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Growing A Local Food System In Tahoe

Courtesy Tahoe Food Hub

It's spring and that means our farmer's markets will be opening up again soon. Meanwhile, a new approach to local food is bringing fresh veggies to the masses up in Tahoe. Reno Public Radio's Amy Westervelt went on a farm run with Tahoe Food Hub founder Susie Sutphin to find out more.

Every week, Susie Sutphin makes the drive from Truckee down to the Sierra foothills to pick up produce from farmers. Like this guy:

"Patrick Bollinger, Foothill Ridge Farm. We grow mixed vegetables, so everything from lettuce, carrots, beets, potatoes, turnips. in the summer we've got cucumber zucchini, eggplant, the whole gamut."

Sutphin runs the Tahoe Food Hub.

"Which is providing access to markets for small farmers and ensuring that they are treated fairly."

Although she makes it sound a little like a farmers market, really Sutphin provides a pretty slick distribution link between farmers and institutional buyers -- like restaurants, schools, hotels and hospitals. Farmers let Sutphin know what they've got available each week, she plugs it into her online database, and then local businesses order what they want. Then Sutphin picks up and delivers the orders.

"Working with Susie just makes it really easy because first, they bring the food to us," that's Tiffany Swan, the executive chef for Squaw Valley Resort. "And then it provides access to food we might not otherwise be able to get. She;s got a large network of farmers and she's always adding to it."

Swan initially started working with the food hub to stock the resort's MTN Roots Food Truck, but now buys items for all of Squaw's restaurants and concessions. In some cases, she even orders ahead of time.

"For our Tahoe Food Hub Salad that we do at Gold Coast, we started working with Susie in April or May to plan for the following winter so that farmers were planting kale for that salad and we knew we'd get what we needed because she was planning ahead with the farmers."

At the other end, farmers like having a new distribution channel, stable market for any excess produce they grow. Here's farmer Patrick Bollinger again:

"We try and direct market as much as possible because that's where the best prices are, so we do that with our CSA and our farm stand, and then the food hub is great because we can have all the extra stuff we need to make sure the farm stand is stocked but not waste anything because we can send it up the hill to them."

In addition to connecting farmers with buyers, the nonprofit also donates to local food banks and educates Tahoe residents on how to grow food at high altitude. One way to do that is to grow indoors with something called a Sierra Growing Dome.

"Water is a great thermal mass, so the heat from the sun comes through these polycarbonate panels and heats this body of water and that's how we regulate the temperature of the dome and keep it warm in winter and cool in the summer."

The Sierra Growing Dome is specially designed to withstand large snow loads and retails at a cool $23,000.

"A growing dome this size would feed about 8 people, so if you got two families together, or a few couples ... or just one very wealthy person..."

So far that hasn't happened yet, but Sutphin says schools, resorts and towns are also potential buyers for the dome.

One school -- Sierra House Elementary, in South Lake Tahoe -- has put up two smaller domes, where students grow the veggies that stock a weekly salad bar.

"It's been great for the school -- for some of our kids, this is the first time they've been exposed to something like this. They get excited and then they get their parents buying more vegetables at the store, too, it's really great.

In 2015, the Tahoe Food Hub also opened a farm shop at the base of Alpine Meadhows. They'll be re-opening Thursday and Friday afternoons in May.

Amy Westervelt is a former contributor at KUNR Public Radio.
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