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Sacramento’s second annual Farm-to-Fork Festival Sept. 27 brought thousands downtown, hungry for the best of the region’s agricultural and culinary offerings. Cooking demonstrations by award-winning chefs, food and beverage tastings, live music and plenty of activities for kids — graced with sunny skies — filled the corridor between the state Capitol and Tower Bridge, the site of the next evening’s gala dinner.
Sacramento claimed the title of “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital” in 2012, showcasing its location at the center of a region surrounded by farms, growers and food producers, several of whom appeared at the festival to tout the region’s abundance.
At a booth located in the shadow of a giant tractor at one prominent intersection, the California Rice Commission was on hand to share how one of the region’s key crops is grown and to offer recipes for the delicious staple food. Here’s one from the Mathews family of rice farmers.
California rice and zucchini casserole
8 cups sliced zucchini
1 cup chopped onion
½ cup chicken broth
2 cups cooked Calrose white rice
1 cup sour cream
1 ½ cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
½ cup grated fresh Parmesan cheese
¼ cup Italian-seasoned bread crumbs
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine first three ingredients in a Dutch oven and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes or until tender.
Drain and partially mash with a potato masher. Combine zucchini mixture with rice, sour cream, cheddar cheese, ¼ cup Parmesan cheese, breadcrumbs, salt, cayenne pepper and eggs in a bowl, and stir gently.
Spoon zucchini mixture into a 13×9-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray. Sprinkle with ¼ cup Parmesan cheese and paprika. Bake for 30 minutes, or until bubbly.
Broil 1 minute or until lightly browned.
New farming methods bring environmental benefits
Residents of the Sacramento region may remember the shift that occurred in the early 1990s away from burning off all rice fields after harvest. The method was a very effective way of removing material that remained after harvest and in eliminating many pests, said Paul Buttner, the rice commission’s manager of environmental affairs. But the resulting sooty skies and poor air quality it caused each fall caught the attention of lawmakers in the nearby capital, leading to legislation to phase out the practice.
Now much of the residue is plowed under, with a small amount baled or used to create long cylinders that dam water along roadsides in the region. But that solution is costly, so much of the material is simply left to decompose. Fields with persistent pest problems are still burned, Buttner said, but emissions are far less than they were in the 1980s.
Flooding rice fields also helps excess straw to decompose, with a remarkable environmental benefit. The practice has added 350,000 acres of wetland areas that annually attract nearly 7 million migrating birds to the Pacific Flyway Habitat.
“Ninety-five percent of California’s original wetlands are gone, so flooding helps replace them,” Buttner said.
The birds benefit from eating rice lost during cultivation, along with many insects and pests. The fields benefit from the kneading and mixing action as birds walk through the fields.
Residents enjoy cleaner air, and some of the best bird watching in the country. Visit the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex during late fall and winter.
Sharing the festival’s Home Chef Workshop stage (sponsored by Paragary’s) with Executive Chef Kurt Spataro was 9-year-old Nicolas Come, our own local boy wonder of cooking and gardening, and founder of Nicolas’ Garden. After their demonstration of cooking with late-season peppers and chiles, Nicolas was found conducting interviews with some of the other chefs at the event, such as Randall Selland.
Since we last spoke with Nicolas in May, he’s returned to the White House, where he met with Congresswoman Doris Matsui, Acting Deputy Surgeon General Scott F. Giberson, and White House Chef Sam Kass. See more on the Nicolas’ Garden Facebook page.
He’s also been featured in a National Geographic kids cookbook. Not bad for a pre-teen!
Strolling through the festival I was stopped in my tracks by several lush towers of greenery. These compact gardens offered by Tower Garden can easily be located on a small patio or balcony and require no weeding or tilling of soil — perfect for lazy urban gardeners like me! The continuously watered system comes with all the needed nutrients and equipment, reportedly making it easy to grow an abundance of crops. Looks promising.
Speaking of alternative gardens, Sacramento State’s urban agriculture program showcased information about its Aquaponics Project. Its garden systems are designed to recycle food waste to support worms and insects that can be used for feed for fish in an aquaponic garden — creating a closed-loop food production system. Learn about it from the university’s Urban Agriculture & Aquaponics department.
On the more traditional end of the spectrum, the Center for Land-Based Learning offers classes and courses for a variety of prospective farmers.
Its youth programs expose high school students to career opportunities and environmental stewardship. And the center’s California Farm Academy is helping to develop the next generation of farmers with a seven-month training program in the business of farming as a business.