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10.24.07

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Photograph by Dave Lepori
HORN OF PLENTY OF IRONY: Tech giants, committed to providing local produce to their employees, have helped area farmers make a comeback.

What Grows Around, Comes Around

The tech industry once ravaged the Valley of Heart's Delight, but in a weird twist of fate, tech giants like Google, Yahoo! and eBay are now the catalyst for an agricultural rebirth.

By Stett Holbrook


ONCE UPON a time, the Santa Clara Valley was a blossom-scented land of fruit orchards and verdant farms. But then two guys named Hewlett and Packard invented something called an audio oscillator in their Palo Alto garage and sparked the valley's electronics industry. In time, some other smart guys came along and invented things like the integrated circuit, the microprocessor, the personal computer, computer software, search engines and other high tech stuff that forever changed the valley and the world.

Santa Clara Valley became Silicon Valley, and all those cherry and apricot orchards were plowed under to make way for shopping malls, office parks and faux-Tuscan-style housing developments. Santa Clara Valley's transformation into the world's high-tech HQ made the region one of the most dynamic, profitable and desirable places on earth.

Unless, of course, you were a farmer.

The surging demand for housing and commercial development pushed farmers to the fringes of Santa Clara County or to more rural, farmer-friendly enclaves. But even in agricultural redoubts like Watsonville and Salinas, Silicon Valley's roaring economy made farmland increasingly expensive and the attraction of selling off the family farm hard to resist. Add in cheap imports from south of the border and an agricultural system that favors government-subsidized agribusiness over small family farmers and it's a wonder any of the little guys are left.

But in an ironic example of Silicon Valley's dynamic nature, the same high-tech economy that contributed to the expulsion of farmers from the area is throwing the remaining growers a lifeline.

Employees at IPO-mad start-ups and cubicle-chained programmers who never see daylight will probably always be fueled by Red Bull and Doritos, but an increasing number of Silicon Valley's tech firms are demanding high-quality, seasonal food grown by local farmers in the meals served in corporate cafeterias. Their buying power is making local agriculture part of Silicon Valley again and giving farmers a lucrative market they never had.

"It could conceivably change the look of agriculture in this area," says Watsonville farmer Ken Kimes. "The potential is huge."

By some estimates, half of the meals we eat are consumed outside the home. That figure includes restaurants, of course, but also corporate cafeterias and institutional settings like universities, museums and hospitals. Except for restaurants, until recently local farmers weren't reaching many of those markets, says Kimes.

"We've been missing out on a huge part of the market," he says.

Farmers markets, once seen as the savior for small farms facing thin margins, are almost tapped out, he says. Anybody who's going to shop at a farmers market probably already is and the proliferation of farmers markets is reducing sales for individual farmers.

"They're starting to dilute each other," he says.

But farmers' fortunes could change as corporate and institutional consumers come to appreciate locally grown produce, and small-scale growers and distributors figure out new ways to combine forces to bring their products to market.

Kimes owns New Natives with partner Sandra Ward, a greenhouse operation that specializes in microgreens—sunflower sprouts, wheat grass, tat soi, radish sprouts, pea shoots and other tiny plants destined for salads, sandwiches and fancy garnishes. Kimes is also on the board of directors of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), a nonprofit group that advocates for small-scale agriculture that's environmentally sound, sustains local economies, and promotes social justice.

In an effort to link the small family farmers CAFF represents with corporate customers who've developed a taste for local, sustainably farmed produce, the organization formed the Growers Collaborative, a side business of sorts that combines the fruit and vegetable crops grown by small growers into a large-scale distribution system that supplies corporate cafeterias and institutional clients. The program began in Ventura County and Sacramento and is now expanding into the Bay Area.

"This is opening up new markets for us and they're volume markets," says Kimes, although he admits the program still has a long way to go.

CAFF was not the first to rope together small growers to serve hungry techies in Silicon Valley. Bon Appetít Management Co., BAMCO for short, is corporate Silicon Valley's biggest connection to local farms. The Palo Alto–based food service company was a pioneer in the corporate food world for its commitment to serving fresh, locally sourced and sustainably produced food. BAMCO works with a who's who of Silicon Valley's corporate elite including eBay, Yahoo!, Cisco, Oracle and Palm. The company serves about 55,000 meals a day to high-tech workers across the Bay Area.

