Locally grown produce in the Sierra Nevada has mushroomed, if you will. Find out how one woman started an organization that returned Placer County to its rightful place in the farm-to-fork movement.
By Lara Kaylor
Photography by Nash Rood
It began as a way to regain a piece of history and developed into a savvy modern tool for local farmers.
In 1994, after starting the first farmers’ markets in Placer County, Joanne Neft joined a local committee that ultimately developed PlacerGROWN.
“I just couldn’t stop thinking about agriculture in Placer County,” Neft says. Once the fruit shipping capital of the world, the county had lost track of this heritage. As Neft puts it, the farmers chose to lock the gates and go to work in the city.
“We have some of the most fertile land in the country, but one of the biggest hurdles I came across was that everyone had forgotten that we were founded as an agricultural community in 1880–1910,” she says. “We needed to get back to supporting what we grow here.”
So she joined forces with the county and became the driving force behind PlacerGROWN, a unique agricultural support system.
The county initially provided $98,000 to PlacerGROWN to put together a marketing plan for farmers. Why the odd amount?
“I asked for $100,000 but the Board of Supervisors had already given me $2,000 to start the local mandarin festival,” Neft recalls.
That plan helped grow a handful of farms to more than 70, and today there are approximately 1,200 small farms in Placer County.
PlacerGROWN is now run by CEO Carol Arnold, but its purpose continues to be connecting residents and visitors with local family farmers, ranchers and vintners whose passion is to produce the finest fruits, vegetables, meats and other agricultural products the region has to offer.
“A lot of what we do has to do with consumer awareness,” Arnold says. “We provide leveraged marketing to farmers so we can help them help themselves.”
For example, the organization currently provides classes to teach farmers how to run their own social media channels. Additionally, PlacerGROWN matches farmers to sellers so they can distribute their product locally. “We act as partners with as many agricultural groups as we can to raise (people’s) consciousness about farming and where their food is coming from,” says Arnold.
Buying locally sourced food not only reduces environmental impact, it also provides great economic opportunity. “The farmers’ markets are an incubator for small businesses and farms that are starting out,” she says. “It’s a good way to get your feet wet, learn the ropes and then expand.”
Michael Whamond, owner of Hillview Farms in Auburn, Calif., learned this firsthand when he began operating his farm four seasons ago.“PlacerGROWN is a trusted organization that helps with marketing efforts,” he says. “They helped us get our foot in the door by providing their recognized logo for us to use in our efforts. It helped us become instantly included and helped us stand out.”