Can the farm-to-table movement save the US economy? Brian Shaad thinks so. Shaad is the energetic and visionary owner of Feeding Crane Farms, a small but fast-growing organic farm on the north side of Sacramento.
Okay, if saving the US economy sounds a bit ambitious, perhaps it is. But Shaad definitely believes in the possibilities of small family farms to help fix not just what ails our economy. He’s see the role of small family farms as vital to our culture, and he believes that the decline of small agriculture is a symptom of a bigger cultural malaise. With Feeding Crane Farms, he’s on a mission to prove the viability of urban farms and the importance of small ag to a healthy, productive economy.
Growing Like a Weed
Feeding Crane Farms was born in the fall of 2011 on property owned by Shaad's grandparents. The land is on the edge of Sacramento, but technically it’s within city limits, making Feeding Crane a true urban farm. Shaad and his team started on 3.5 acres, and during peak season the farm already supports “upwards of 25 restaurants, Corti Brothers, Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, and three farmers markets,” says Shannin Stein, the general manager of Feeding Crane. All of this production comes from less than 4 acres of class 3 soil – less than ideal for raising vegetables. “I sometimes think our farmers are more magicians than farmers,” says Stein.
And it’s only the beginning. When I met Brian Shaad and Shannin Stein back in September, Feeding Crane Farms was putting the final touches on a contract to provide fresh organic vegetables to a few select Raley’s and Bel Air stores, one of largest grocery chains in Northern California. That’s quite a coup d'état for a small farm, especially one that sits on “marginal” hardpan soil that for 50 years was essentially fallow, nothing more than pastureland for horses and cattle. “We managed to prove that this land is productive,” Shaad notes with pride.
Within 12 months of starting Feeding Crane – and demonstrating the viability of this business model – Shaad had already contracted with a neighboring family that opened up 57 acres of its land to allow Feeding Crane to expand production and variety.
That’s enormous growth in such a short space of time, but is there a market in Sacramento to support a small farm of this size, growing and delivering organic produce primarily to restaurants and local retailers? “We haven’t even begun to serve our market,” Shaad immediately replied. “The community demand for local produce is definitely there,” Stein continued. “The problem is that the communication and infrastructure between retail stores / restaurants and small farms is still developing. We’re all still learning how to work together. The local farms which are already supplying area retailers cannot bear the weight of the entire demand.”
We like to think that we buy locally, but the reality, says Shaad, is that even in a rich agricultural area like Sacramento the vast majority of produce is trucked in. And that comes at a cost. Transporting fresh produce across the country requires an extensive “cold chain” – a series of cold storage units that can hold produce sometimes for weeks while it’s transferred from farm to packing shed to warehouse, from warehouse to walk-in to the produce aisle to your home refrigerator. That journey favors varieties with longer shelf life, at the cost of ripeness and flavor.
The result is greater homogeneity, a kind of Ozzie & Harriet blandness that locovores, people in the Slow Food movement, and others are trying so hard to change. To support a transformation from industrial ag to small ag, many more small farms like Feeding Crane will need to sprout and take root.
You See Farmers, I See Job Creators
An economist by education and training, Brian Shaad is from Sacramento, a fourth-generation local who had dreamed of starting a farm for many years. After college, his work took him to faraway places like India and Nigeria where he worked on rural economic development. For more than 15 years he worked on overseas projects, but one day planned to return to realize his dreams and invest 20 years’ worth of savings to start this business.
“I’ve been out of this country for about 16 years,” Shaad told me. During that time, he says, “I’ve had a lot of inspiration to see how other cultures and other economies treat agriculture. America has completely abused it. We don’t support it any longer. But yet it’s critical to European cultures, European economies. It’s critical to Africa. It’s critical to India. But somewhere in America we lost interest in agriculture.”
So Feeding Crane Farms is more than just a financial investment to Shaad. It’s the result of a single-minded determination to revitalize small family farms and, in a real sense, prove the importance of this kind of agriculture in the American economy. Farm land, he says, can be used to create permanent jobs – if it’s not paved over. “We now have a real burgeoning food scene in Sacramento,” Shaad says, drawing parallels to European farming communities like Piemonte in northern Italy, where the slow food movement began. “The way I see it,” he says, “we could create this beautiful, vibrant farming economy north of Sacramento…and people will come here, they’ll come to spend time on farms, to see the farms, and then you go into town and you eat at really good restaurants and have the food that’s grown right here in Sacramento!”
The economic benefits of this farm-to-table approach are what truly inspire Shaad, who sees his home town as a food destination creating jobs to support this new food tourism: “People are saying no jobs are being created in the economy? I just created six…A year ago there were no jobs on this farm. Today there are as many as six full-time jobs here during our peak season.”
These days, politicians like to talk about putting people back to work and reducing unemployment as key to a full economic recovery. Can small agriculture play an important role in bringing new life to the economy? With Feeding Crane Farms, Brian Shaad is making an emphatic statement: Indeed it can!