Santa Cruz sits smack dab in the middle of some of the most productive and profitable farmland in the world.
Roughly 85 percent of the nation’s fresh produce, meaning lettuce, herbs, bok choy and radicchio, is grown in Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey counties. Agriculture in the tri-counties is a $4.5 billion-a-year industry, and it should come as no surprise to locals that the area is also a national and global leader in promoting organic and alternative agriculture.
Which is why it seemed only logical to round up a few local notables in the agricultural field and see what they had to say about the current state of food—on the Central Coast, in the U.S., and worldwide—and where we should go from here.
This was the intent behind “The Future of Food: from Plow to Plate,” the latest installment of the What’s Next Lecture Series held at the Kuumbwa Jazz venue in downtown Santa Cruz Wednesday and sponsored by UC Santa Cruz’s College 8, as well as Project 17, a regional program promoting communication and innovation between Silicon Valley and the tri-counties.
“The current state of the food situation is pretty messed up," said Scott Roseman, owner and founder of New Leaf Markets, who opened the discussion. "I’d usually use a stronger word, but, you know, this is a public forum."
His outlook grew darker.
“Conventional agribusiness is destroying the land, poisoning the water and polluting the air, and more and more food production is in the hands of fewer and fewer large corporations.”
The night’s discussion focused on how to change this state of affairs and how the Central Coast can lead the way into a future where “agriculture can feed the world, without polluting the world,” as Maureen Wilmot, executive director of the Santa Cruz-based Organic Food Research Foundation, puts it.
Wilmot stressed the importance of local and organic farming as way to heal the land and provide genuinely nutritious food to a nation suffering from record numbers of junk-food-related maladies.
“As my doctor says, the fork is the most important health care tool we have, and I think we’re all really beginning to realize the truth of that,” she said.
Fellow panelist Randall Graham, founder of Bonny Doon Vineyards, said he couldn’t agree more, adding that organic agriculture isn’t solely a health concern. It’s also delicious.
“Lately people have begun to notice that all the wines taste precisely alike," Graham said. "So this is really a bit of a problem if you want to stay in the wine business; you’re looking for a way of differentiating what you do.”
To this end, Graham has begun propagating his vines sexually instead of simply cloning them over and over, as is standard in the wine industry, as well as planting flowers, cover crops and fruit trees throughout the vineyard in order to create a sustainable and dynamic environment.
He’s also started infusing his soil with Biochar—basically compost that’s been cooked down under pressure to create a charcoal-like substance, which reinvigorates the soil, improves its water retention and removes carbon from the atmosphere by trapping it in the soil.
Graham hopes that by embracing these natural methods, he can create a wine that distinguishes itself from other boring, mass-produced vintages, attracting new customers and doing the environment some good in the process.
“I think we really need to be trying to reconcile the environmental and economic concerns, as they’re very closely intertwined,” said panelist Dennis Donohue, mayor of Salinas and president of one of the world’s largest radicchio producers.
So far the organic movement has been pretty good at doing just this, as evidenced by the recent success of organic products and chains such as New Leaf Markets and Whole Foods, which prove that helping the environment and improving the quality of food doesn’t have to be a thankless endeavor.
And considering that the average age of the American farmer is 64 years old and that youthful blood has been pouring into the industry in the past few years, the panelists were cautiously optimistic about what the future may hold for agriculture.
Donohue is confident that as long as local entrepreneurs continue to innovate and bring new life to the organics movement, “This region is truly going to lead the world in showing the way.”
As the event came to a close, the venue quickly became a hotbed of activists and entrepreneurs pitching ideas back and forth and informing one another of their recent endeavors.
These included everything from a social media startup attempting to connect organic farmers more directly to their communities to a small aquaponics operation looking for the capital to expand. Aquaponics uses water from fish tanks to fertilize hydroponic produce; the plants, in turn, cleanse the water, and it is then returned to the fish tanks.
However, despite all the hopeful talk of local first and the raising of awareness about organics and related issues, someone in the audience noticed a small detail that seemed oddly incongruous with the views expressed that night.
The small packets of wildflower seeds given out to each attendant by the Santa Cruz Community Bank had been shipped all the way from New York, reminding even the most die-hard eco-warrior that there’s always room for improvement.