Jim Mills: Manifesting the Farm-to-Fork Goal
BY ANN M. EVANS / PHOTOGRAPHY BY DEBBIE CUNNINGHAM
Beyond the policy makers who support rural-urban connectivity, such as Sacramento's Farm-to-Fork Capital marketing campaign, are practitioners who actually manifest the goal. Political leadership can create a framework for economic development, resource conservation and public health, but a thriving local restaurant and farm culture needs people like Jim Mills, a sales representative for Sacramento Produce Express and autodidact who learned the food business on the job. Mills connects chefs with farmers.
Mills is the first to tell you he's not a one-man show. The company supports him and his sales colleagues, Scott Rose and Susie Marty-Mitchell. But for 40 years, Mills has helped build a regional food economy from the ground up—first as a chef, then a produce representative.
"I'm an ambulance chaser," he says. "I have a sales packet. I read the Sacramento Business Journal. I have a conversation with a chef or restaurant owner and know where they're going. If they tell me produce is too expensive, I know they're living in the '70s when produce was cheap. It shouldn't be cheap."
Farmers lose when produce is cheap. Produce Express offers its 1,200 accounts—mostly independently operated restaurants with different goals and price points—a full range of commercial, organic and local produce. "For me," says Mills, "it's about getting more farmers and farms by finding a market for their product."
"Diversity versus monoculture; local and seasonal," he says, and credits Yolo County's organic farmers, the Davis Food Co-op and the Davis Farmers Market as early entrepreneurs who built a local food system. The Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op makes his list too.
In our metropolitan area, Sacramento is the urban to Yolo's rural counterpart, but Mills says we're still building a regional identity. The suburb effect makes it hard. Sacramento has the horsepower of institutions such as the Sacramento Convention Center Visitors Bureau behind the city's farm-to-fork marketing.
"They're doing a good job," Mills says. "They get that this is part of their mission, which is to put guests in hotels. [There were] 50,000 people on the mall for Farm-to-Fork day this year—up from nothing three years ago."
Mills gets up early. After yoga he heads to the office for two hours, then is out on the road. "Chefs have choices, and I have 90 seconds to impress," he says. "If I'm still talking in two minutes, I'm doing good. I meet with farmers about 20–25% of my time, meet with chefs the rest of the time, then I do it again."
The farm-to-fork standard is restaurant driven, but he can't force restaurants to adopt this ethic.
"I'm not a produce snob," he says, "but you don't have to use tomatoes in December. We have them at Produce Express. But in January and February, tomatoes are picked green, then gassed. They turn pink while driving miles to get here. Not a great tomato. You can get away with it, but why have tomatoes in the winter when you can have walnuts or citrus. Wintertime is citrus time."
Photographer Debbie Cunningham and I join Mills on his morning rounds covering a five-county area in a mobile office: his pickup truck.
We head up Yolo County Road 16, past Esparto, Seka Hills' new olive oil mill and Capay Valley Vineyards. Sounds of Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Willie Nelson and John Coltrane fill the truck as blond hills rise up on both sides. We turn up a gravel road to meet Trini Campbell, who with Riverdog Farm partner Tim Muller has been farming since 1990 on acreage that has grown from 30 to 500 acres.
Campbell leads us through a field of rainbow chard and Dinosaur kale. Behind us is a combine that harvested basil for seed, leaving a momentarily empty field. A spreader stands by a white mound of gypsum, a soil amendment that is both a conditioner and fertilizer.
"We've been selling to Produce Express for 10 years," Campbell says. "They're our most consistent buyer at a large scale and [they buy] year-round, not just summer tomatoes." Riverdog's produce was served at the 2015 Tower Bridge Farm-to-Fork Gala Dinner, though Campbell didn't attend.
Our next stop is the packing shed where Campbell prepares a box of produce for Mills. Workers are bundling chard and washing kale. They're important, hardworking members of Riverdog's farm family.
On the way back to Sacramento, we pass other Yolo County farms from which Mills buys, including Capay Organic and Full Belly. West Sacramento, also part of Yolo County, has Del Rio Botanical, "Uncle Ray" Yeung Farm and Vierra Farms.
We arrive at 1490 R Street to visit Ed Roehr, co-owner with Janel Inouye of Nido, Magpie and Yellowbill. Mills sets the box of produce from Riverdog on Nido's kitchen table and the men sort through turnips with tops, purple cabbage, the season's final eggplant and Bibb lettuce.
"Jim is my sage, mentor, friend and drinking buddy," says Ed. "He challenges us to create dishes around what he brings in. We're busy, we get in ruts, and then someone like Jim shows up with a case of seasonal vegetables—the bounty of the area—and we figure out how to get it on a plate. We need someone pushing us, challenging us to remember the point. It helps with people like Jim to keep it real."
We leave with an apple hand pie courtesy of Ed, whose original café and bakery, Magpie, started six years ago. Known as a pioneer chef in Sacramento's farm-to-fork movement, Ed says he uses a lot of produce because people want to understand that food that doesn't have to come from animals.
Our final stop is off Power Inn Road: the 55,000 square foot warehouse now home to Produce Express and its 26-truck fleet. The company recently relocated from 22,000 square feet in downtown Sacramento. Jim Boyce Jr. started the company in 1984, with one truck out of his garage, and now three generations of his family work there.
Thirty people deliver the produce, starting at 7 in the morning and returning to the warehouse by noon. Mills walks us past boxes of organic Smyrna quince, Fuyu persimmons and Wonderful pomegranates, as well as pallets of conventional produce. There are other restaurant staples, Giusto flour, California Olive Ranch extra-virgin olive oil, dry beans from Mohr-Fry Ranches in Lodi including such unique varietals such as Snow Cap, Black Valentine and Hidatsu Red.
The tour complete, we head back to Mills' office, a cubby stocked with Alice Waters' books, Chez Panisse Vegetables and Chez Panisse Fruit. These, he tells me, are his favorite cookbooks. He recommends these books, or gives them, to chefs just feeling their way to cooking seasonally with local produce.
Mills' food community is growing. His son Zac Mills works as an expediter for Sacramento's midtown restaurant Waterboy, part of a second generation that Mills takes more than a paternal interest in. He runs a virtual employment center for chefs out of his truck and recites Sacramento's culinary tree by heart.
Mills grew up with Sacramento's restaurant scene. After graduating from Sacramento State with a teaching credential and unable to find work in the classroom, Mills took a job working for Russ Solomon at Tower Records in 1969, and from there went to work for Randy Paragary in 1974 opening bars and restaurants for the Paragary Restaurant Group. After Kurt Spataro was hired, Mills worked in the kitchen at Paragary's Bar and Oven in midtown, cooking for, among others, the State Assembly's "Gang of Five."
In 1999, at age 50, Mills took Teresa Urkofsky's position at Produce Express. Compared to the life of a restaurant cook, the job was a more predictable, controllable career and gave him more time with his wife.
With the local farm-to-fork movement growing in the last 15 years from one farm and five chefs to 40 farms and 100 chefs, Mills has become one of its many mentors. "In the early days," he says, "Alice Waters and Darrell Corti were mentors for a lot of us."
Is there a blueprint in Mills' mind? "I would have to think about that," he says. "I have a plan for today. Office. Farms. Chefs. Repeat. And I get a lot of help," he says, "from a chef's community that is deeply involved."
"Farm-to-fork is still in its infancy here with respect to how many people are involved, and the fact that it doesn't reach many lower-income people," Mills says. Then he points out that food access is now, finally, part of the conversation, and he hopes politicians will become more involved. Should they need an informational resource, they can turn to Jim Mills.