It's likely that Sacramento would be experiencing an urban renaissance even without the “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital” campaign that was initiated in late 2012 by Mayor Kevin Johnson. After all, a new $507 million sports arena is going up downtown; the music and art sectors are booming; the tech industry is staking a claim; new apartment blocks, hotels and office buildings are rising downtown, and the restaurant, craft beer and wine scenes are thriving.
Still, the farm-to-fork movement that has swept the country in recent years has found no firmer footing than in the California capital. Surrounded on all sides by rich agricultural land, Sacramento turns out what has been dubbed a “paradise of produce”: fruits, vegetables and grains that are exported throughout the region, the nation and the world.
“Farm-to-fork is everywhere, but when we talk about what Sacramento has that other cities don’t, it’s the production side, the farmers. So we celebrate not just food, but farming,” says Mike Testa, chief operating officer of the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau, which has set out to leverage Sacramento’s new brand. The campaign has netted national visibility, Testa says, pointing to media exposure that includes recognition by Forbes as one of the nation’s coolest cities and by The Wall Street Journal as one of the country’s great midsize cities for food. “We’re getting a reputation for food that three years ago we didn’t have at all,” Testa says.
More significantly, perhaps, the F2F campaign has brought awareness and instilled a deep sense of pride in locals who turned out 55,000 strong at this year’s Farm-to-Fork Festival, which stretched four blocks on downtown’s Capitol Mall. The September 26 fest and the gala dinner for 780 staged the next evening on the iconic Tower Bridge are the signature events in a citywide celebration that has grown from a modest, week-long observance in 2013 to three and a half weeks of food fixation.
“When we talk about being ‘America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital,’ it’s a lot more than festivals and restaurants,” Testa says of the evolving scope of a campaign meant to showcase the farms, restaurants, wineries, breweries, organizations and individuals that contribute to the region’s agricultural landscape. “That means we need to lead the conversation on everything from drought to nutrition.”
Each year’s celebration kicks off with a publicity-garnering spectacle meant to showcase a different piece of the big picture. A cattle drive the first year called attention to the fact that farm-to-fork encompasses proteins as well as produce, while a tractor parade the second year was meant to highlight history and heritage. In 2015, a one-day food drive aimed to collect at least 25,000 pounds of fresh produce and set a Guinness World Record. It exceeded expectations almost seven times over, bringing in a staggering 170,923 pounds of fresh food donated through the Sacramento Food Bank to needy families, “while at the same time showing the sheer volume and variety of our products,” Testa says.
Other elements of the annual September celebration include Restaurant Weeks, with dozens of eateries highlighting locally sourced dishes, and Legends of Wine, an evening soiree staged on the steps of the Capitol that features some three dozen regional wineries. “It’s an upscale vibe, which is why we cap it at 800 attendees and don’t want it to get any bigger,” Testa says of the sold-out midweek event. “It does what it’s meant to do: highlight wines from this region.”
New in 2015 was the inaugural California Craft Beer Summit and Brewers Showcase. The event drew several thousand craft-beer drinkers, brewers and industry icons from throughout the state to the Sacramento Convention Center for two days of educational seminars. The Summit was followed by California’s largest craft beer festival, with 150 breweries pouring. If that, too, exceeded expectations, so did the two marquee events that came later. Attendance at the September 26 Farm-to-Fork Festival quintupled from its 2013 debut, and the 750-seat, $175-a-plate dinner that takes place on the Tower Bridge sold out in 15 seconds.
While the festival draws the most people, the bridge dinner attracts the most press, with local media and bloggers speculating for months about what will be served and dissecting the menu once it’s announced. “While the festival celebrates the farms, the bridge dinner celebrates what they produce,” Testa explains, adding that staff from more than 30 restaurants are involved, including a team of 10 lead chefs and 19 additional ones assigned to appetizers. “We build a kitchen for them and have 10 chefs working in it together,” he says. “It’s a camaraderie you don’t see in a lot of cities.”
On the festival side, Event Manager Carolyn Blucher assists with logistics, tending to everything from liquor-sales permits to city permits, health permits, porta-potties, fencing, stages, sound and audio-visual. This year’s event included 130 vendors, musical entertainment and five cooking-demonstration stages hosting events ranging from a Big Green Egg chef’s challenge to a butchering competition. Besides food, beer and wine vendors, the festival highlights grocers and farmers whose produce-packed booths offer tastes and sales of everything from heirloom lentils to endive to trout.
The biggest challenge, Blucher and Testa say, is anticipating the size of the crowd. “The first year, with attendance around 25,000, we were low on food vendors and food was running out early,” recalls Blucher. “This year, as just one example, Lockeford Sausage had two booths and three times the inventory as the year before, but still ran out by 4 o’clock.”
Another choke point: Brewers’ Alley, pouring 28 local craft beers, went through 67 kegs and attracted lines a half-hour long.
While there are no plans to start charging admission for what up to now has been a free festival, the sponsoring CVB is exploring ways to adjust and prepare for an even larger turnout. “For future years, we’re talking about extending the hours, going to two days, adding more stations for beer and wine and definitely expanding the footprint on Capital Mall,” Testa says.
One thing’s gotten easier with the festival’s growth: “The first year, nobody knew what it was, so we really had to go out and solicit venders and exhibitors and explain,” says Testa. “This year it sold out a month ahead of time. So we don’t have to pitch it anymore. The word is out.”