By Candace Krebs
Within the Colorado State University Extension Service, Michele Ritchie occupies a unique position. She’s the first local food systems coordinator hired to work at the county level.
Based in El Paso County, her position is funded through a three-year pilot project. The position is currently part-time but could eventually transition to fulltime, she said.
Her main responsibilities are to provide education and networking opportunities for small, diversified farms in the surrounding region and follow up with participants after they’ve completed local training programs.
“One thing I’ve done is that we’ve started hosting quarterly educational workshops,” she said. “I work on getting sponsorships of $50 or less to pay for those.”
With the catchy name “Foodshed Ed,” the series taps into the expertise of CSU’s vast network of experts, bringing in guest speakers from Ft. Collins and around the state.
“A lot of people are interested in dipping their toe in farming right now,” she said.
So far she has hosted workshops on agritourism and grant writing. Another session on “Optimizing Farm Taxes and Your Management Strategies” is being presented by area extension ag economist Jeff Tranel on March 27 at the El Paso County Extension Office. Future topics include high tunnel growing techniques, exploring new marketing channels and adopting integrated pest management.
She’s also charged with organizing food preservation workshops and food safety classes offered as part of the Cottage Foods Act Certification training program.
In the past, El Paso County also hosted the eight-week Building Farmers program with mixed success, she said.
“That program was getting a lot of what I call ‘dreamers,’ who ultimately found out that farming is not for them,” she said.
Identifying the needs of the community and how to improve food and farming literacy is also part of her role.
Her community outreach includes working with the Colorado Springs Food Policy Advisory Board and participating in events like the recent Foodshed Forum in Colorado Springs, designed to cultivate local food awareness and improve access.
One thing she’s been working to impress upon local growers, she said, is just how much demand has increased for certified organic items. Purchasing agents from large stores have told her that organic demand currently outstrips supply.
She’s enthusiastic about being part of El Paso County’s ongoing effort to promote local food and believes it holds promise.
“The effort has been focused on local leaders in the community, and I think that’s a smart approach,” she said.