By Candace Krebs

Despite state and national farm-to-school initiatives, intensified interest in urban farming and the trendiness of local food, advocates in Colorado Springs are worried the local food movement might be losing steam.

Among the setbacks noted by a gathering of local food leaders earlier this month was turnover among small farms and local food supporters, prices that remain flat and declines in local purchasing by institutional food service providers.

In spite of success by some local farmers markets and CSAs, many small farms struggle to remain viable.

Local food advocates were still reeling from the announcement back in 2016 that Venetucci Farm would cease growing produce. Widely publicized contamination in the Widefield-Security aquifer south of town prompted the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, which operates the farm, to shut it down, and future plans remain in limbo pending a lengthy review process.

Venetucci was considered the last remaining working farm within 40 miles of downtown and was gifted to the community by long-time local farm couple Nick and Bambi Venetucci.

More evidence of the challenging environment also came with recent news that Brighton’s Sakata Farms would quit raising sweet corn after 70 years, due to labor shortages, water challenges and the high costs associated with producing a consumable product.

This is the third time in recent years a group of concerned citizens met in Colorado Springs to discuss how to increase the availability of locally grown food. The first such forum was held in 2010, and another followed in 2015.

Different this time was institutional backing from the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, which provided personnel and resources to coordinate the event and shepherd the small group discussions into the form of a year-long action plan.

The event also drew support from the local Green Cities Coalition and from Rocky Mountain Farmers Union’s Cooperative Development Center.

UCCS plans to follow it up with another gathering next year, although the focus might shift more toward institutional food purchasers, said Steve Svette, an assistant professor who is spearheading the effort.

He said the group was a work in progress and looking to bring in more people from around the community beyond the 120 or so who attended the forum.

The group narrowed its focus to four key areas: market access for growers, policy, literacy and food access. They also devoted one breakout group to coming up with different alternatives for Venetucci that could be presented to the Pikes Peak Community Foundation.

Several food producers attended the forum and weighed in on the challenges affecting farmers in the region.

Dan Hobbs, a farmer from Avondale and a member of the Arkansas Valley Organic Growers, a group of small farmers who market produce through the Excelsior Exchange, an old school building that is now a food hub, facilitated the event. He was also one of several farmers who talked about the need for better accountability in promoting local food. He recounted seeing his name on a restaurant menu months after the establishment had made any purchases from him.

Doug Wiley, another farmer from Avondale who is also part of AVOG, noted that the city’s sprawl is robbing resources needed to grow food in the region. He pointed to Colorado Springs’ Southern Delivery System that moves water out of Pueblo Reservoir so the city can continue to expand residential development.

The Ark basin in the largest in the state, with the potential to be the most productive, but it is also the driest, he noted.

“Destroy the watershed and the farms fail,” he said.

Convincing consumers to pay more to support local options was also an issue, he said.

“It’s our national policy that food should be cheap,” he said.

UCCS already has several projects underway on campus that integrate food and farm literacy into the curriculum, making it a natural home for the local foods initiative.

SWELL, which stands for Sustainability, Wellness and Learning, is a campus program that promotes wellness through hands-on learning at the college’s own greenhouses and gardens and through visits to area farms.

Nanna Meyer, an associate professor of health sciences and a sports dietitian, also helps coordinate a popular annual heritage grain school that attracts instructors from around the country. Last year the college contracted with farms in the area to grow two acres of blue heirloom corn that was used in foods that were served in the campus dining hall, she said.

She and her students are coordinating trials to look at the performance of various heritage grains with 60 different growers scattered around the region.

Still, she said moving toward serving more local food on campus had been a challenge, especially with turnover in food service personnel.

“Chefs need training and support to do this,” she said. “For them, it’s a matter of convenience as well as cost.”

Forum participants spent the day coming up with ideas to address remaining roadblocks to increasing the sale and consumption of local food. Some of their ideas included hosting more interactive events to bring together buyers and sellers, favorable promotional campaigns to give a boost to businesses that support local farmers, implementation of a volunteer gleaning operation for area fields and the launch of publically owned retail outlets that would put a priority on selling regionally grown items.