In addition to being a rural outdoor education center for urban youth, Pie Ranch is an education hub for adults as well. On my first full day on the road, Pie Ranch hosted a workshop led by Farm Link on value-added products—how small farms can eke out greater revenue. It was inspiring. Number one was the fact that while the number of large farms are decreasing, small farms are seeing tremendous growth—this is where the action is. Value added isn’t simply turning berries into jelly or milk into cheese. Value added can also be designating produce as organic or beef as grassfed. In short, it gives small farms working outside the mainstream of industrial agriculture another tool to make a go of it in what is an already difficult economic climate. The good news is the climate is favorable for small, sustainably minded farms.
Most inspirational of all was the work that Kevin Koebel is doing. I know Kevin from Santa Cruz because my daughter went to his house for day care. I knew he was a chef and had a popular, but now closed restaurant in Half Moon Bay, but I didn’t know much beyond that. Turns out he’s truly food forward.
He tried to make a go of the restaurant business but it didn’t work for his lifestyle. He says he didn’t like being in the same place all the time doing the same thing. His newest venture is Local FATT (Food Awareness Through Teaching). The business is a little hard to explain because there’s nothing like it, but it’s all about value-added products, creating links between producers and consumers and building a more robust local food economy.
Kevin opens his kitchen to local farmers who want to experiment with creating their own value added products. And he does it for free. They can come and go as they please. He makes money through referrals for catering jobs, cooking classes, co-branding and other community based activities that stem from his open door, no-fee policy.
It took Kevin months to get regulatory approval from the county because they didn’t know how to classify him. Restaurant? Commissary? Community center? What that tells me is he’s thinking way outside convention. He spent nearly $600,000 to open his business. He leveraged his house to the hilt. And in spite of some initial setbacks he’s doing well while helping foster a thriving food community. Now that’s food forward.