoids using pesticides -- even organic ones -- on his crops whenever possible. He prefers to grow a large variety of plants, and “naturally confuse the pests.” In other words, Sergio is committed to integrated pest management, which means building biodiversity and employing a combination of natural tactics, like disrupting a pest’s living conditions, to reduce pest levels. At the core of his farming philosophy, he believes in creating a strong base for the roots of his plants. “I grow soil first before I grow plants," he says. "It’s very important for me to enhance the soil where I’m growing. I use a lot of compost and cover crops over the winter. Many people use organic practices, but I believe establishing healthy soil is the key.”

When you bite into one of his sweet-like-candy yellow tomatoes as I did this week, you will agree that whatever he’s doing to that soil is the right approach.

Struggles and Support

When asked about the biggest struggle he faces as a farmer, Sergio doesn’t complain about the exhausting work, the extensive hours, or anything one might expect. Instead, he shared that the lack of labor is the biggest challenge that he and other farmers face.

“This is what keeps me from expanding further: lack of labor," he says. "There aren’t enough people who want to work on a small farm like mine. I’m not sure why exactly. We depend on immigrants a lot, and the tightening of the border may be one cause of this. This happens to all farmers--both small and large commercial farmers. Signs all over the area advertise for more workers.”

Sergio shares that most farm workers get paid minimum wage, but he pays his folks more because he appreciates their work and hopes to earn their loyalty. He speaks of one smart and responsible worker with leadership skills that he helped develop recently. Sergio noticed a neighboring farmer trying to lure this employee away, which sadly seems to be all too common in times of shortage.

We don’t linger on this subject for too long. Sergio would rather speak about the support he’s received than focus on the negatives. He couldn’t say enough wonderful things about the connections he's made through ALBA, Kitchen Table Advisors, and CUESA. He also has great love for Oakland and San Francisco farmers market shoppers, because they are “very knowledgeable about how eating organic food positively impacts people and the environment.”

“Kitchen Table Advisors helped me get the farm’s financials organized," he says. "That’s still a challenge, but we are getting there! It’s hard to juggle farming, going to markets, and the books.” He also appreciates CUESA’s oversight of their farmers markets. “They are truly there to help and support small farmers, not just to collect a stall fee.”

You can find Ground Stew at the Jack London Square Farmers Market on Sundays, and at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Thursdays.

This article is a part of an ongoing series highlighting CUESA farmers and ranchers mentored by Kitchen Table Advisors. Together, CUESA and Kitchen Table Advisors are supporting the economic viability of the next generation of sustainable small farms by offering critical market and promotion opportunities and in-depth business and financial advising. You can read more articles about businesses supported by CUESA and Kitchen Table Advisors here.

Photos by Caitlin Crow, Orange Photography.

I was early for my interview. Partially nerves, but mostly a craving for award-winning tacos from Tacos Cala. Fortunately for me, I have a large appetite. After I downed two squid, one egg, and a sweet potato taco prior to our designated meeting time, Gabriela came and offered me lunch! Who was I to say no….

Gabriela Cámara immediately strikes you with her gracious nature and energy. We recently sat down at a table in her San Francisco restaurant, Cala, to discuss her take on sustainable sourcing in the Bay Area as a single window washer worked away on the front of the restaurant. Gabriela looked on, worried about how long he’d been standing precariously on his ladder and noting how meticulous he was in his work.

The way Gabriela cares for and interacts with her workers comes as no surprise. After all, she’s received significant press for her practice of hiring formerly incarcerated individuals to staff her restaurant. While this certainly came up in our conversation, I was here first and foremost to learn more about her experience and thoughts on working with local farms to create her much-praised menu.

As most people know, Gabriela first came to fame in her native Mexico with the opening of Contramar, and currently owns four restaurants in the capital city. Contramar’s focus is fresh fish and seafood –- something that wasn’t being done anywhere in Mexico City at the time of its opening in 1998, Gabriela says. The inspirations that shaped Gabriela's restaurant concept came from the U.S.; of most consequence -- Chez Panisse. “My experience eating there was truly transformational. I realized that thoughtfulness behind the scenes and awareness of impact could bring the eating experience full circle for everyone involved,” Gabriela reflects. Now, Gabriela herself enjoys the company of Alice Waters as a fellow restaurateur, and will be traveling to Terra Madre with her at the end of the month.

