During the Clinton administration there was a movement to green national parks. One of the mandates was to source food locally. Today one of the most successful examples of this is Yosemite National Park. All concessions are run by Delaware North and it has chosen not to buy commodities, but instead purchase produce, meats, eggs and dairy from local growers within a 150-mile radius of the park who use organic standards. Yosemite restaurants and concessions use the products exclusively.
The relationship between Yosemite and small producers is bearing fruit. Yosemite is helping support small businesses so they can be sustainable. Yosemite also features them on its menus and educates the public about their contributions. Park visitors can have a connection to food and “eat their sight.” Restaurants can offer menus with the freshest seasonal produce at lower costs because they are not passing shipping on to diners. For example, last spring the Ahwanhee offered a four-course prix fixe menu of seasonal fare for $45. If they had used staples, the same menu would have cost $65 to $70.
When Percy Whatley became the executive chef at Ahwanhee, he realized he could save money on staples, but decided against it. He had lived off the land when he was young and helped push the park to go organic. With him as a catalyst, the park has realized the importance of buying local and serving farm-to-table food. Yosemite buys from larger growers like TD Willey in Madera, but they also work with smaller growers and customize menus so they can buy what they have available. For example, Brenda Ostrum of Mountain Meadows Farm in Mariposa plants more of the traditional tomato varieties requested by Yosemite, and Seth Nietschke of Open Space Meats in Hornitos says chefs work with him to buy what he has available. TD Willey agreed to plant fennel and fava beans at Yosemite’s request and Percy buys it all. The relationship is very symbiotic for Tom and Denness, who plant 75 acres and are finding increasing pressures are driving midsize growers out of business.
It has also been a great boost for small producers who are finding economic difficulties at the moment. Customers are buying less, so having an anchor customer like Yosemite is good for the economy of your farm and the economy of your communities as well. Brenda Ostrum, who started farming around the same time Percy took over Ahwanhee, says what makes small farms viable is the support of the local community and people like Percy. He only has 5 acres for his eggs, chicken, and tomatoes. Seth has only 40 to 50 head of cattle and employs two people. They are sustainable in part because of Yosemite’s mission. The farmers are proud to be associated with Yosemite and believe this is a natural marriage. Yosemite is at the forefront of this trend and visitors benefit because they can not only enjoy unspoiled nature but also the unique flavor of the region.