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Newcastle Produce rides the farm-to-fork wave

Sells local fruits and vegetables, homemade goodies
By: Sena Christian of the Press Tribune
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Newcastle Produce

Hours: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday

Location: 9230 Cypress St., Newcastle

Info: (916) 663-2016 or www.newcastleproduce.net

 

As customers walk through the front doors of the bustling Newcastle Produce on a cold winter day, strong aromas hit them with welcomed warmth, and their exclamation is always the same: “Oh, it smells good!”

The smells come from the deli to the right of the entrance, where employees build sandwiches of the customer’s choosing and pack freshly made potato salads and minestrone soup into containers, and plate pecan pie crumble and apple nutmeg almond scones so customers can munch on them in the dining area.

But the store’s abundant colors — reds, purples, yellows, oranges, creams, greens — are thanks to its produce section. In addition to the vibrant hues of the fruits and veggies themselves, tags on the food identify their source: red refers to Twin Brooks Farm, yellow for local (defined as within 100 miles) and orange for commercial. Some are organic, and a sticker may also denote farms associated with PlacerGrown.

“Everyone’s interested in eat local. It’s a big thing,” says store owner Jan Thompson.

Customer Suzie Hanson, of Auburn, does most of her produce shopping at this store, located off Main Street in the small town of Newcastle.

“It’s close for when I want to get fresh veggies,” Hanson says. “I’d rather come here than the regular grocery store, and when I can’t get to the farmer’s market this is the next best thing.”

Celebrating its 15th anniversary, Newcastle Produce is a model for what the buy-local catchphrase is really all about — a way to more directly financially support the family farmers who grow in the places where we live. For owner and farmer Thompson, who runs Twin Brooks Farm in Newcastle with her husband, selling and buying local is critical.

“On a very personal level that’s my livelihood, and I think local is fresher and less impactful on the environment,” Thompson says.

Rise Of Family Farming

The arguments behind the buy-local movement are plentiful. One reason is that local food is fresher, which means more of the nutrients have been preserved as the food spends less time sitting in warehouses and then traveling on trucks or planes to our plates. Less distance from farm to fork also means less fossil fuels used in transportation.

Local food encourages genetic diversity, as smaller farms plant different crop varieties to extend their harvest season, as opposed to large-scale production that focuses on a few crops that yield the biggest profit.

Another argument involves the benefit to the farmer: When growers sell directly to the consumer, they cut out the middleman and get full retail price for their food instead of wholesale.

Despite the perception that American agriculture is dominated by a handful of corporate farmers, in actuality, small farms account for 96.4 percent of all farms in the United States, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture study released in August. Small farms are defined as those with $250,000 or less in sales of agricultural commodities.

That’s up from 91 percent as reported in the 2007 Census of Agriculture. The number of small farms then was at about 1.99 million. Farms with sales less than $10,000 increased from 2002 to 2007, while farms with sales of more than $10,000 decreased. Agricultural land ownership has remained stable over the past five years, with 62 percent of farmland owned by the operator, according to the 2007 census.

The publication of the 2012 census has been delayed from Feb. 4, because of the work stoppage caused by the federal shutdown, and no new release date has been set.

The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization has declared 2014 the International Year of Family Farming, recognizing more than 400 million family farms around the world. These are defined as farms that rely primarily on family members for labor and management.

Closer to home, the USDA launched the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” (KYF2) effort to promote local and regional food systems. The KYF2 initiative attempts to integrate programs and policies that stimulate food and farming-based economic development; foster new opportunities for farmers and ranchers; cultivate healthy eating; expand access to local, fresh food and more.

The number of farmers markets has grown by 67 percent since 2008, and there are now more than 7,800 in the USDA’s directory. All 50 states have agricultural branding programs.

Food hubs — facilities that connect local farms and ranches with larger-volume buyers — are also popping up more and more, along with stores like Newcastle Produce, which provide farmers with a higher share of the food dollar. The money spent at these businesses then circulates within the immediate community.

The Family Business

Thompson traces her family’s agricultural roots back 150 years, and more recently to when her grandfather, Harold Leak, at 19 years old, bought 40 acres in rural Placer County and planted fruit trees. Fifteen years later, he bought another 350 acres on the American River and planted more fruit trees. Every summer, he sent tree-ripened peaches to market.

The river ranch was lost when the Folsom Lake Dam was built and on the land that remained, her grandfather removed some of the fruit trees to raise cattle. So, the family was then selling grain, cattle and fruit.

Her parents eventually retired and her grandfather’s H.P. Leak Ranch in Loomis and her great-grandfather’s old Fieser Ranch are now the home of Thompson’s Twin Brooks Farm. Jan and her husband, Francis, took over the farm in 1998 and put in row crops to grow vegetables. The farm was small and labor intensive.

“I reached the point where I thought I shouldn’t be out there pulling weeds,” Thompson says. “I wanted to do something different.”

Different meant opening Newcastle Produce in 1999, in a building owned by Joanne Neft, an agricultural veteran who founded both the first Foothill Farmers Market and the Mountain Mandarin Festival. Neft also co-wrote “Placer County Real Food Cookbook” and “The Art of Real Food,” with Laura Kenny.

Business slowed down for a few years during the bad economy, but has picked up again, Thompson said, in large part because of the push for local food. Business is doing so well the owners hope to expand. And the store doesn’t restrict itself to selling goods, but also to imparting knowledge through cooking classes.

And don’t let the name fool you. Newcastle Produce also specializes in packaged foods sourced locally, such as olive oils from California, breads from a bakery in Auburn, wine from Sierra Foothill wineries, and jams from Lincoln.

“People love things made at home,” Thompson says.

The business is a family affair, with all three of Thompson’s daughters involved. Her son helps when the tractor breaks down and her husband does most of the farming. Thompson helps plan the harvest, but most of her time is spent at the store, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I just like being with the people, and talking to the people and making people happy,” she says.