“How does sustainable sourcing in Mexico compare with the process in the Bay Area?” I ask. “Mexico is still building its system for responsible sourcing, whereas in the Bay Area that system is already built,” she states. For a chef, it’s a dream to be tapped into such a system, but, of course, there is an adjustment period to pricing, particularly when coming from Mexico. Still, it’s important to Gabriela that farmers are paid well, and that’s where there is plenty of room for improvement in our local food system. We agreed that the general population still needs to be educated about the true costs behind food production.

How did Gabriela first tap into the local food community to source her ingredients for Cala? One key event occurred in the most unlikely way -- through a fellow parent at her son’s school (a parent who also happens to be an Ambassador for Kitchen Table Advisors). Given the easy connections characteristic of our tight-knit Bay Area food community, Gabriela has been able to build first-name basis relationships with many farmers, including several in the Capay Valley in Yolo County -- Say Hay Farms, Fiddlers Green Farm, and the pioneering Full Belly Farm. She’s also tapped into the local farmers market scene and buys twice a week from Frog Hollow Farm, Dirty Girl, and Star Route Farms at the San Rafael and Ferry Building farmers markets.

Gabriela is excited for a fresh bounty of new vegetables to arrive with fall so she can build her new menus. To celebrate the season, she plans on contributing a squash ceviche and bean dish to the Grazing at the Kitchen Table menu. In the meantime, the summer harvest is keeping her busy. “The tomatoes right now are amazing!” she enthusiastically shares.

As Gabriela and I were wrapping up our conversation, we reflected on the social justice components that link her strong belief and practice of hiring those coming out prison with supporting sustainable agriculture. It’s a commitment to disrupting systems of inequality and placing humans at the center of the system. Gabriela’s personal and professional ethic certainly does this –- from the farmers who grow her food, to the workers who prepare it, to presenting her guests with the opportunity to enjoy a meal with the knowledge that everything behind the dish is made with respect and integrity.

Let’s not forget the practical angle in the midst of the larger ethical argument, either. Before I left, Gabriela gave me a grilled cucumber taco to try. Grilled cucumber? Yes, it was delightful. “Cucumbers are in season and it's great to incorporate in-season produce when they are abundant so we can keep the cost of our tacos low,” Gabriela shares. As of this writing, her tacos are $3.50 a la carte or three for $12. A steal by San Francisco standards.

I've always been moved by the Gandhi quote "Be the change you wish to see in the world." This is what came to my mind as I enjoyed my visit with Gabriela Cámara. She is certainly a change agent we are fortunate to have in the Bay Area.

Come be a part of the change that Chef Cámara is bringing to Bay Area food during Grazing at the Kitchen Table. The event takes place from 6.30pm to 9.30pm on Thursday, September 22, 2016 at Dogpatch WineWorks in San Francisco. Tickets are on sale now--don't wait to reserve your seat! Follow #GrazeAndGive2016 for updates.

Photos courtesy of Cala.

By Janet McGarry, CUESA Volunteer

Americans have become accustomed to jumbo portions of poultry, and few of us remember a time before oversized boneless breasts were the norm. These days, most chicken meat comes from birds bred to grow at an abnormally fast rate—as much as six pounds in six weeks. If humans grew this quickly, we would weigh 260 pounds at age two!

Accelerated growth takes a toll on birds’ health and quality of life. “Breeding for these qualities doesn’t produce animals that thrive in natural settings,” explains farmer Dede Boies of Root Down Farm. “Chickens’ legs and hearts can’t keep up with the weight gain, so they’re not able to move well. Turkeys’ breasts are so large that they are physically prevented from mating naturally, so they have to be artificially inseminated.”

Learning about the negative impacts of industrial animal agriculture inspired Dede to start Root Down Farm in Pescadero, where she raises heritage chickens, turkeys, ducks, and pigs humanely and sustainably.

“As I learned more about the food system and farming, it became a political passion as well as a love of the physical work,” she says. “Even though my farm is just a teeny tiny drop of change, I am trying to do the best I can to raise animals in a way that is healthy for each creature, the land, and the bellies they feed.”

Water-Wise Pasture Management

Raised in the New Jersey suburbs, Dede got her first taste of farming by volunteering through WWOOF in New Zealand and Hawaii. She later found herself at Pie Ranch in Pescadero and “totally fell in love with the place.” As she gained more farming experience raising baby goats at Harley Farms and helping to start Echo Valley Farm, she realized her heart lay in raising livestock.

In 2014, in the midst of California’s deepening drought, she decided to start her own project. Root Down set down roots on 62 acres owned by the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST). Having limited water has led Dede to certain decisions, like growing fewer annual crops and more perennials. She doesn’t irrigate the pastures, which impacts the cycle of rotational grazing, requiring longer periods of rest for each paddock.

