Food Leaders Perspectives
Jim Cochran, President of Swanton Berry Farm
Jim Cochran is president of Swanton Berry Farm, a 75 acre certified organic farm on California's Central Coast. Mr. Cochran is but one of the many people who grow Swanton's, strawberries, olalliberries, and mixed vegetables and distribute them throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Swanton is the first strawberry farm (and the first organic farm) in the United States to sign a contract with the United Farmworkers of America/AFL-CIO.
Mr. Cochran is a member of the Roots of Change Council. The views that he expressed in his interview are his own and do not represent the views of the entire Roots of Change Council. Like all members of the ROC Council, he has no financial interest in any project proposed by the Vivid Picture project.
Do you see this project as important to California's future?
It's our job to make it important. We are working in a marketplace of ideas here, so if we come up with good ideas that work for people, then the project will be important.
The task at hand is not to let our thinking be limited by things as they are now, but to imagine new possibilities. These possibilities need to be based on sound economic principles, high quality products, and good experiences for our customers. A newly invigorated food system will touch the lives of millions and will open the door for change in other areas of our lives.
Do you see this project as important to California's agricultural future?
We all pretty much agree that our food system has major flaws that have only begun to unfold. There are some bright spots in the system, and encouraging signs of change in attitude brought about by years of advocacy and education, yet the larger trend is to consolidation into a few hands which control food production and exchange.
I think that the opportunity for large-scale change will present itself sometime in the next 10 years. It will probably come from a major economic dislocation on the scale that we have not seen for several generations.
At that point, people will be looking for new solutions. We need to be ready with working models for how a new food system could look, as well as a plan for expansion.
Do you think that it is important that the project is happening now?
Right now we have the benefit of thousands of people from my generation who have experience starting and running sustainable food businesses. We also have legions of talented younger people who are eager for meaningful, career-quality jobs in all areas of the food system. And we also have a growing customer base that has had a taste of quality food, and wants more.
There are also many people working in the world of business, outside of the food system, who have come up with some very interesting ways of sharing ownership, decision-making, information flows, finance, etc. For the most part, people working within the food system and the advocacy world have had little exposure to innovations happening in the broader business world.
If we can manage to get these groups together, I'm sure we can come up with some very exciting ideas that will bring in a new set of players to the food system in California.
What is your biggest hope for this project?
As it is today, only a tiny percentage of Californians get to experience the wonderful feeling of producing and presenting truly great food to appreciative customers.
What about all the farm workers, produce workers, prep cooks, and so on? My greatest hope is that the new system will integrate and professionalize all of these people so that they, too, get to feel proud of their part in the food system, and that are compensated appropriately. This will carry over into the rest of their lives, and improve our communities, schools, and human interactions.
Is there any part of the VP process that you find particularly interesting or useful?
The process is very inclusive. The wide array of stakeholders makes for a very rich soup of ideas.
What do you see as the short-term benefits of the project? Long-term benefits?
Short-term, the benefit will be in encouraging so many stakeholders to think about working together for a common purpose. Even though they may go back to their farm, their advocacy work, or their job running a produce department, they will carry with them a place in their mind about the big picture.
Long term, that place in their mind will expand, and the big picture will come more easily into focus. We humans do much better if we see ourselves as part of a big picture.
What is your extreme vision for the food system of the future?
To create a sophisticated network of relatively small units of production, processing, distribution and retail outlets, with decentralized and broadly distributed ownership and control that would be closely tied to communities of consumers. An important characteristic of the new system would be its ability to continuously bring in new enthusiasm, entrepreneurial energy, and skills by offering work that is meaningful and valued by society.
The 10 billion dollar idea would be to buy a major food chain, thousands of acres of farmland and several food processors, and then to re-structure these businesses into an integrated but decentralized food system. The emphasis would be on producing very high quality food and offering customers as direct a connection to the producers as possible. The system might also include an alternative currency/financing system backed by food commodities, and supported by customers.
Imagine if we transformed 300 supermarkets in the state into affordable marketplaces featuring small regional producers, but still carrying a mix of familiar products. Each market and local farm network could become its own community, and simultaneously provide a huge outlet for small producers and processors, as well as better access to quality food for more Californians. It would also provide many "entry points" for ambitious young people currently "locked out" of the food system by the high cost of buying farmland or starting a business.
Reported by Ali Edwards, Straus Communications