Colorado is uniquely blessed with top quality agricultural production and booming cities, but what should be an ideal combination often gets hampered by challenges in bringing the two together in mutually beneficial ways.
Becca Jablonski, a food systems economist at Colorado State University, talked about that issue during the recent Pikes Peak Foodshed Forum in Colorado Springs and at the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association Annual Conference in Denver, both held over the past week.
The food systems team at CSU has also been holding regional meetings around the state to gather information and discuss opportunities. One such meeting was held in Craig on February 27, and another is planned March 1 in Nunn.
"How do we make local purchasing work for farmers and ranchers?" Jablonski said, speaking in Colorado Springs. "Not just in terms of farm and ranch profitability, but how do we support rural communities, so that we have rural communities people want to go back to? How can we strengthen our rural-urban linkages?"
Too often people in cities think local food is about urban farms, she said.
"In our work, we could only identify 10 farms in the Denver area, and these were not always economically viable, in fact, in many cases they were educational farms," she said.
Among them, only 28 percent produced enough income to support the primary farmer, although even in those cases the proceeds tended to be at or below the poverty level.
"Urban farms have real problems related to survivability," she said. "How do we help these farms scale up? We don't necessarily want to keep these farms small if the farmers on them can't make a living."
On the flip side, while many urban areas now have food policy councils and local food procurement plans, including Denver, these groups typically do not include representation from larger farms in the surrounding rural areas.
"We're facilitating conversations, not just around municipal purchasing, but around setting up new opportunities for urban-rural linkages, like the National Western Center building a public market, but there's not a lot of discussion with producers of scale in the development process," she said. "The larger farmers aren't always at the table. We need more inclusion of diverse producers and farmers of scale."
Jablonski suggested it would likely be impossible for a city like Denver to hit its goal of procuring 25 percent of its food from local sources in the coming years if larger growers are not included in that effort.
"We need growers of scale to be able to provide the quantity, quality, consistency and price point to meet the needs of Denver purchasing agents," she said.
She also said all the emphasis on food security and food access tends to ignore the financial realities of food producers.
"When producers hear that, it doesn't resonate as a market opportunity," she said.
Even though consumers do express some willingness to pay a premium for locally sourced items, the premiums aren't always adequate to offset the additional costs of serving those markets, she added.
CSU has been doing market channel assessments to help growers evaluate the efficiencies and profitability associated with different marketing approaches.
"We see tremendous variability in these markets," Jablonski said. "A CSA (or subscription produce service) is less risky, whereas there's more risk in selling to restaurants because chefs turn over. Or farmers markets, where you might bring in a big supply and end up getting rained out."
In addition, as farms selling into local food markets get larger, they spend more on labor.
"This is the exact opposite of what we see in conventional agriculture," she said. "What we think is going on here is that you as the producer are taking on additional supply chain functions, so one of the things we are looking at is can we improve some of the efficiencies around labor?"
The research also shows that farms benefit from market diversification.
"We're seeing a plateau around direct-to-market sales," she said. "We are finding that farmers do better when they sell both direct and through intermediated channels (such as food service distributors.)"
Another key opportunity CSU has identified is the potential for more value-added processing in rural areas.
"Peach growers composted 20 percent of their peaches last year," Jablonski said. "What if we could do more processing of seconds to supply winter CSAs? A lot of places in the country are already doing this."
One promising technology is individual quick-freezing, or IQF, which could fit many vacant buildings in rural areas, she noted.
Jablonski said instead of building something new, it often makes sense to look at repurposing existing assets. That sometimes extends to working with existing companies rather than starting new ones.
She cited a project on Long Island, New York, where a large regional food distributor began hosting a weekly market for wholesale purchasers that helped smaller producers grow their business enough to tap into its larger food distribution channels.
Another example: CSU recently helped LoCo Foods, a small distributor based in Ft. Collins, secure a federal grant.
"They do a great job with value-added products, but the logistics of fresh produce are very difficult, so this funding will give them three years to try out some new things in that area," she said.
In the audience was Doug Wiley, owner of Larga Vista Farm near Avondale, who later observed that the Arkansas Valley's rich soils, precious irrigation water and close proximity to the urban Front Range should make it ideal for growing high value food crops. The reason a large portion of it is still in commodity crops is not only because the farm program incentivizes commodity production, but also because of costly and challenging food safety regulations on produce.
"It's scaring people away," he said. "Growing corn ends up providing a more stable income."
If urban consumers want more local food, they need to support policy changes that help break down some of the barriers and do more to keep the water and related income-generating activity in rural communities.
"Urban farming is fine," he said, "but we need to get people to look beyond that."