“We get all of our water from the creek on the farm, and it almost dried up that first summer,” she remembers. “At first, I thought, ‘Wow, this is a crappy year to start a farm.’ But it actually turned out to be a good thing because we started the farm knowing that we had to deal with water issues, so we established drought-wise systems from the beginning.”

Animal Welfare Approved

The ranch is certified through Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), a program with rigorous animal welfare and environmental sustainability standards designed to ensure animals live in “a state of physical and psychological well-being” from the pasture to the slaughterhouse.

New Hampshire, Delaware, Barred Plymouth Rock, and Chantecler chickens—all heritage breeds—eat bugs, grubs, and grass on the pastures, and Dede supplements their diets with organic grain. They take 15 to 16 weeks to reach maturity, almost three times longer than industrially raised chickens. Similarly, the Bronze, Midget White, Bourbon Red, and Blue Slate turkeys on the farm take 27 weeks to reach maturity (compared to 16 to 18 weeks at large-scale operations). The slower growth of these heritage breeds increases the cost of raising each bird, but also improves the meat’s taste. 

“A chicken that is raised naturally, moving freely and developing muscles at a normal rate, has superior flavor,” explains Dede. “Meat is more evenly distributed around the bird, and it develops more dark meat. It’s amazing what a huge difference it makes to the taste.”

Due to its greater complexity, meat from heritage chickens needs to be cooked longer at lower temperatures. “Cooking requires more effort and time, but the end result is so worth it,” according to Dede.

Root Down also raises heritage pigs: crosses of Berkshire, Large Black, Red Wattle, Gloucestershire Old Spots, and Mulefoot breeds. They’re kept outside all day long and are fed a diet of organic vegetable scraps from nearby Blue House Farm. “We give them showers and wallows on hot days,” says Dede.

She divides the pigs into small groups of 12, rotating them to different pasture areas each week. This requires more work for Dede and the farm’s three part-time workers, but “when the groups are smaller, we can develop strong relationships with the animals and be more in tune with them,” she says. 

Humane Treatment On and Off the Farm

After investing so much effort and personal care in the animals, Dede says it can be difficult to say goodbye and send them to the slaughterhouse. “I feel better knowing that they had very good lives, that we gave them a lot of love, and that they are going into people’s bellies to nourish them,” she says. “I want people to recognize that bacon and pork chops come from living creatures, and that a ton of work and a whole life make the food possible.”

During the first year, Dede slaughtered all the poultry on site, which was labor-intensive and also limited where she could sell the meat, since meat sold at farmers markets and other off-farm locations must be processed at a USDA slaughter house. She now sends all the chickens that she brings to market to an AWA-certified processing facility in Stockton. “It’s all about speed so that the animal doesn’t suffer,” says Dede.

Root Down also offers poultry harvesting workshops to train others in how to humanely process chickens. “I get a lot of calls from people who want to bring their chickens to the farm to learn how to process them,” she says.

Deepening Roots

Dede credits Root Down’s successful start to supportive relationships she’s developed with other Pescadero farmers. “I feel like I wouldn’t be here without my community. You just have to lean on people with a range of skills to help you with building, equipment, and other advice.”

She has also benefitted from business and financial planning guidance from Kitchen Table Advisors, and infrastructure support from POST, which has invested in rebuilding the 100-year-old barn on the land she leases. “All of this support makes me feel like I’ve started the farm at the right time.”

She is delighted to share her love of raising livestock humanely and sustainably with others at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. “Public education is a big piece of what I’m doing,” she says. “So much of my story has to be told verbally. I’m really looking forward to engaging with customers face-to-face at the farmers market and letting them know how they can affect change.”

Support Root Down Farm at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays.

This article is a part of an ongoing series highlighting CUESA farmers and ranchers mentored by Kitchen Table Advisors. Together, CUESA and Kitchen Table Advisors are supporting the economic viability of the next generation of sustainable small farms by offering critical market and promotion opportunities and in-depth business and financial advising. You can read more articles about businesses supported by CUESA and Kitchen Table Advisors here.

Root Down Farm photos by Federica Armstrong. Market photo by Amanda Lynn Photography.

This feature was originally posted on CUESA's website on August 19, 2016. View it here.

Sophina Uong comes with an impressive resume - Executive Chef at multiple Bay Area restaurants, and Grand Champion of this summer’s Chopped Grill Masters competition. To be honest, her resume is intimidating to an interviewer. However, what also comes across when you meet the Executive Chef of Oakland’s Calavera, is how approachable and family-oriented she is.

