Wine grapes are 98 percent of Napa County’s agricultural output, but there’s still the potential for growing more fruits and vegetables locally, Napa County Agricultural Commissioner Dave Whitmer believes.
Whitmer is organizing a Local Food Initiative community forum in April that will bring together chefs, home gardeners, non-wine grape farmers and operators of school and hospital kitchens.
As more Americans focus on hunger and the harmful effects of the fast-food diet, Napa County needs to examine what it can do to promote locally grown food, Whitmer said Friday.
April’s forum will take over much of Napa Valley Exposition for a day of panel discussions, a lunch of locally sourced food and, this being Napa, a concluding wine tasting.
Napa Valley Exposition’s board of directors voted last week to waive rental fees of $2,000 or more to support the sustainability conference.
“We’re the agriculture district. It’s something we should be doing for the community,” board president Al Wagner said. The Expo is formally organized as the state’s 25th District Agricultural Association.
This conference is not intended to be a criticism of Napa’s near monoculture, the wine grape, Whitmer said. In many ways, the wine industry is a model of sustainability, he said.
And without it, the Napa Valley might well have been paved over by now with homes and commercial development, he said.
The movement to buy local and eat fresh began in the Bay Area in the 1970s with restaurateur Alice Water and gained momentum with recent best-sellers by UC Berkeley professor Michael Pollan, Whitmer said.
At a time when obesity in children is epidemic and large numbers of people are hooked on cheap, high-fat fast food, it’s time to see if Napa County can come together to promote a more diverse local agriculture and more healthful consumption, he said.
Given the high prices that wine grapes command, Whitmer isn’t expecting anyone to rip out cabernet sauvignon to plant lettuce. But people with an available acre or two or a fallow section of backyard could easily get into food production, he said.
The community forum is inviting institutions that operate school and hospital kitchens to talk about their operations and how fresh food might be placed on menus, Whitmer said.
It’s cheaper for institutions to serve frozen and canned food, Whitmer conceded.
Speakers will talk about the benefits of school and community gardens and how to direct surplus backyard bounty to food banks that serve the poor.
Although 45,000 acres in Napa County are planted in wine grapes, that’s less than 10 percent of the county, Whitmer said. Napa’s soil and climate are good enough that “we can grow just about anything,” he said.
In one instance, a vineyard operator is planting a row of corn as a “barrier crop” between vines, Whitmer said, adding that in another case, a winery is using space formerly devoted to ornamental landscaping to grow vegetables.
The conference will be Wednesday, April 28, starting at 8:30 a.m. Tickets are likely to be $20 for adults, $10 for students. More information will be available as plans take shape.
Growing and consuming practices will not be made over in a day, said Whitmer, who calls the forum a “launching pad” for charting a new course.