July 18, 2014
This week CUESA is excited to welcome our new executive director, Marcy Coburn. With a deep family history in farming and years of professional experience all along the food chain—from fields and distribution to restaurants and food education—she brings a deep passion and breadth of knowledge to the CUESA team.
We sat down with Marcy to learn more about what drives and inspires her work, what challenges she sees for the food movement, and what summer produce she can’t get enough of. Keep an eye out for Marcy at the market and join us in welcoming her aboard.
Tell us about your personal background in food and farming.
My family on my mother’s side came to California after the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and worked as farm workers, then became ranch owners in the Central Valley. My great grandfather and my grandfather (W.K. Winton & Sons) grew table grapes, and later our family bought several citrus orchards.
My father’s family was from Massachusetts and settled in Florida, so between Oklahoma and Florida a lot of our food traditions were classically Southern: cornbread, roasted vegetables, beans and greens, and slow-roasted pork barbecue. Growing up, I spent a lot of time in the orchards, and we had a huge garden where we grew vegetables for our family. In the fall we would get together and can tomatoes, peaches, apricots, and cherries and cure olives. These food traditions drove me to explore cooking and farming.
Coming from a conventional farming background, how did you become interested in sustainable food?
One of my first jobs when I moved to San Francisco was driving a delivery truck for Veritable Vegetable. That’s when I really learned about produce and the differences between sustainable and conventional agriculture. I had to do a certain amount of sales when I was delivering to shop owners and chefs, talking about produce varieties, what was in season, and why the quality was a certain way because of conditions related to environment, water, and soil. I couldn’t get enough, and I never looked back.
I then pursued different kinds of hands-on, in-the-field, get-dirty sorts of jobs, everything from weeding and shoveling dirt on farms to working as a waiter, expediter, busser, or line cook in restaurants. I learned a lot in all of those environments about how food is grown, picked, processed, shipped, distributed, sold, prepped, cooked, served, and discarded.
How did you get involved with education and outreach around food?
Having grown up with farmers, I’m familiar with the sometimes stoic calm and quiet approach many farmers take toward what they do. I saw an imperative for farmers to speak out. Having the skills and personality to write about and discuss food and farming issues, I felt that I could help make a connection between eaters and the hardworking people who grew their food. I became the Communications Director at the Ecological Farming Association, while continuing to become a completely obsessed home gardener and cook. That eventually led me to Eat Real Festival and launching the Food Craft Institute with Anya Fernald.
What drew you to CUESA, and what are you most excited about in your new role?
CUESA is the perfect convergence of all these things I care about: food, farmers, food makers, chefs, and eaters. The Bay Area is at the cutting edge of sustainable agriculture and food education in America, and CUESA is at the center of it. We will continue to lead the way in transforming the food system in the coming years. And we’re not alone. CUESA is part of a huge network of people and organizations, and this is so inspiring to me. It’s also important to celebrate the successes of our work. Clearly we have a lot of a work still to do, but it’s an incredible time to take pride in how far we’ve come.
What do you see as the next frontier in creating a more sustainable food system?
Issues of food access are huge. I also think that we are going to see more communities developing food hubs and networks that support their local economies—people taking back the power to feed themselves and deindustrialize the food system. Grassroots momentum has been steadily growing in cities all over the country. With so much technology and social media, some people have become more isolated. But the backlash to that is inevitable. I believe we have already started to see a renewed and ignited sense of passion for building face-to-face community around eating, and farmers markets are at the heart.
Your brother still farms conventionally. How does he feel about your interest in sustainable agriculture?
He is very different from me, and he is a really good and successful farmer. In recent years I’ve seen my brother incorporate more sustainable farming practices into what he does: integrated pest management, cover crops, compost. I have seen this happening more and more on conventional farms. It’s clear that these practices save money and increase productivity and food quality, and can help farmers financially even if they don’t feel like they subscribe to the overall doctrine of sustainable agriculture.
What gets you up in the morning?
As much as I talk about food, farming, and eating, I’m most excited and ignited by people—having deep, interesting, intimate, passionate, innovative, nontraditional interactions with smart, funny people. We feed each other. Working, collaborating, and sharing ideas with others really drives me.
What produce at the market are you most excited about right now?
My favorite summer berry is the blackberry. They have such a short season. You can freeze or preserve them, but there’s nothing like a fresh berry at the market. It’s plump and warm and so incredible with nothing on it.
If you were a vegetable, which one would you be?
I often say broccoli because I’m tall and thick like a broccoli stalk. Or sometimes I say I’m like the zucchini that’s been left out in the garden too long and gotten as big as a baseball bat. [laughs] My favorite fruit across the board is an apricot. And I do like good old-fashioned broccoli, roasted with olive oil. The best!
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
I feel so grateful for the opportunity to work with such an amazing staff, board, and group of farmers, chefs, and food makers. I feel really blessed and excited to be part of this team.