On a recent sunny afternoon in Berkeley, I joined Sophina, her fiancé William (also of Calavera), her daughter Roan, and Roan’s friend Katie for a lunch of tacos, ceviche, and tortilla soup at Tacubaya to discuss how she’s developed her commitment to sourcing locally and supporting farmers through her work.

Sophina is quick to point out that her move into sourcing locally happened over time and wasn’t always the easiest endeavor. As sous chef at Waterbar, she was first exposed to working with local farmers by wandering the Ferry Building with the restaurant’s purchaser to learn about sustainable seafood options. This gave her a taste of both the challenges and the satisfaction that comes with planning a menu comprised of local, seasonal ingredients. “When you’re used to having different ingredients available to you all the time, shifting to using seasonal and what can be delivered by a farmer or fisherman on certain days of the week is a challenge to your menu planning. But you learn to adjust because it’s worth it.”

Her usage of ingredients grown within a 100-mile radius increased when she joined the team at Revival Bar & Kitchen where she found herself using the whole animal as part of Revival’s commitment to “vitalitarian” cuisine. "It definitely made me think more carefully about my menus, as well as how to introduce new and unusual cuts of meat to our clientele.”

Over time, Sophina’s growing reliance on local ingredients fed her commitment to partnering with farmers. Recently, she’s been excited to partner with KTA client Happy Acre Farm, located in the Sunol Farm Park in Alameda County. “Our staff at Calavera has been really excited about the possibilities of this partnership too,” Sophina says. She adds, “buying locally and getting to know who is growing and raising the ingredients I use has really increased my respect for farmers and ranchers doing the right thing – using sustainable farming techniques, treating the animals respectfully, and working to provide us with healthier and ethical options.”

As Sophina’s commitment to sourcing locally and seasonally has deepened, so has her involvement in the local food movement. She’s energized by her work with the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), Cochon 555’s Heritage Fire + Heritage Board, and increasing her partnership with Kitchen Table Advisors to access more local farmers and ranchers. She participated in last year’s Grazing at the Kitchen Table, and is thrilled to return this year and contribute a meat dish featuring lamb from Skyelark Ranch.

When asked what kind of contribution she’d like to make to the Bay Area food scene, she’s clear that she’d like her food to be known as “approachable, quirky, fun and yummy.” Her daughter, Roan Pearl, was willing to add some of her insight on her mother’s culinary vision. “She’s good at Korean barbeque and she can come home, look in the refrigerator and put together random ingredients you wouldn’t think go together, and it’s delicious!” Fun, quirky, local cuisine brought to you by the reigning Chopped Grand Champion Grill Master.

The Bay Area is ready for local and sustainable to also be fun and quirky, and Sophina is clearly the right chef to remind us that a commitment to local and sustainable is not diametrically opposed to joy and playfulness in the kitchen or on the plate!  

Join Chef Uong in her wondrous world of food on September 22nd, 2016 from 6.30pm to 9.30pm during Grazing at the Kitchen Table. The event will be hosted at Dogpatch WineWorks in San Francisco. Tickets are on sale now--don't wait to reserve your seat! Follow #GrazeAndGive2016 for updates.

Photos courtesy of Sophina Uong.

Our friends and kindred spirits at CUESA recently shared the story of one of our clients, New Family Farm. We're grateful to be working alongside CUESA in spreading the stories of our Bay Area farms and supporting their thriving operations.

By Kayla Abe, CUESA Staff

As two outdoorsy college students at UC Santa Cruz, Ryan Powers and Adam Davidoff, the founders of New Family Farm in Sebastopol, never saw conventional office jobs in their futures. Exposed to issues of environmental degradation and justice in their studies, the burgeoning revolutionaries were moved to action. “We both felt committed to making change in our own lives using all that we have: our bodies and our time,” recalls Ryan.

The two friends each settled on agriculture as their path of environmental advocacy and social transformation. “Farming in the way we have chosen to farm is activism,” Ryan continues. “We need as many people as possible working toward causes in whatever way they want to. And we chose to farm.”

A Plot of Their Own

After attending both high school and college together, they parted ways. Adam worked as an apprentice on various farms across the county, and Ryan started a farm in Tennessee. With parallel life trajectories, Ryan and Adam seemed destined to pursue a project together, and years later, following a serendipitous reunion working on the same New Mexico farm, they moved to Sebastopol to begin their own farm.

