Chronicles of a Dirt Farmer

Happy New Year! It’s that time of year when you set New Year’s resolutions, so here is one for you: to start ‘walking the walk and not just talking the talk’ when it comes to supporting sustainable local food systems and supporting small farmers. With that in mind, I thought I would start out the new year and decade with an article on my (being a farmer) perspective by asking these questions: ‘Do you know where your food is coming from?’ and ‘Do you really care?’

Throughout 2008–2009 the buzz words floating around were ‘sustainable,’ ‘buy local,’ ‘support your local small farmer,’ ‘community supported agriculture (CSA),’ and ‘go to the farmers market.’ Some of you might be offended for what I’m about to say but it’s only this farmer’s perspective of where we need to go in the next 10 years.


A recent national study showed that from 2001 to 2008 the average age of a farmer rose from 47 years old to 58 years old, and while farmers over 70 increased by 30 percent, the number of 25-year-old farmers dropped over 40 percent. The farmers are getting older, the young ones can’t afford or don’t want to do it, which begs the question: Who’s going to grow our food?

There is a positive side, however; organic farmers rose by 20 percent, and more and more people are becoming aware of buying healthy fruits and vegetables. Despite this good news, us farmers are very disappointed with the action of the Tahoe/Truckee community on ‘walking the walk’ in regards to supporting local farmers and building a community food system.

It’s time to put up or shut up. Over the last year or so there has been plenty of talk. We hear things like ‘Locals Thursday night,’ ‘Let’s join Slow Food Lake Tahoe,’ ‘Let’s have coffee at the farmers market and socialize,’ ‘We use local fresh fruits and vegetables from our local farmers’… but where’s the beef?

Last year the buzz amongst farmers at the farmers market was: ‘What happened to Truckee? No one comes to this market anymore.’ Most of our sales were down at least 30 percent at the Tuesday market. Kings Beach and the Truckee Thursday night markets were a bust, and Tahoe City lost most of its locals — thank God for the tourists who kept it afloat. I realize the economy plays a large part, but it’s how you spend your money. There are definitely those who are dedicated to supporting organic and locally grown food, but they are a minority. To help spread awareness and make CSAs more affordable, we offered a flexible drop-in program and a work day to learn about farming, where you could come at your leisure. We offered it for eight weeks in Truckee, Quincy, and Reno and had only one family show up. If the answer to ‘Do you care where your food comes from?’ is yes, farmers are ready to say, ‘Show me the money!’

As for restaurants, there are a few that commit loyally to small farms, but most who say they buy from small farmers only do so when it’s convenient for them. It’s a good catch phrase. Of all the chefs I’ve invited to the farm to see where the crops are growing in the Tahoe/Truckee area, only a few showed up last year.

Here are the questions to ask yourself to see if you’re serious about supporting your local food systems and small farmers. ‘Do I actively participate in or attend:’

• Farmers arkets
• CSA box
• Farmer Internship Program
• Project MANA’s Community Garden
• Restaurants that are buying consistently from farmers
• Stores consistently buying locally grown/made products
• Local government allowing ‘right to farm ordinances’

If you have said ‘yes’ to most of these, congratulations, you are serious about your food and supporting your local farmers. If you answered ‘no’ to most of these questions but answered ‘yes’ to the question ‘knowing where my food is coming from is important to me,’ now is the time to start being progressive and generate a sustainable food system.

In the November issue of Moonshine Ink, there was an article about Dan Warren, a Truckee resident fighting to keep his chickens and change local ordinances. I had to laugh — the rooster must have woken up a CEO from Gray’s Crossing who flew in late on his Learjet, or crapped on his Lexus. This is one issue that I am stressing, and it’s ‘where’s the priority.’ Another aspect of caring where your food comes from starts with ‘right to farm’ ordinances that allow people to grow and sell their own products. That’s how you get programs like Future Farmers of America and 4-H. Does your area have either of these programs? Schools should be actively participating in the community garden. Have you ever had a field trip to a farm? Not to mine you haven’t.

This area has a long way to go. Don’t get me wrong, ‘talking the talk’ and joining groups like Slow Food Lake Tahoe are great, but it’s only a baby step. Organizations not only need to raise awareness, but need to organize people to get their hands dirty, a step beyond fancy dinners at Moody’s or Dragonfly.

So, once again, take the time to ask yourself: Do you know where your food comes from? And do you really care?

~ Gary Romano owns Sierra Valley Farms, which sits on some of his family’s original 3,600-acre ranch in Beckwourth. Comment on this column below.


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