Law to allow chefs to buy direct from farms

(Sacramento Bee, CA)


If life gives you lemons, you can't make lemonade and actually sell it from your front yard in California.


Unless you upgrade your lemonade stand into a commercial kitchen including something called a mop sink and undergo regular health and safety inspections and apply for all the necessary permits.




The state's food and agriculture laws, once designed to safeguard California's role as farmer to the world, have just undergone updating for a 21st-century consumer attitude that dictates locally grown is better.


"I don't think there's anyone out there who doesn't think that chefs shouldn't be able to buy from a farmer's market," said Noelle Cremers, director of natural resources and commodities for the California Farm Bureau.


Except the state's health, food and agriculture codes don't allow it.


"I didn't even realize that was the case until six months ago," said Randall Selland, a Sacramento chef and owner of three restaurants.


A new state law passed in September eases requirements on packing, labeling and grading produce bought and served by restaurants and community groups that resell fruits and vegetables to under-served neighborhoods. It also separated health standards for farm stands from more commercial food retailers, such as supermarkets.


The new law allows chefs to buy restaurant fare directly from farmers and allows farmers to sell products created from their produce, such as jam, at their own farm stands and items such as bottled water or soda.


The changes, which take effect Jan. 1, actually make legal what celebrated chefs and nonprofits and farm stands have been doing for years.


Selland, a fixture at local farmers markets, regularly loads his truck with produce that transforms into offerings like a sauce of braised leeks and golden tomatoes for scallops.


At The Kitchen, his fixed-menu restaurant, the evening offerings center primarily on what he culls from the region's farms. He hauls in cucumbers from Dixon for Selland's Market Cafe.


And the lemons and limes wedged for bar drinks at Ella Dining Room and Bar come directly from growers.


He's done it for years.


Selland is part of a restaurateur movement, including Berkeley's renowned Alice Waters, who champion cutting out the middleman and buying off the farm.


Assemblyman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, authored the new law.


"So, some of our most illustrious chefs should be wearing stripes," he said.


Technically. But the farmers actually are the lawbreakers.


Jones said the old regulations needed more flexibility for new practices.


Under the new law, concerns about food safety are satisfied with paperwork that details where produce originated, he said.


Reformed laws also provide some consistency. Previously, farmers could sell jam at a farmers market made from strawberries they raised because the market operates under different regulations. But they couldn't sell the same jam at a farm stand on their own property.


Though health regulators never went gunning after farmers selling to restaurants some of whom proudly name farms on menus they did close down some farm stands in Contra Costa County that sold bottled water because it wasn't produced at the farm, Jones said.


Small farms sustain themselves by diversifying, said Cremers of the farm bureau, which also supported the bill. Allowing them to sell other products such as soda at pick-your-own farms or to extend the produce season by turning fruit into jam, adds to the bottom line, she said.


"It helps the smaller farmer in a big way," said Claudia Reid, policy director for California Certified Organic Farmers, which supported the bill.


The stakes for sustaining small farmers and local-food fans are high, said Dan Best, general counsel of the California Federation of Certified Farmers Markets.


"People are starting to realize that farmers create food; not the grocery store," said Best, who is also coordinator for the Certified Farmers' Market Association in Sacramento.


The realization reverberates with more than high-end diners.


For Tangelena White, buying fresh fruit and vegetables was pricey and not always easy in her North Sacramento neighborhood.


Alchemists, a nonprofit, began buying produce from farmers and reselling it in her neighborhood, like a mobile farmers market.


For the first time, White, 22, and her family ate a lot healthier, she said.


"I ate so many plums," said White, who eagerly experimented with new vegetables, broadening her palate.


But Alchemists' Urban Farm Stand is not permitted under the old law. Technically.


"Now the farmers can work directly with us without worrying about running afoul," said Davida Douglas, coordinator for the Urban Farm Stand.


Selland, the restaurant owner, said he welcomed the reform, but he couldn't think of any other way of running his business.


"I don't buy from just any grower out there. I pick and choose. It's a quality issue more than anything.


"I would still be out there breaking the law," he said.


Technically. 11-26-08




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