The two initially farmed on multiple sites around town, offered up by members of the local community who were eager to support the first-generation farmers. Ryan recalls the challenges of juggling multiple plots: “There’s what we call ‘the tool shuffle of death.’ You’re at one site and you think, ‘Oh, I need this tool.’ And then you realize that you left it at the other site!”

The two forged on, writing letters to family, friends, and relatives in search of leads for their own land. In 2010, an employee at what is now one of their two main sites answered their call. With help from California FarmLink to secure the lease, coupled with business and financial planning consulting from Kitchen Table Advisors, Ryan and Adam were ready to hit the field. “We would not be here if it weren’t for the community around us, hands down,” says Ryan.

Modern Traditionalists

Integrating low-tech sustainable techniques like cover cropping, crop rotation, and dry-farming, Ryan and Adam operate their farm with hands-on care and a nostalgia for simpler times. Their first four years, they even experimented with using draft horses in place of tractors as homage to early farming traditions. “We use beauty as a standard,” states Ryan. “I think that what appears beautiful to us as natural and ecological organisms, as humans, is what’s good for the earth and for our bodies. It’s an intuitive criteria.”

Taking advantage of the coastal climate, New Family Farm focuses on cool-weather crops like lettuces, carrots, kale, and beets. They’ve also had success with dry-farming, a method by which crops are given little to no water. In addition to juicy dry-farmed tomatoes, Ryan and Adam produce dry-farmed quinoa, with their crop last season yielding over one ton per acre. “There’s definitely room for improvement, but that was without a single drop of water in the worst drought year in 600 years,” says Ryan. “For California during a water crisis, that’s a big deal.”

Feeding the Food Revolution

Growing tomatoes or quinoa without water is no small feat, but for Ryan and Adam, the most challenging work isn’t in the fields, but rather in the grocery aisle. “Americans have an insane dedication to food being the cheapest thing there is,” says Ryan. Comparing an industrially farmed tomato with one from a small organic farm, many customers see only the difference in sticker price. But behind the dollar signs are vast differences in growing practices and values.

Telling their story to produce buyers and distributors became a mandatory side project for the young farmers. “For years, I was calling stores twice a week saying, ‘Buy from me. Buy from me. This is why. I have all this good stuff. If you don’t like it, tell me why and I’ll make it better,’” recalls Ryan. “It took time for them to get it, but it’s clicking now. All the stores in Sonoma County are thumbs-up for local now.”

Finding Richness in the Margins

Ultimately, purchasing choices rest with shoppers, which is why Ryan and Adam like to connect directly with the public at farmers markets. As the young farmers feed the land and their community, the best way Bay Area eaters can give back is by showing up at their stand. Ryan admits that requesting that shoppers buy their food “sounds sort of capitalist,” but money spent on their produce is also an endorsement of values like supporting first-generation farmers and advocating for sustainable agriculture.

“As a farmer, I would prefer that all my sales were at farmers markets, and if everyone showed up, that’s how it would be,” he says. “Food is a really great place to start if you want to change something, change your life, change the world.”

“My friend once said, ‘The margins are thin in farming, but there is a richness in the margins,’” quotes Ryan. “There is a richness in what we do that cannot be bought or sold. What I’m growing is valuable, and I’m proud of it. There’s love and intention and respect that’s going into it. We’re making our little corner of the world more beautiful, and you can support that.”

Support New Family Farm on Tuesdays at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco or Sundays at the Sebastopol Farmers Market.

This article is a part of an ongoing series highlighting CUESA farmers and ranchers mentored by Kitchen Table Advisors. Together, CUESA and Kitchen Table Advisors are supporting the economic viability of the next generation of sustainable small farms by offering critical market and promotion opportunities, and in-depth business and financial advising. 

Photos courtesy New Family Farm and Kitchen Table Advisors/Jonathan Fong.

This feature was originally posted on CUESA's website on August 12, 2016. View it here.

Photo credit: Piccino

Photo credit: Piccino

Chef Chandler Diehl is late to the restaurant, but it’s not his fault.

Like Piccino chefs before him, his day has started with a trip to the farmers market to purchase ingredients for the day’s menu. That’s the way it rolls at Piccino -- almost all ingredients (around 98% according to Chandler) are procured locally and the same day they grace someone’s plate. And almost all of it comes from local farmers with whom the restaurant has built personal relationships since opening in 2006. Chandler’s trip that morning was simply carrying on a decade-long tradition.

