The executive director of the farm bureau, Eric Larson, who works out of an Escondido office, has a background in farming. Though he still owns his own place, "It's leased out, so I can't say there's any dirt under my fingernails." I ask Larson -- whose exacting words are crisply uttered -- what becomes of San Diego's food, half of which is citrus, once it's harvested. "Those crops," he says, "are produced in volumes that are much too great to depend on the local market. So we have traditional packing houses in San Diego, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties where all this fruit goes" -- it's all mixed together -- "for grading, boxing, and shipping across the western United States and, in some cases, clear across the country -- to satisfy those markets. The same can be said of strawberries and tomatoes. We produce so much that it's shipped out. Often, you'll see that a tomato picked in Oceanside is shipped to L.A., then turns right around and comes back to San Diego. Happens every day. That's how the distribution system works." Larson says that with the consolidation of retail groceries, this warehousing system is growing larger.
Local farming is expensive because of the high cost ($600 an acre-foot) for water. This means that local growers must raise products with a high dollar value per acre. In the nation, San Diego County is number 1 in producing avocados, number 7 for poultry, number 8 for strawberries, number 9 for grapefruit, and number 16 for fruits, nuts, and berries. Though fruit and nut crops have more than twice the value of vegetable crops locally, vegetables are twice as efficient in their per-acre value. You can grow a lot more vegetables than you can avocados on an acre. Among other foods produced here are tomatoes, lemons, mushrooms, tangerines, cucumbers, and squash. Water-demanding, flatland crops like cotton, wheat, corn, alfalfa, don't do well in hilly San Diego County where the soil is rocky and sandy. San Diego's crops, Larson says, "are water-intense, land-intense, input-intense, and labor-intense. They don't lend themselves to large-scale farming where you put a guy on a tractor and go plow 600 acres."
As for organic growers, the county has more than 300, more than any other county in the country. Local organic produce includes oranges, grapes, and avocados, plus cherimoyas, loquats, and persimmons. The majority of local organic produce is, according to the farm bureau, "sold to wholesalers who in turn sell it to markets all the way from San Francisco to New York City." A few stores like OB People's Market sell local organic produce, as do the many farmers' markets. In addition, Larson defines local as "the new organic," in opposition to industrial, monoculture food. "You can't screw around with local: either it is or it isn't."
In the farm bureau's eyes, is local worth evangelizing for? Larson says local farmers struggle with that: water costs and immigrant labor and exotic pests are much knottier issues than bringing food directly to local buyers. But he believes "we'd be foolish to ignore" the San Diego and Los Angeles markets. "If it's sold locally, the farmer has integrated the marketplace closer to the customer; he's getting more money for it because there's fewer people in the distribution chain." His estimate is that farmers get up to 40 percent more by selling directly to the customer. "It's important to sustain agriculture in San Diego County. It's an important part of the economy. Even if we set the economic value aside, look at the open space farmers are maintaining. The successful farmer is the best hedge we have against urban expansion. As long as he's making money, he'll stay in the business -- and he'll encourage his children as well. He didn't get in the business as a land speculator; he got in business as a farmer. One way to keep farmers here is to take advantage of this massive marketplace in Southern California through the local chains, getting consumers to look for local products. We have 30 farmers' markets; why not 60, why not 90, why not 100?"
One local chain that buys locally is Henry's Marketplace. Leigh Needham is the company's regional marketing manager; her bailiwick includes 15 stores in San Diego County and a dozen in Orange County. Henry's (it was originally Henry Boney's store, which began in 1943 with Boney selling peaches from his truck bed) was bought by Wild Oats in 1999. (In late February, Whole Foods bought Wild Oats; media spokeswomen for Whole Foods and Henry's say that it's too early to tell whether Henry's stores will be rebranded or whether some stores will be consolidated or closed.) As an entry-level health-food store, Henry's sells "natural" foods -- no artificial ingredients or preservatives, though they do sell products with that eye-blurring list of additives. Wild Oats, whose stores are throughout the west but are not in San Diego, carries only natural and organic products.
Needham tells me that during strawberry season in March, 85 percent of the strawberries they buy are county-grown. Eighty percent of their total sales is food products, bulk, frozen, dairy, produce; and 30 percent of their total is produce. The majority of produce is local. "Depending on the time of year," Needham says, "whenever we can get a local product," that is, from California, "that's the option we take." The company buys more than 1200 locally produced items from more than 540 farmers in California. Upwards of 80 percent of their produce is from Southern California. Last summer, Henry's began its "Choose Local" campaign, small blue labels placed around the store that identify food grown here. Posters -- with "CA Grown" -- resemble the old blue-and-yellow California license plate. "Grower profiles" feature farmers: one example is Chula Vista Sun-grown Organic Distributors, "a family-owned farm that grows sprouts, wheat grass, micro-greens, and edible flowers."
At the farm bureau, Larson also wants local labels. "The consumer has a right to know whether the product has been produced offshore or not. We've been stymied by the marketplace on that. The thinking is that the consumer will choose the local avocado, the back-to-the-local-is-better argument." Larson is trying to get the bureau's logo -- San Diego Grown 365 -- out of the planning stage. He predicts that when consumers buy products with that logo, they'll be supporting more than sustainable agriculture; they'll be supporting open space, better air, and the local economy.