Pang Eng Chang grows jujubes, guavas, papayas, and citrus on 15 acres of orchards and greenhouses near Fresno. He participated in a recent farmer market tour.
It’s not easy to find markets for your produce when you’re an immigrant farmer or someone new to farming. You can sell your crops at fruit stands or farmers markets, but you may not have the contacts or even the language skills and cultural customs to connect with large-scale produce distributors.
Meanwhile, in restaurants, grocery stores, schools, hospitals, and corporate lunchrooms across the state, buyers are clamoring for locally grown food.
“The demand for local, sustainable food is large and increasing,” said Gail Feenstra, food systems coordinator for the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program and the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis. “Distributors can’t find enough locally grown produce to meet the need.”
But that’s changing, thanks to a new Small and Ethnic Farmer Market Tour Project that introduces small farmers to conventional distributors interested in offering a line of locally grown food. The project, run by the UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute, is funded by CoBank, a national cooperative bank serving rural America, and three farm credit associations: Farm Credit West, American AgCredit, and Farm Credit Services of Colusa-Glenn.
“Local food initiatives prove that the food we eat can do more than nourish our bodies,” said Leili Ghazi, western region president of CoBank. “They can strengthen and support our communities and create tremendous economic opportunities. The challenge has always been connecting the right people and businesses at the right time. CoBank and our farm credit partners are pleased to support UC Davis in its efforts to introduce small farmers to those who can help them grow.”
The tours work like this: UC Cooperative Extension farm advisors and specialists identify the small, specialty-crop growers in their areas, many of whom are Hmong, Mien, and Latino. The growers climb aboard a bus along with tour leaders like Feenstra and David Visher, an analyst with the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.
“We have translators on board, too, if needed,” Feenstra said. “We drive to terminal markets, produce houses, or processing facilities where growers meet face-to-face with distributors who explain their produce needs.”
The program also helps farmers create an action plan for selling their crops and prepare a farm profile—a flyer that explains who they are and what they grow.
“Workshops and field days are great education tools, but nothing makes markets happen as well as simply introducing a willing seller to a willing buyer and then stepping out of the way,” Visher said.