By Tawny Tesconi, executive director, Sonoma County Farm Bureau
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it hardship and tragedy. As a community, we are adapting to a new normal that includes social distancing and the shuttering of local businesses and restaurants. We are gathering at home for meals more often. Thankfully, in Sonoma County, we have a diverse, safe and abundant local food supply that residents can rely on even while so much of the economy is shut down.
Daily, farmers and ranchers are producing crops, but how do these products become food for your family? Many crops need to be processed before they can be consumed. Processing facilities provide the necessary link between the producer and the consumer, and local processing facilities are crucial to a consistent food supply and to food security.
To sell meat and other processed products, farmers need access to appropriately scaled processing facilities with the technology and food safety protocols needed to prepare products safely, consistently and to customer specifications. We are fortunate to have three milk processing facilities in our county that provide meal-ready dairy products. But for other agricultural products, we aren’t so fortunate.
Many local farmers and ranchers drive multiple hours to reach the nearest U.S. Department of Agriculture- approved facility to get their protein crops processed.
Because of our value-added, grass-fed, free-range production model in Northern California, these producers may only have a few head of livestock or poultry to harvest in one week. This equates to high transportation costs, lost production hours and escalated opportunity costs for farmers.
More importantly, it’s a weak link in our food chain armor. Residents who value locally grown food are held hostage to distant processing facilities that may not always be available or willing to customize processing for Sonoma County consumers.
Sonoma County farmers want to supply fresh food to their neighbors, but without a reliable food chain, specifically processing, there are no guarantees. The more steps there are between you and your food’s source, the more chances there are for a breakdown in the chain.
Aren’t we seeing it now with the COVID-19 pandemic? Food grown in distant locations has the potential for safety issues at harvesting, washing, shipping and distribution. Now, more than ever, our community is recognizing and appreciating a stable, local food supply as one of our greatest assets and sources of resiliency.
All of us who embrace our local agriculture industry need to stand behind efforts to enhance processing facilities in our county.
Although the current crisis has elevated concern for the availability of animal products, we need to recognize that a concerted effort to support fruit and vegetable processing facilities regionally also is needed.
For several crops, we have processing facilities that have been working for us for generations, but as regulations change and these plants age, costly improvements need to be made. We cannot allow zoning requirements, NIMBYism or inflated development costs to stand in the way of our basic need to have food available for our families.
Work to provide processing options for our local farmers has been ongoing for many months prior to this pandemic. However, with escalated concerns brought on by the crisis, in the coming months you will see government, business groups, farmers and ranchers working together to fix this Achilles’ heel in our food chain. Everyone in Northern California must support this effort for the future of agriculture and the well-being of our families.