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Experts: For Sonoma County, the future is food

Sonoma County is “tailor-made” to benefit from the unprecedented opportunities coming to farms, food processors and retailers, Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb said Thursday.

“We're on the doorstep of a food revolution like I've never seen,” said Robb, speaking at the first North Coast Food and Agriculture Industry Conference held in Santa Rosa.

Robb, who highlighted a number of county farms and food processors, said one of the biggest new trends concerns consumers buying healthy, locally produced foods. He said the trend “is greater now” than even interest in organic foods and he predicted that it “continues to grow in spades.”

Sonoma County, he said, can do well because it has the advantages of natural beauty, diversity of products and a rich heritage of farming and food production.

Also speaking Thursday on new opportunities was California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross.

A rising middle class in Asia and India is leading to “an explosion of exports” in dairy and other foods, said Ross, and California is benefiting.

“We have a worldwide strategic advantage because we can grow just about anything,” said Ross, noting the state's farmers produce more than 400 different crops.

She urged grape growers and wineries in particular to consider the opportunities from overseas markets.

“I don't think there's enough wine for China. I really don't,” she said.

About 275 people attended the conference, which was presented by the North Bay Business Journal. The event took place at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek hotel.

The North Bay's food industry employs 6,200 workers and adds about $4 billion to the local economy, said David Meddaugh, a senior vice president with Bank of America. It accounts for 15 percent of the region's manufacturing activity.

The conference featured speakers from local companies, including Clover Stornetta Farms, Petaluma Poultry, Straus Family Creamery and Three Twins Ice Cream.

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