Photo credit: Piccino

Photo credit: Piccino

Chandler is no stranger to the farm to table concept. While at Piccino less than a year, he’s worked for several years at various restaurants in San Diego and Napa Valley that purchase from local farms. He particularly enjoys the relationships he builds with producers and experimenting with the fresh ingredients they send his way. “The variety and volume of ingredients available year-round in the San Francisco Bay Area are a chef’s dream,” according to Chandler, who is originally from Los Angeles and trained at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) Greystone in Napa Valley.

Chandler is excited to represent Piccino at Grazing at the Kitchen Table. He finds it inspiring to be part of a community of likeminded people who are just as passionate as Piccino is about fresh food and celebrating the farmers who are so crucial to the entire food system. “Grazing at the Kitchen Table is more than another charity event -- it’s much deeper,” he says.

Fresh and local is who we are at Piccino. It’s important to us to support our farmers and to know the journey our ingredients have taken, even if it means paying a little more to do that. Almost everything we prepare comes from farmers with whom we have personal relationships — something that is highlighted at Grazing at the Kitchen Table.
— Chef Chandler Diehl
Photo credit: Piccino

Photo credit: Piccino

In celebration of the season’s bounty, Chandler is planning a simple but flavorful dish to present at Grazing at the Kitchen Table. He is currently envisioning a mix of shelling beans topped with an heirloom tomato purée, bread crumbs, and cheese (as with many dishes; however, this is based on the quality and availability of local ingredients).

When asked to share about his favorite dish on Piccino’s menu at the moment, there was no hesitation in his response. “The braised octopus. It’s responsibly caught, served with marbled potatoes, preserved lemons, paprika, and cilantro.”

To follow up on Chandler’s menu recommendation, visit Piccino in its charming little corner of Dogpatch, and, of course, check out their offerings at Grazing at the Kitchen Table, where Chandler will be joined by Piccino pastry chef Daniel Saravia.

Grazing at the Kitchen Table takes place from 6.30pm to 9.30pm on Thursday, September 22, 2016 at Dogpatch WineWorks in San Francisco. Tickets are on sale now--don't wait to reserve your seat! Follow #GrazeAndGive2016 for updates.

We’re so lucky to be partnering with some amazing, Bay Area chefs who are passionate about the farmers producing the fresh, sustainable ingredients they use for their menus. With our event, Grazing at the Kitchen Table, only a few weeks away, I sat down with Chef Rebecca Boice from Zuni Café, who is excited to be contributing to this year’s delectable spread at Grazing.

Zuni Café has been an institution in San Francisco since its founding in 1979. The restaurant won the James Beard Foundation’s award for “Outstanding Restaurant” in 2003.

It was an honor to speak with Rebecca, who told me about Zuni’s commitment to working with farmers to create delicious meals, her favorite menu items this summer, and why she’s a Kitchen Table Advisors fan.

Megan: What brings you to Grazing at the Kitchen Table?

Rebecca: My colleague Gabriela from Cala told me about working with you guys on this really wonderful event. [This is] an organization that I think is necessary. It takes one skill set to be a good farmer, but it’s another skill set to be a good business person. So often, the focus is on the farming and producing the beautiful crops and heirloom varieties, but then there’s the business side that’s really difficult to navigate. So, to have a resource like Kitchen Table Advisors to help these farms be good, sound businesses producing this wonderful produce -- it’s an important role. That’s what interested me about the group.

Megan: Why is supporting small, local farms important to Zuni?

Rebecca: I feel like I say this often, but we can’t do what we do if we don’t have great relationships with farmers that do what they do -- which is growing this beautiful produce and providing us with the ingredients we need to make the menus that we make. Our philosophy here is that we want to use what’s feasible, what’s local, and the best example of a tomato or an eggplant or a squash. If folks aren’t producing that, then we can’t put that on our menu. My personal philosophy is that if I get a perfect tomato, I don’t want to stand in the way of letting it just be perfect and let nature do its thing. Farming is not an easy business and there’s a lot of upfront costs that I imagine would be really challenging. The more help farms can get to be financially viable and sustainable is just as important as whether they’re harvesting their produce sustainably. They still have to be a sustainable business as well.

Megan: What kind of philosophy do you convey through your food?

Photo credit: Rebecca Boice

Photo credit: Rebecca Boice

Rebecca: Zuni Café has been around for 36 plus years, and the idea of eating locally and sustainably has been the driving force, or philosophy, that Chef Judy Rogers really brought with her. That’s just what we do here -- the style of cooking that’s simple but very thoughtful. It’s doing these things with care, and that starts with working with farmers who really take time and care with the produce and the products that they bring us. We’re also training our cooks [how to] recognize and handle these wonderful ingredients.

