August 15th, 2011 by Heather Westenhofer
SFOC Secretary Ted Wright wrote the following terrific piece:
On Tuesday, as Slow Food Orange County representative, I was one of about 20
attendees at a presentation and discussion hosted by Orange County Produce (OCP).
Others at this two hour session represented local restaurants, hospitals, school districts,
Orange County Food Bank, and other growers. The session included an informative
presentation about OCP by A.G. and Matt Kawamura, a group discussion about the
challenges of producing and using locally sourced food, and a sampling of food prepared
by Chef Cathy Pavlos of Lucca from produce just picked from the OCP fields. I am
distributing a summary of this event because I learned a lot from the session that I
believe may be of interest to others in Slow Food.
A little background will help make clear why this event was both interesting and
important for those of us who care about high quality, locally sourced food. Matt and AG
Kawamura are third generation farmers. After their grandparents returned from a World
War II relocation camp, they created the Western Marketing Company to grow and ship
fresh produce: lettuce, cabbage, celery and cantaloupes. By the end of the fifties they
had operations in three regions: Glendale, AZ, San Diego, CA and Compton, CA. It was
their father who decided to consolidate the operations and bring the family to Orange
County in 1958. At that time, Orange County was still very rural and its farmers grew a
large variety of crops: oranges, walnuts, tomatoes, lima beans, asparagus, other
vegetables, strawberries, and horticulture crops. By the end of the 1970’s, as Orange
County became increasingly urbanized, many of the growers had sold their land and
moved on. High costs of production and skyrocketing real estate prices made it
financially prohibitive to grow many of the traditional crops for what was becoming a
very competitive national and international market. Those growers that remained were
leasing most of their land from large landowners (The Irvine Company, Baker and O’Neal Ranches) and from the
various military bases around the county. The main fresh produce crops that have
survived are strawberries, tomatoes, bell peppers, and green beans.
In 1994, Matt and AG changed their company name to Orange County Produce. At that
point they still produced 5-7 crops that could be grown competitively here to sell across
the country and around the world. They were then and continue to be one of the largest
producers of fresh beans in the western United States. However, they chose this new
name because they saw the possibility for a more local market, a “food shed,” where
fruits and vegetables, grown locally, are economically competitive. They are now able to
sell a larger variety of produce in Southern California for two reasons. First, there is a
growing awareness that fresher food is better food, and OCP’s locally grown produce can
be delivered the day it is picked. Second, food sold near where it is produced costs less to
ship and can be sold with fewer intermediaries adding markups – if a higher percentage
of the retail value of an item is returned to the producer it becomes economical to grow a
crop even though it might be a few cents a pound cheaper to grow it in, for example,
Chile or China.
Of course, this marketing plan – fresh produce grown and sold locally – is hardly new.
Before the second half of the 1800’s, limitations on transportation and refrigeration
meant that most fresh food had to be grown locally. And it was not until the 1950s that
fresh produce became a commodity that was routinely shipped nationally with the result
that relatively small differences in production costs became the largest determinant of
where an item was grown. However, even if this is not a new idea, in many ways creating
a market for locally grown produce is an uphill battle against the status quo.
OCP is currently producing over 25 crops locally. Some of these crops are certified
organic and some are not. As they are still mainstays of their business, the list of their
crops includes strawberries and beans along with other popular items: artichokes, beets,
peppers, carrots, corn, eggplant, and tomatoes. They are also beginning and or planning
to produce asparagus, figs, radicchio, and a variety of berries. It was also clear that they
would be willing to consider almost anything – most produce can be grown at some point
during the year in our Mediterranean climate – if it looked like there is a viable market.
So the challenge is not whether OCP can produce the variety of locally grown, quality
produce that we all want, but how they can grow the local market to make growing more
things economically feasible. One step that OCP took four years ago was to begin selling
directly to consumers at farmers markets. You can now find their logo on stands at 9
farmers markets in Orange County (see
locations). Although we tend to think of farmers markets as being inherently local, many
vendors are now bringing produce from several hundred miles away and often travelling
that far themselves. For those of us committed to trying to eat locally, it is worth looking
for the OCP stands. Another advantage I have found is that, while there are many vendors
at the University Center Farmers Market, most of them are bringing the same items. For
example, you will see Blue Lake beans at many stands; however, the OCP stand has a
selection of wonderful Romano, Cranberry, and Yellow Wax beans; for a short while this
summer, they were selling fresh Garbanzo beans.
A motivation for this specific event is that OCP would also like to increase their sales to
restaurants, school districts, and other volume consumers of produce such as local
hospitals. As the discussion at this event underscored, this market is clearly different
from retail sales at farmers markets, but one of the challenges is the same. The success of
farmers markets required individuals to change their food purchasing habits, forgoing the
convenience of large supermarkets that can stock the same item year round by sourcing
from across the country and around the world. In much the same way, for OCP to be
successful selling to local restaurants and institutions will require changes in buying
habits. Just as individuals had grown to rely on supermarkets, restaurants and institutions
have come to rely on food purveyors. Like supermarkets, purveyors provide a single,
year-round source for a wide variety of produce that is of consistent, although not top,
quality in the quantities needed by both restaurants (one or two boxes a week) and large
institutions (a pallet or even a truckload a week). In addition, the purveyors deliver, and
for customers such as school districts with limited staff, they can provide items that have
been cleaned and cut to order under controlled conditions.
Interestingly, because of their size, OCP can also deal with all of these requirements.
They have the capacity – with over 400 employees, they farm over 1200 acres directly
and indirectly about that much again – to fill large orders. They have trucks so they can
and do deliver. They work with local processors so they can arrange to have produce
cleaned and cut before it is delivered. Because they are growing locally, their prices are
generally as good as or better than that provided by purveyors. They can also
accommodate special requests. For example, they can deliver produce in reusable
containers rather than disposable boxes, reducing both cost and waste. They can also
provide notifications about what will be ripe in the next week or two so that restaurants
can plan specials around this availability. What they cannot do is provide a year round
supply of all items. For example, lettuce cannot be grown well in Orange County in the
summer, and they do not yet grow potatoes. Still, for those of us directly involved with
restaurants, school districts, and other institutions, OCP and other local farms are a great
resource. A representative of the Irvine School district mentioned at this meeting that
they had just begun buying pallets of OCP strawberries to serve fresh as snacks and, by
this one step alone, had doubled the fresh produce they were serving to students.
Four representatives from the Kaiser Hospital system were at the meeting. Starting two
years ago they began serving only organic produce. They are now looking for more local
sources. Slow Food is beginning a collaboration with Positive Plate. OCP seems like
exactly the kind of resource that they could be recommending to their clients.
A final part of this story is the long standing commitment that OCP has had to working
with local food banks. Mike Lowry, a representative of the Orange County Food Bank,
described an interesting way that they are trying to leverage this relationship. OC Food
Bank hopes to obtain donations for the right to use vacant land plots from local
governments and corporate entities. They then make this land available to growers like
OCP for free. In return the farmer gives them outright a percentage of what they grow on
that previously vacant land. This seems like a model for which Slow Food could advocate
in other situations.
I hope that this does not sound like a PR piece for OCP. Clearly, however, I was both
impressed by what I learned and excited about the possibilities. The openness to new
ideas that AG and Matt Kawamura both expressed was infectious.