Foodshed Cooperative Is Growing San Diego’s Small-Farm Economy | Civil Eats

Foodshed Cooperative Is Growing San Diego’s Small-Farm Economy

By working with some of the county’s 3,000 small farmers to provide food banks and underserved communities with local produce, the group is addressing food insecurity and building climate resilience.

A collage of images from Foodshed Cooperative – summer apprentices farming, local produce available at the group's saturday market, and a cooking demo put on by the group. (Photos courtesy of Foodshed)

A trio of projects led by Foodshed Cooperative: From left, summer apprentices work on a San Diego County farm, local produce available at the group’s Saturday market, and a cooking demo put on by the group. (Photos courtesy of Foodshed)

After half their farm’s crops were wiped out by a devastating heat wave in 2018, Ellee Igoe and Hernan Cavazos, co-founders of Solidarity Farm, changed their practices with the explicit goal of adding more carbon to the soil, or “carbon farming.”

The farm grows seasonal fruits and vegetables on 10 acres in the semi-arid, unincorporated area of Pauma Valley in central San Diego County, on land it rents from the Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians; they partnered with the Luiseño to create a “carbon sink demonstration farm.” Here, they educated other local farmers on how to farm with more regenerative practices such as cutting down on tillage, growing cover crops, and integrating compost.

Ellee Igoe and Hernan Cavazos. (Photo courtesy of San Diego Foodshed)

Ellee Igoe and Hernan Cavazos. (Photo courtesy of Foodshed Cooperative)

Like most of the small local farms in the area—more than 3,000 farms in San Diego County grow food on fewer than 10 acres—Solidarity Farms has been hit by a range of other of climate events since then. They’re at the whim of extreme seasonal changes that can ravage crops with bouts of extreme heat and heavy rainfall. Last year, heat waves in San Diego broke records in many parts of the county; in the first few months of 2023 alone, San Diego had more rainfall than it had in all of 2022. This instability has required small local farms to be ever more adaptable in order to survive.

After receiving a grant from the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) Healthy Soils Program, Solidarity Farm hosted a carbon sink convergence event in 2019, at which a new idea—brought forth by the collective minds of participating local farmers—was born; a small farm distribution company called Foodshed Cooperative.

“We recognized that we needed to scale our distribution capacities, and it made more sense to do that, not just for ourselves, but it was more economically viable if we grew that capacity for lots of farms,” Igoe explained by phone recently.

Scaling up small farms often means more risk, which may not be practical for farmers who lease land. Growing businesses in cooperation, Igoe thought, could expand the reach of small farms—reducing costs associated with investing in things like trucks or market research while ensuring that food reaches the people who need it most.

“We recognized that we needed to scale our distribution capacities, and . . . it was more economically viable if we grew that capacity for lots of farms.”

In November 2019, Igoe applied for a climate justice grant to pilot the idea of a cooperative food distribution company. They were successful, launching their pilot on March 1st, 2020.

“The idea came before COVID and our whole argument [for the grant] was . . . if we have a climate event, all the fresh local food will go to the tech savvy highest bidders, and the small, BIPOC farmers will primarily be left out of that because they won’t have the capacity to respond quick enough,” said Igoe.

As a result, she explained, historically underserved communities would be dependent on whatever leftovers they could get from food banks.

Then, when the pandemic hit, much of that prediction came true. Big farms went online. “Their CSAs grew by the thousands and the little guys were getting left out. And so Foodshed was perfectly timed to swoop in and be like, ‘we got this,’” said Igoe.

Today, Foodshed purchases produce from 60 farms in San Diego County, prioritizing BIPOC-run and -owned farms, as well as farms using climate-smart farming practices. They have a collaborative crop plan with around 20 farms, that involves communicating with farmers three to six months in advance to tell them what to grow for the co-op in order to ensure a diverse mix of crops.

“They’ll [say], ‘Hey, are you able to fulfill this?’ or ‘Are you able to grow that?’ I think it’s quite holistic and quite a symbiotic relationship,” said Byron Nkhoma, co-owner of Hukama Farm, a 4-acre operation in the town of Ramona in central San Diego County.

In addition, the cooperative—which was founded by Igoe, Cavazos, and four farmers—has created a food resource hub that serves as a go-to place for farmers. It provides both new and experienced growers with everything from mentorship on transitioning to carbon farming practices to assistance with business development support and tools from a lending library.

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“Market research is actually something that you need to pay someone for,” said Byron. “The competition with big stores [and] big farms is always a hurdle for the small farmer. But if there is one voice for a bunch of small farmers, it makes a lot of sense.”

Farmer to Farmer Networks Growing Nationwide

Foodshed took inspiration from FEED Sonoma, which does similar work as a cooperative aggregator and food hub network that supports more than 50 farms in Northern California engaged in ecologically sustainable practices. The Wallace Center, Igoe says, was also a huge help. The nonprofit, which focuses on promoting sustainable and equitable food systems in the U.S, helps support local food systems by assisting with anything from technical assistance on business development and sustainable farming practices, to helping connect local food producers with new markets and stakeholders.