Megan: What do you think that a gathering like Grazing means to our local food community?

Rebecca: It gives an opportunity for people to come and see these things in action -- the connection between farmers and the restaurants and how it all works together; that they don’t just operate independently. It gives a forum for the farmers to highlight their ingredients, chefs to highlight the ways in which they’re using [them, and] celebrating this wonderful produce that we’re super spoiled in the Bay Area to have access to. [It’s] a way to come together and see how different chefs interpret and use ingredients in different ways. That’s what’s great about the Bay Area -- there’s so much access to all this great food on different levels and different stages in the supply chain.

Megan: Which seasonal dish on the Zuni menu are you most excited about right now?

Rebecca: It changes every day! Tomatoes are all over the place right now. We did a lovely tomato crostini last night, with marble-striped tomatoes, a little house-cured bacon, balsamic mayonnaise, and fresh herbs. It was such a classic, comfort thing. We had fun with that. Also, we’ve been getting really beautiful grapes. We prepared roasted grapes with radicchio and honey –- a fun premise that we’ve been playing around with. When we make our menu, it changes every day. We get to fall in love with certain preparations and set-ups, and tease out all the different options. Then something new comes into season and we start playing around with that [ingredient].

Experience Chef Boice's wonderful creativity on the plate this September 22nd, 2016 from 6.30pm to 9.30pm during Grazing at the Kitchen Table. The event will be hosted at Dogpatch WineWorks in San Francisco. Tickets are on sale now--don't wait to reserve your seat! Follow #GrazeAndGive2016 for updates.

Photo credit: Jayson Carpenter

Photo credit: Jayson Carpenter

“I was a chubby baby, fated by food,” says Laurence Jossel, Executive Chef of Nopa. “Food has been a soothing thing [for me] from the beginning.” Food shifted from source of comfort to career when Laurence became a dishwasher at age 14, eager to earn money for his first car. From there, he was hooked. “I loved the adrenaline; putting money in my pocket.”

Photo credit: Jayson Carpenter

Photo credit: Jayson Carpenter

Laurence’s connection to food deepened as he shifted from washer to busser, waiter, cook, and eventually chef. “I’m in the business of delicious,” he says, “There’s something about super fresh and direct.” Laurence explains that going straight to the source and cooking with regional ingredients isn’t just about achieving optimal flavor; it’s also about karma. “I don’t have to worry about the negativity that is sometimes part of the long chain of food when I work directly with someone who has insight into when and how it was picked.”

He notes that the pride in these relationships goes both ways:  “The farmers will be proud of what we put on the table.” Education is another mutually beneficial part of these relationships. Laurence gives farmers tips on how to cook what they’re growing, and they introduce him to new varieties. His latest discovery: the Momo tomato.

Further supporting the work of small farmers by taking part in Grazing at the Kitchen Table was a no-brainer for Laurence. "[They are] the core of our food. Small farmers farm with intention. [At Nopa], we shop with intention and cook with intention."

Laurence works with over 80 farms a year at Nopa. There’s no place he’d rather do it. “I have such access in this place and time. I think this is the zenith of cooking in the world. All I do is try not to screw it up.”

Experience Chef Jossel's delicious creations this September 22nd, 2016 from 6.30pm to 9.30pm during Grazing at the Kitchen Table. The event will be hosted at Dogpatch WineWorks in San Francisco. Tickets on sale starting Tuesday, July 19--don't wait to reserve your seat! Follow #GrazeAndGive2016 for updates.

The RSF Social Finance family

The RSF Social Finance family

In a local food system, there is a network of people that are vital to the creation of what we eat. Last week, we introduced you to POST's work in farmland preservation, offering Peninsula farmers a place to do what they do best--grow food. Today, we turn to another important part of our local food network--financing. Returning for their second year, Grazing at the Kitchen Table Sponsor RSF Social Finance invests in local food infrastructure with a vision of cultivating a more sustainable and equitable food system. Senior Lending Manager Kate Danaher offers a glimpse into RSF's mission-aligned investment approach and shares her excitement to connect with our Bay Area food community at Grazing.

RSF Social Finance is dedicated to transforming the way the world works with money. We strive to change the conventional financial and philanthropic system to one that is direct, transparent, and personal in its relationship with people. Originally founded in 1936 as the Rudolf Steiner Foundation, RSF offers lending, investing, and giving opportunities that support social enterprises addressing key issues in the areas of food and agriculture, education and the arts, and ecological stewardship.