In the Bay Area, BAMCO developed a "farm to fork" program in coordination with America Fresh, a Watsonville-based distributor that helps small farmers distribute their products to Silicon Valley clients. The program strives to source produce from within 150 miles of where its served to ensure freshness, support local agriculture, and reduce the environmental cost associated with shipping produce over large distances. Through the program, BAMCO spends about $55 million per year on local produce.

Since organic agriculture has gone global, local can be a better choice than organic because the environmental costs of shipping organic strawberries from, say, Chile can outweigh the benefits, BAMCO chefs say. Advocates say buying locally keeps the local agricultural economy alive and treads lighter on the earth whether crops are organic or not. Sustainable, not organic, has evolved into the word of choice for many farmers and chefs, a loosely defined term that has come to mean local, small-scale and environmentally sound practices that are sustainable for the long term.

On their own, many growers wouldn't be able to provide BAMCO with all the produce it needs, but collectively they can. America Fresh gives BAMCO chefs with a list of what's available from its growers several times a week so chefs can get the pick of what's in season and have it delivered to their door often the day after it was picked. Growers get the benefit of advance orders and set prices so they know the crops they plant will have buyers come picking time.

"The farmers don't risk anything," says America Fresh owner Juan Medina.

Erick Stonebarger, co-owner of Maristone farm, grows 14 acres of organic and conventionally raised herbs and greens under greenhouse glass and in the field in Watsonville. He started the business in 2003 with his wife and in-laws with half an acre, and it remains a strictly family affair. He's just the kind of grower BAMCO likes to work with.

"Our philosophy is to produce the food where it's consumed," he says.

"There's a push upstream to go out and source local products," he says, especially in the past two years. "I've definitely felt that."

His Genovese basil, thyme, tarragon and other herbs are served at eBay, Yahoo! and other Silicon Valley corporations.

It's not yet noon on Thursday at eBay's employee cafeteria, and the place is filing up quickly. There's a big line forming at a salad bar that features tomatoes, sprouts, snow peas, lettuce greens and other vegetables from local farms. Stickers with the green "farm to fork" logo let workers know they're choosing local items. Other logos inform diners what dishes are made with sustainably harvested seafood, what's vegan, and what's particularly nutritious. Across the dining room is a grill where grass-fed beef burgers and sustainably caught ahi are being grilled. Next to it is the "international" food station where stir-fried Painted Hills Ranch beef and locally sourced broccoli are on the menu.

There are 13 different food stations in all and the offerings at each change daily based on what's available. The dining room serves about 700 meals a day.

"It's easier to be healthy," says Gary Briggs, a senior marketing executive at eBay, as he finishes his lunch.

Before he came aboard eBay six years ago, lunch was plastic-wrapped sandwiches or fast food. In addition to eating better, Briggs says the high quality of food served at eBay promotes a better working environment, which is one of the goals of the company's food service program.

"A lot of business gets done over lunch, just like at any good restaurant."

Executive Chef Bob Clark oversees the kitchen at eBay for BAMCO as well as the approximately 800 meals served each workday at PayPal's First Street campus in downtown San Jose. As a chef, Clark says his reliance on local growers makes sense for several reasons. It tastes better, it helps keeps the local agricultural economy in business, and it cuts down on eBay's carbon footprint, he says.

Clark prefers the term cafe to cafeteria, and the upmarket word really is more fitting. You won't find sloppy Joe's, Tater Tots or other classics of institutional fare here. The food is made with ingredients as good as or better than any restaurant outside eBay's doors. A list of the purveyors that supply the cafeteria reads like the suppliers for white tablecloth restaurants, not an industrial food setting. There's goat cheese from Pescadero's Harley Farms, organic produce from Lakeside Organics in Watsonville and honey from Silicon Valley's Baker's Bees.

eBay spokesperson Catherine England says BAMCO's locally focused, green-minded food program fits eBay's corporate culture because like its online auctions, it's self-sustaining, treats vendors large and small on the same level playing field, and rewards environmental awareness.

"eBay has a really distinct personality, and they get us," she says.

