In a time when outsourced produce and national distribution are the norm, eating locally isn't nearly as easy as it sounds. Even in a place as fertile and food-forward as Sonoma County, most food in restaurants and markets comes from hours away—sometimes even if it's grown or raised just down the street.
Take beef, for example. Anyone who's heard the shocking statistic that four companies account for more than 80 percent of U.S. beef production might look hopefully to those famous Happy Cows grazing the Sonoma and Marin hills. But although locally sourced marts like Whole Foods and Oliver's stock their meat counters with sustainable, grass-fed alternatives from North Bay farms, inefficiencies often litter the path from pasture to refrigerated case—notably, a local shortage of USDA-approved slaughterhouses.
North Bay ranchers surveyed in a 2009 study conducted by the University of California Cooperative Extension reported an average 97 minutes of one-way travel time between ranch and slaughterhouse, meaning that meat which might have been raised only miles from your home traveled an extra three hours before getting to your plate.
Farmers discussed this concern at a Sonoma County Food Forum in 2011. A report from the event reveals an even longer haul. "It is crazy that small farmers have to haul pigs and poultry all the way to Modesto and back just to be slaughtered," one participant said, according to the document, detailing the nearly five-hour round trip. Another rancher outlined trips to the central valley, saying, "Our carbon footprint is a size 16."
Of course, while this is troubling from an emission-conservation standpoint, it easily beats importing beef from Greely, Colo., home of Cargill Meat Solutions, or Springdale, Ark., home of Tyson Foods. But it illustrates a glitch in the hyper–local food movement—a web of distributors, packagers and regulators operating on a national or international level.
According to Oliver's Stony Point manager Eric Meuse, Sonoma County products account for almost half—40 percent—of the store's total sales. But how those products get to the store can be complicated.
"Sometimes we'll have someone walk in off the street," he says. "But produce is a little odd. Local growers can generally get more at farmers markets, but to sell to a grocery store often takes a cut in their profit. We have to look at what's a reasonable sell point."
Oliver's tries to work with local distributors for Sonoma County products, Meuse says, but larger distributors can offer discounts and incentives for buying products in bulk that smaller outfits can't.
And it's not just Oliver's.
"The centralization of food distribution is a major obstacle to closing the gap between local farmers and local consumers," according to the "Sonoma County Community Food Assessment" from 2011. The report details the many obstacles facing producers and growers attempting to sell, including high distribution costs, low prices, storage and transportation issues and a disconnect between small-scale, seasonal produce and the needs of larger year-round buyers.