Seeking to start a conversation between farmers and consumers, the SFFPS events committee worked with the University of Pacific Food Studies program to present “Let’s Get Smarter: A Conversation with Growers About Farming & the Food We Eat.”

Rosemary Mark explained the topic genesis, which originated among dinner guests at a magnificent farm-to-table dinner in the Sacramento Valley. “At the dinner, we discussed top-of-mind issues that affect both farmers and consumers: issues that never seem to reach the arena of public discussion. We felt it was time to focus on the 2% of the population that put food on our tables.”

For members who may not want to skim these paragraphs, the University of the Pacific recorded the entire panel session. You can listen here. A final takeaway from all panelists is encouragement to be informed about the food you eat.  Consumers expect farmers/growers to be passionate about their products. We need to respect their work with equal diligence and attention.

A brief synopsis of a point (or two) from each member of the panel:

Panelist Andy Mariani, who farms 50 acres of specialty tree fruit in Morgan Hill, quoted his fellow farmer, friend and pioneer in the organic movement, Paul Buxman. Buxman suggests and Mariani seconds that the question consumers should ask is not “Is it organic?” but “Is it safe, wholesome and nutritious?” An enigma for farmers who simply want to focus on delivering the safest possible produce to the consumer rather than dwelling on the relatively undefined values of organic or natural or conforming to the goals or philosophy of a movement.

A large commercial farmer, Cannon Michael farms cotton and other high volume crops on 11,000 acres in the Central Valley. He reminded the audience that food quality and quantity is a first world problem. Other countries don’t have the luxury of being able to discuss food choices.  In his opinion, access to local and sustainable food should be universal. “Good farming practices and sustainability are just practical. Why would a farmer want to damage his soil, his workers and his end users (consumers)?”

Shannon Douglass, whose family farm raises local, grain-feed beef and seed crops in the upper Sacramento Valley.  She discussed the ongoing financial struggle meeting government regulations (both federal and state), and the decision-making and financial barriers to organic certification. “Farming is like any other industry, meeting regulations is expensive. I’d like people to know regulations are a huge barrier to small farmers. Moving up in size presents huge state and federal-imposed burdens. With that kind of hassle, you can’t enjoy being a farmer.”

Deborah Olson, longtime SFPFS member and fourth generation cherry grower at CJ Farms in the Santa Clara Valley, encourages consumers to be more knowledgeable about the food they eat. “I get questions daily about organic versus conventional farming. I source every product at CJ Olson’s farms. I’ve visited all my suppliers established a relationship. I trust solid farming practices to produce great tasting fruit and I try to imbue that confidence in my customers.”

Janice Person, Online Engagement Director for Monsanto, agrees that Monsanto has a way to go to establishing open communications with consumers. “Monsanto is a seed company at its core. We are as excited about heirloom seeds as we are about hybrid seeds that stabilize key traits and extend the growing season.  Our programs use ‘sister plants’ to hybridize and select characteristics. We use genetic modification, taking genes from other organisms, to strengthen desirable traits and suppress undesirable traits. For example, adding a wheat gene to a type of chestnut can enable it to resist a deadly blight. We’ve renewed our consumer focus to let these improved seed and production stories reach the public.”

Thanks to John Wiest, whose photos of this event are available here and here.