The benefits of small-scale farms working as cooperatives is slowly gaining recognition, with Senators Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico) and Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) who recently introduced the Farmer-to-Farmer Education Act. This bill, which is proposed for inclusion in the 2023 Farm Bill, aims to build networks of small farms, particularly in historically marginalized communities, in order to facilitate conservation education. The goal is to create better farming practices, part of which included lowering cost and risk by sharing knowledge, equipment, and capacity to respond to extreme weather events.

“For a really long time, it has been about, ‘buy the produce,’ and that’s really important. But now more than ever, it’s ‘get more involved in supporting policy around this work’,” said Igoe.

While Foodshed built its foundation on emergency funding during the pandemic, it has been able to pivot, becoming more established as a business using money from the American Rescue Act Plan, as well as a $5 million grant through U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Partnership for Climate Smart Commodities to incentivize farmers to increase their regenerative practices while paying them a premium to distribute their food into historically underserved areas.

Partnering with Food Banks to Meet a Growing Need

As part of their resource hub offerings, Foodshed has also layered in their ability to manage grants and help support small-scale farms like Hukama Farm—which recently received a grant from the Pine Cone Foundation through Foodshed. This money can be integral when it comes to buying equipment such as shade structures and hoop houses, critical in not only helping mitigate the impacts of extreme weather, but also in establishing a farm’s legitimacy in new markets.

In June of this year, Foodshed and the San Diego Food Bank began a groundbreaking local food purchasing partnership. It has enabled the Food Bank to purchase from small local farms on a consistent basis, typically once a week, at a scale that can meet their demand.

“We cannot build a better food system on the backs of farmers taking more risk.”

When the pandemic hit, the San Diego Food Bank went from serving 250,000 to 500,000 people per month. Even now, it continues to provide for roughly 400,000 people each month, and it distributed about 44 million pounds of produce in the last fiscal year.

“Working with Foodshed has been a game changer for actualizing [an] initiative that we’ve been wanting to do for years,” said Kayla Thompson, San Diego Food Bank’s procurement manager.

While she and others on staff had a strong desire to support the local food economy, Thompson explains that the primary challenge of collaborating with small local farmers revolves around the time required to coordinate and meet the demands of a food bank covering such a vast area—roughly 4,300-square-mile radius for the county in addition to El Centro in Imperial County.

“The amount of work that it takes to establish a relationship, and also meet the scale that we’re used to working on [is a challenge]. Thankfully, we have the means to do the purchasing. It’s just the logistics behind it, both for the farmers and also for food bank staff, who are used to being able to execute purchases on a larger scale,” Thompson said.

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Some of the produce offered by Foodshed at their Saturday Market. (Photo courtesy of Foodshed Cooperative)

Some of the produce offered by Foodshed at their Saturday Market. (Photo courtesy of Foodshed Cooperative)

This year, the food bank aims to increase the proportion of produce distributed from 30 percent to 50 percent of the total food offered. While the partnership with Foodshed currently provides flexibility by allowing it to accept surplus food from farmers’ markets distributed by Foodshed, the food bank plans to shift to a more traditional model that incorporates a crop plan, ensuring that the food hub’s farms are well-prepared ahead of time and have reliable purchasing to depend on.

In looking to the future, Igoe hopes to tap into the healthcare industry—establishing new market streams with Medi-Cal for fruit and produce prescription programs—as well as to get more compost for small farmers.

Igoe is busy these days; she squeezed interviews for this article between two trips, one to meet with Zero Foodprint, a nonprofit that works with local municipalities to facilitate compost purchasing, and another to Kansas City, where she was going to learn about how to implement another climate-smart grant.

She’s working overtime to help bridge the farming industry with the nutrition and the anti-hunger sectors—and she hopes that doing so will help build the infrastructure that’s needed to meet the needs of both people and the climate.

“We cannot build a better food system on the backs of farmers taking more risk. We’re already in the riskiest job there is,” said Igoe. “Climate change is not a simple problem. If we keep funding everything in its individual sector, we won’t have enough money. We have to overlap our investments. And carbon farming and local agriculture—I don’t know of a better place to overlap that money. Health, economy, and climate all intersect there.”

Katie Rodriguez was a 2023 summer intern at Civil Eats, supported by a U.C. Berkeley-11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism grant. She is a 2023 graduate of U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and a reporter from the Investigative Reporting Program. Katie is passionate about telling stories of environmental health, climate policy, agriculture, and marine food systems. Her work has appeared in Inside Climate News, USA Today, Outside, and more. She is based in San Francisco and very excited about the Yucatán banana leaf tamales she recently discovered in her neighborhood. Read more >

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