Marketing the Sacramento region as a future food exporting dynamo was one item on the agenda last Friday when members of the Sacramento Asian Pacific Chamber of Commerce ended a two-day study mission with lunch at the Smith Flat House.
As they munched on artisan pizzas and salad made from locally grown ingredients while sipping wine from Madroña Vineyards, an audience made up of business, educational and government leaders listened as two different panels discussed the economic future of the region.
An important part of that vision derives not only from the Sacramento region’s reputation as a major food-producing area but as the Farm-to-Fork capital of America — a movement that encourages delivery of food directly from farmer to consumer.
Increasing agricultural exports are being touted as part of what’s called the “Next Economy” — initiatives that revitalize the region’s economy through regional branding, investing in infrastructure, workforce development, incubating entrepreneurs, and strengthening local agricultural enterprises of all kinds.
Panelist Kristine Mazzei, who is the COO and managing partner of Valley Vision, a nonprofit consultant group, said one of the strengths of the region is agriculture and food related businesses. “Forty percent of the land in the region is in agricultural use, generating $3.5 billion in economic output,” she said. We are also fortunate to have resources like UC Davis for agriculture related research, she added.
Panelist Tim Johnson, president and CEO of the California Rice Commission, noted that food is a $7.5 billion industry in the state. “Of the top 20 exported crops grown in California, seven come from the Sacramento Valley, including wine, rice, tomatoes, almonds, seeds and dried plums,” Johnson said. “Over half of many of these crops are exported every year.” He went on to note that in 2011, El Dorado County generated $36 million worth of agricultural products alone. But there is continuing pressure on farmers to sell their land to developers, cautioned Johnson. To keep the land in food production, he suggested implementing a program that allows farmers to sell their development rights as well as changing inheritance taxes so small family farms don’t have to be sold when the patriarch dies.
Meg Arnold, the CEO of the Sacramento Regional Technology Alliance, talked about innovations happening in agriculture. As examples she cited 9-year-old Nicolas Come, of Nicolas’ Garden fame, who invented an app to encourage kids to eat healthier. Come started developing the app at the Hacker Lab, which was one of places the group toured. Henlight, another invention, is a solar-powered light for small-scale henhouses that promotes higher egg production. Then there is California Safe Soil, which turns food waste into commercial grade fertilizer in three hours. The plan is to work with supermarket chains to help them dispose of food waste by turning it into a useful product.
Talking about farming from a different perspective was local farmer Maryann Argyes, who is the chair of the EDC Community Economic Development Advisory Committee. She touted Apple Hill as an excellent example of a different way to market agricultural products. “We do not export commodities, we import tourists and it’s a model that’s very successful,” said Argyes.
She went on to say that rather than being large-scale commodity farmers like many in the Sacramento Region, those farming in this area are “boutique agriculturalists,” with 95 percent of Apple Hill’s members either working full-time at something else or retired. “We are different but complementary,” Argyes added, saying that Apple Hill’s members are working on growing different crops throughout the year to attract a continuing stream of tourists who visit as much for the experience as for the food.
David Parkes, president/CEO of ParkCon, went on to discuss the Next Economy, saying there needs to be more capital investment in new clusters of economic activity. “We’re the (state) capital and we should be leaders in these initiatives,” he said, adding that the Sacramento region is ranked 22 out of 250 foreign trade zones in the United States and is a model for the city of the future. However, he warned that the area is not business friendly and that needed to change if it’s to attract more companies.
Picking up on that theme was Laura Gill, city manager of Elk Grove, who discussed how government can help improve the economy. Saying that one of the biggest challenges faced by businesses is the lack of access to capital. She said her city invests its money in community banks in order to facilitate that access. “We put $6 million a year into three local banks,” she said, adding that the cities of Folsom and Galt do likewise. “This is putting our money where our mouth is.” Gill also suggested approaching pension organizations about investing more of their funds in California and lowering the cost of doing business in the state but doing it in such a way that preserves the quality of life in the area.
The panel discussion wrapped up with leaders discussing how they could implement what they had learned during the two-day tour.
Matt Sumida, who is director of the chamber foundation, said the purpose of the tour was a chance for people to see what the region is doing and to identify the best collaborative opportunities. “It’s appealing is to see what’s going on in the region and it broadens people’s perspective of what the region is doing well,” he added.
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.