At Yahoo! in nearby Sunnyvale, BAMCO chef Bob Hart oversees six cafes that serve about 3,000 meals a day.

"We've got to compete with the local restaurants," he says. "We want people to stay in."

But just as important to him is keeping local farms in business. In many cases, it's a lot more profitable for farmers to sell their land to build condos than continue farms but Hart believes he's helping the small farmer make a stand.

"We can make a difference," he says. "It's really sustaining the local economies."

In addition to serving premium quality produce, Yahoo! subsidizes the cost of meals so getting employees to eat on campus isn't difficult. Of course, giving food away for free is even more attractive. That's what Google does in Mountain View.

The search engine giant has gotten a lot of press about its free meals, but less is said about the company's commitment to small-scale, local agriculture. Unlike many other Silicon Valley technology companies, Google has its own food service staff, although food service director John Dickman is a BAMCO alum.

Dickman oversees 17 cafes on Google's campus that serve a whopping 16,000 meals a day. He says Google has made locally sourced food a priority because of its quality and the environmental benefits. One of the company's most popular eateries is Cafe 150, a cafe that serves food only made with ingredients that come from within 150 miles. That means no bananas, no coffee and no salt. But hungry Googlers don't feel deprived. Even though it's located on the edge of campus, it's one of the three most popular eateries, Dickman says.

"They love the concept and the food," he says.

Google's food service program has about a 125 percent participation rate because of the number of hungry friends and family that Google employees bring in.

Like America Fresh and the Growers Collaborative, the Fruit Guys are produce distributors who seek out the small fry farmers because of the quality and diversity of their crops to corporate clients. The Fruit Guys, as you might guess, specialize in fruit. Since home produce deliveries were a well-established market, Fruit Guys founder Chris Mittelstaedt hit upon the idea of bringing farm-fresh fruit to doorsteps of businesses. The idea was a hit. Since beginning with just a few clients in 1998, Mittelstaedt says his clients now number in the thousands. Based in South San Francisco, the family-run business serves corporate and institutional clients throughout the Bay Area, Arizona and Nevada and they're expanding into Philadelphia.

The company offers customers a wide range of fruit to choose from so not all of it is local but Mittelstaedt says the wealth of fresh fruit that grows around the Bay Area makes local fruit a large part of his business. In the summer, 90 percent of the company's fruit comes from local sources, an area Mittelstaedt defines as within 200 miles of Silicon Valley.

"The amazing thing about the Bay Area is you have an incredible variety of food within a small area," he says.

In addition to showcasing fresh and unique fruit varieties, Mittelstaedt says he's out to promote wellness and highlight what he calls the "hero farmer" and the unique products they grow.

"Because we give farmers a lot of volume business they benefit from that," he says. "The more we grow our business, the more the farmers benefit."

Cyberfarmer Disgraced tech CEO finds second life as local grower

IN AN only-in-Silicon Valley twist, a fallen Silicon Valley high-tech executive has created a second life as a gentleman farmer who's doing his part to keep local agriculture alive.

Phil and Cindie White bought Portola Valley's Jelich Ranch in 2000.

The 14-acre historic orchard dates back to 1909. The ranch buildings had slipped into disrepair when the former Informix CEO bought the property. Leaving aside his controversial tenure at Informix and his conviction for securities fraud, Phil White's vision is to restore the ranch to what it looked like in its prime and to make the orchard productive again. The Whites also host summer camps for children on the ranch.

"With local high-tech companies buying local organic, it makes it worthwhile to grow," says Phil White, who still has a hand in several Silicon Valley tech firms.

Thanks to his deep pockets and ranch manager Skip Parodi's hard work, Jelich Ranch is bearing fruit—organic apples, pears, quince, stone fruit and other orchard crops. One of Parodi's favorite varieties on the ranch is the "Winter Nellis" pear.

"It's the ugliest pear you've ever seen, but it's like eating candy," he says.

Jelich Ranch fruit is sold at local markets like Draeger's and Robert's and distributed by the Fruit Guys to high-tech lunchrooms across Silicon Valley. It's more of a hobby for the White's than a money maker, even though the Fruit Guys bought 70 percent of the crop this year.

"This is for the love of the land," says Parodi. "You just don't see orchards like this in Portola Valley anymore."


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