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Growers, ranchers push local sales: Smiling frog identifies Calaveras County item

The jumping frog — an icon of Calaveras County thanks to Mark Twain — is now a symbol of the county's agricultural goods. Shoppers can identify locally produced items as those bearing the Calaveras Grown logo, with its smiling green, freckle-faced frog.

Calaveras County growers and ranchers are hoping the frog will encourage residents to buy locally grown goods — everything from apples to cashmere goat hair to extra virgin olive oil — to keep family farms from croaking.

Most farms in the Sierra Nevada foothills are small operations, five to 50 acres. The moderately fertile, rocky soils produce a variety of commodities ranging from livestock on dry rangeland, fruit and nut orchards and grape vineyards on deeper soils, and annual fruit and vegetable crops. With an increasing supply of commodities imported from other countries, many farmers are feeling financial pressure.

“Small farms that don't have the money to market their products through commercial channels are usually the first to go under,” says Ken Churches, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor for Calaveras County.

Calaveras Grown is a countywide marketing and education program that assists local growers and ranchers in marketing their products. The goal is to build community support for agriculture, agri-tourism, and preservation of open space in Calaveras County, Churches explains.

Picked up idea

About five years ago, olive oil producer Ed Rich decided to work with Churches to start Calaveras Grown after hearing about the Placer Grown marketing program in Placer County.

“Placer Grown is a marvelous program,” says Rich, president of Calaveras Grown. “I suggested to Ken Churches that we'd do well to start an education and marketing program similar to theirs.”

Rich and Churches started with a workshop featuring successful growers explaining how to produce crops and livestock locally for smaller, upscale markets, and they set up vendor booths showcasing local products. More than 300 people took advantage of the free advice.

Rich knows firsthand the difficulties small-scale enterprises face in an ever-changing market. He started his boutique operation by pressing olives from orchards abandoned after local olive canneries went out of business in the 1940s. He later planted European oil varieties that he imported from the Mediterranean. Recognized as one of the state's leaders in olive oil, Rich sells nursery stock for others to grow different olive varieties for specialty oils. He sells his gourmet-quality varietal oils, including Frantoio and Leccino, in his store in Copperopolis, in local markets and wineries and internationally by mail order.

Farm trails map

Calaveras Grown produced a farm trails map that shows who is growing what where and when in Calaveras County. Along the trail, aluminum signs identify Calaveras Grown members. The map has been distributed to bed and breakfast inns and other local businesses.

“The maps are going like hotcakes and people on the map say they're being visited,” he says. “We're drawing people to the area.”

“Our visibility has increased exponentially,” says Steve Wilensky, owner of Hum Bug Creek Farm. “With the farm map, people seek us out.”

To draw tourists, Calaveras Grown sponsors events such as a barbecue in April showcasing local foods and an autumn harvest festival. The harvest festival is held annually at Hum Bug Creek Farm's apple orchard in Glencoe. The festival features a cidermill, a dunk tank for charity, live music, bunny petting, donkey rides, horseshoe competition, cider milkshakes and apple sausages. This past September, Wilensky, who grows 160 apple varieties, saw 1,000 people visit his orchard during the two-day festival. “That's a lot of people for a town with a population of 200,” he said, later admitting that there are really only 186 residents in Glencoe.

Wilensky estimates that half of the farm's annual cider sales were made at that festival. “We pressed for three days solid and came up 150 gallons short of filling the demand. That requires us to plant more trees.”

By marketing from the farm, he's able to eliminate costs of transportation and middlemen. Through conventional channels, Wilensky says his organic apples would earn 12 to 18 cents per pound. By selling them as apple cider directly to the consumer, he makes 75 to 80 cents per pound. “It costs about 40 cents per pound to produce these organic apples. At wholesale, we'd be losing money at a dramatic clip.”

In addition to trying to attract tourists, Calaveras Grown is appealing to residents of the small community through newspaper ads and radio spots.

The response from the farming community has been enthusiastic. “Our membership keeps going up and up,” Rich says. Calaveras Grown now has about 60 members and aims to create a reputation for Calaveras County akin to what the Napa Valley appellation does for wine.

Beef sales niche

Beef producers have developed new niche products to market under the Calaveras Grown logo — beef stick, beef jerky, grass-fed beef steaks, and grass-fed beef frozen hamburger patties.

Calaveras Grown founders consider the program a tremendous success. “We regularly hear from producers who have enjoyed increased sales that they attribute directly to Calaveras Grown,” Churches says. “We also have become so well known that we are now asked to participate in countywide planning activities representing agriculture.”

“Calaveras County is expanding its agriculture as many others seem to be paving over it,” Wilensky says.

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