At RSF, we are intentional in our approach to recreate the food system into one that is equitable and just. Our investment strategy focuses on strengthening local food infrastructure, which provides many benefits, including greater access to otherwise unreached markets for small-scale farmers in the Kitchen Table Advisors community. In Northern California, our financial and giving work has resulted in the expansion of social enterprises like Veritable Vegetable, an organic produce distributor and fellow Grazing 2016 Sponsor.

Our greatest hope is to build a system where small to medium-sized food producers can grow and make delicious food with integrity. This new system will be characterized by compassion and interdependence with consumers who have a stake in its success.

Like the farmers and chefs who attend Grazing, we are committed to changing the paradigm of the food system. There is a yearning for more connection to both each other, and the earth that provides us with so much. At Grazing, this connection is palpable through the amazing community that comes together from all parts of the food system. The evening is made for meeting as many people as possible, and joining a variety of conversations. It's such a dynamic experience!

Grazing at the Kitchen Table takes place from 6.30pm to 9.30pm on Thursday, September 22, 2016 at Dogpatch WineWorks in San Francisco. Tickets go on sale in July. Follow #GrazeAndGive2016 for updates.

Photo credit: Teddy Miller

Photo credit: Teddy Miller

Grazing at the Kitchen Table, our annual fundraiser and gathering, provides us with the very unique opportunity to bring together food system changemakers to celebrate our collective work. One such trailblazing organization, and Grazing Sponsor, in our community is the Peninsula Open Space Trust. At Kitchen Table Advisors, we value POST’s mission to protect precious farmland on the Peninsula. For many of our small farmers, POST’s work is vital to their ability to access land for growing beautiful food that feeds our region. We invite you to learn more about POST's vision for preserving Bay Area farmland from POST staff member Matt Dolkas.

The story of the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) began in 1977, when a small group of citizens founded the organization to protect the open spaces, farms and parklands in and around Silicon Valley. Since that time, POST has protected over 75,000 acres of land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Most of that land has been transferred to regional, state, county or national parks. Once protected, we then work to keep the natural values of the land intact for future generations of people and wildlife. Our success as an organization is a testament to the vision of our founders and the commitment of our community to protect the places we all know and love.

Photo credit: Teddy Miller

Photo credit: Teddy Miller

Since our founding, POST has been committed to preserving farmland on the Peninsula and keeping it in production. Like Kitchen Table Advisors, we too see the need for thriving farms that produce healthy food for our region. On the farmland we own, we offer farmers long-term agricultural leases and invest in agricultural improvement projects to ensure the operators have the tools needed for success.

We know that there is more to be done in this area. This is made clear by the alarming rate at which we are losing local farmland--most notably the 35% loss of farmland San Mateo County has experienced in the past 30 years. That’s why in spring of 2016 we launched our Farmland Futures Initiative, a $25 million campaign to triple the number of protected farmland acres and farms on the San Mateo coast in the next ten years.

Our hopes are that, with our Farmland Futures Initiative, we can work to protect the remaining prime soil acres on the San Mateo coast. We want to see this land, and the farmland that we’ve already protected, continue to nourish our communities. We aim to support the next generation of farmers growing robust and sustainable operations. They’re some of the best stewards of the land and empowering their operations is how we can build healthy soils, maintain wildlife habitat and sources of locally grown food. These are the ingredients that make the Peninsula such a special place to live.

Photo credit: Peninsula Open Space Trust

Photo credit: Peninsula Open Space Trust

POST’s vision of the land and the future of our communities is shared among a vibrant group of local changemakers, one among them being Kitchen Table Advisors. In the future, we see a robust regional food system stewarded by thoughtful, dedicated farmers who care about the health of the land for their livelihoods and for its role in the greater ecosystem. POST has a unique role in helping create this vision. We’re committed to the land, to the hard-working farmers who maintain it and to the future of this amazing place.

Grazing at the Kitchen Table takes place from 6.30pm to 9.30pm on Thursday, September 22, 2016 at Dogpatch WineWorks in San Francisco. Tickets go on sale in July. Follow #GrazeAndGive2016 for updates.

This is a guest post by Shivani Ganguly of Bom Dia Market, a neighborhood corner market in the outer Noe Valley.

I have been involved with Kitchen Table Advisors as a volunteer and corporate partner for about a year. Kitchen Table Advisors initially attracted me because it is at the intersection of business, agriculture, and environmental sustainability. The team, and the work they do with farmers, continues to inspire me as a champion and corporate partner because of my new venture. As the proprietor of Bom Dia Market, I experience first hand the challenges of finding and working with small farmers and food producers.

 

 

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AuthorShivani Ganguly