Small Farm Conference offers taste of San Diego

Where do you buy your food? Does most of what you eat come from California or from China? Do you actually know any of the growers and purveyors of the food on your plate?

For more than 20 years, the California Small Farm Conference has been a source of support to the state’s small-scale farmers whose lives have grown harder every year. Since their home base is Davis, annual conferences usually convene in Northern California, but this year’s chosen venue was the Marriott Del Mar.

“We thought San Diego County was a good place to gather, since it has the most small farms in the entire state,” said Carle Brinkman, regional manager of the Pacific Coast Farmers Market Association. “And the Marriott suited our needs.”

About 500 people attended the three-day conference, which included workshops on organic production and agri-tourism and behind-the-scenes tours of local farms.

One of the highlights was a tour of the Carlsbad Aqua Farm, a popular source of sustainably raised mussels, clams and oysters that has been owned by John Davis of Del Mar since 1990.

Now in partnership with Norm Abell of Acacia Pacific Investments, Davis has expanded his product line to include abalone and gracilaria pacifica, a type of algae that mollusks and humans like to eat. The abs are slow-growing, but not the algae, whose refreshing, salty crunch is featured in Hawaiian poke. And since both abs and gracilaria are raised in free-standing tanks, they can’t be affected by the infamous red tides that halt shellfish production.

In other words, a small farmer may gain strength by diversifying.

“In aquaculture, there are no horizons,” Davis said. “Whatever you can dream, you can do.”

Working with the San Diego Farm Bureau and Slow Food Urban San Diego, Brinkman chaired the Feb. 28 Tasting Reception, which was open to the public and featured samples from local farms, chefs, wineries and breweries.

Hundreds of conference attendees and San Diegans crowded into the Marriott’s Grand Ballroom for three hours of grazing through an assortment of salads, fruits, cheeses, meats, shellfish and beverages and a chance to chat with the folks who produced them. And the people, many of them second-career farmers, were as interesting as the produce.

“Once you get to know the farmers and what they do, you have to have the utmost respect for them,” said Jeff Jackson, executive chef of the Lodge at Torrey Pines, who was serving citrus-topped salad at the table of one of his favorite suppliers, Crows Pass Farm.

“We use so many local farms — that’s what drives our menu. What they have is what I prepare. It’s a wonderful way to cook!”

Take a tip from Jackson and support your neighborhood farmers markets, letting fresh seasonal produce drive your menu, too. And for your own taste of San Diego, look for local farm products wherever you shop and eat.

Local Farmers Markets

  • Del Mar: 1 to 4 p.m. Saturdays, City Hall parking lot, Camino del Mar at 11th Street
  • Solana Beach: 2 to 5 p.m. Sundays, South Cedros Avenue
  • La Jolla: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sundays, outside La Jolla Elementary School, Girard and Genter