Everyone is talking about local food these days, but does it translate into robust markets that allow Colorado farms to thrive? And if not, what can be done to change that?
Those were the key questions posed during the Colorado Food Summit, held earlier this week in Denver and organized by the local and regional food systems team at Colorado State University.
Attendees at the sold-out conference discussed how to strengthen direct-marketing venues like farmers markets, weighed in on the development of a 2050 food systems vision for Colorado, heard about a new "Good Food Purchasing" program and had the chance to participate in a "speed dating" session designed to connect producers with potential buyers.
How to scale up local food purchasing to make it more relevant for more producers was a big focus throughout the day.
Farmers at the summit spoke of labor shortages, low pricing, regulatory burdens and fraudulent advertising as the main factors contributing to challenges with market access.
Derrick Hoffman, of Greeley, who was part of a panel on farm-to-institution marketing, grew convinced there was a need for more locally grown produce after becoming involved with Weld County's farm-to-school program.
He and his wife took on that challenge, eventually growing their operation to more than 100 acres of melons, peppers and potatoes with the intention of supplying area schools, colleges and other institutional accounts.
But this past year, due to a shortage of labor coupled with lack of market demand, he only harvested 60 percent of what he grew.
Following the panel, Hoffman said if he can't pick up another five or six additional customers, he will have to cut back production, focus strictly on farmers markets and take an off-farm job.
"There's been a lot of conversation, but not a lot of action" when it comes to local food, he said.
Larry Lempke was another farmer in the audience who expressed frustration.
"I'm trying to figure out how I can make the farm make some money," he said of his reason for attending. "I want people to understand if they want to know where their food comes from they need to pay a little premium for it."
He added that the most money he ever made farming dates back to when he was a junior in high school more than two decades ago.
At the time, the old pickle plant in La Junta provided a steady market for produce, and local restaurants were eager to buy local pinto beans.
"Sysco took that business away," he said, speaking of the nation's largest food distributor, by forcing customers into all-or-nothing contracts. Labor availability also became an issue, pushing him out of specialty food crops like sweet corn and onions and into more mechanized options like sugar beets, corn and wheat.
Lempka, who also works for the Big Thompson Conservation District in Berthoud, spent most of the past six years obtaining grants and working on flood recovery efforts along the South Platte River. But as he ramps up his farming again, one of his goals is to run integrated mixed livestock to help regenerate his land.
He started out by raising a few hogs and found potential interest from a local barbecue chain. But the restaurant can buy pork for $1.50 a pound; he needs at least four times that much. He ended up selling into the commodity market instead.
"Even selling just six pigs has been a challenge," he said.
Looking for answers
Scaling up to sizeable quantities typically demands a strong wholesale market. But those markets are challenging, too, even for farmers with lots of urban connections.
That's the case with Brad Buchanan, CEO of the new National Western Center and a grass-fed beef producer from Strasburg, who spoke as part of a panel on wholesale marketing.
Buchanan runs 1,000 cows at his Flying B Ranch but said he couldn't pay his mortgage without holding down at least one full-time job on the side.
"We continue to go back to direct marketing. It's the only thing that works for us," he said.
His biggest wholesale customer, the Brown Palace, recently "dumped" him, he said, by sending a text saying they no longer wanted his beef.
Both Buchanan and Joe Matta, a partner in the Denver Public Market, are now working to create nonprofit food aggregators, backed by public and philanthropic funding, in hopes of helping to expand market access for producers.
The $1 billion improvement project underway at the National Western Stock Show facilities includes renovation of an iconic 1909 building, which will be turned it into a food hub, Buchanan said.
"We think it will be a huge programming element for us," he explained. "It will be the heartbeat of the National Western Center. And in ten years, it's going to be a destination, similar to what Larimer Place is now."
By providing services like aggregation, storage, light processing and one-stop shopping, he and Matta both aim to fill food system gaps and "pain points" that seem to pose the biggest roadblocks for producers and food buyers.
Brian Coppom, executive director of Boulder County Farmers Markets, asked whether there was a risk that these new efforts would merely cannibalize existing outlets and infrastructure rather than growing the pie.
"We see farmers using every channel they can get to stay alive," Coppom said to the panel. "With these initiatives, do we start competing with them? Will the same customers stop going out to the farm and now come to this new facility we've created instead?"
"We want to be a catalyst, creating more pathways to the market and creating links between the food hubs that currently exist," Matta said in response. "We're looking at how we can lift all boats that way."
Dawn Thilmany, an economist with CSU's food systems team, said her research suggests new synergies can be created when more diverse local food outlets and initiatives are added to the mix.
Meanwhile, in the hallway conversations outside, Amy Lentz, a CSU extension agent in Weld County, was batting around another idea: what about starting a produce auction?
Lentz is from Kentucky, where farmers would bring excess produce to a central location and have it auctioned off to chefs and other food buyers after farmers markets closed for the day.
"I think it's something we need to look at," agreed Martha Sullins, another member of CSU's food systems team, adding workforce development should also be a priority.
Keeping food safety manageable
Lately, Sullins has been working with micro-greens growers who have been hit with costly liability insurance requirements, even thought they sell at farmers markets that already carry umbrella insurance of their own.
"We're trying to understand the impact of that and what we can do about it," she said.
Food safety regulations and burdensome auditing programs were brought up repeatedly as another barrier that can impede the growth of small and medium-sized farms.
It was high on the list of concerns expressed by Charlie Talbott, a Palisade peach grower and another panelist at the summit.
"So few of us feed all of us, so now everyone is watching us," he said in a conversation following the panel. "We have the safest, most abundant food supply in the world, and yet fear of food is highly elevated."
He expressed skepticism about the time and effort being put into urban initiatives like the Food System Vision Prize for 2050, sponsored by The Rockefeller Center, and the Good Food Purchasing pledge, which were both highlighted at the summit. He questioned whether such initiatives actually solve problems for producers or improve their bottomline.
His objection was that creating a new scorecard, such as Good Food Purchasing, creates another set of hoops for farmers to jump through and in some cases might even conflict with other standards already being imposed on them by governmental agencies, purchasing agents and market forces in general.
"Right now we have a lot of conflicting goals in the food system," he said during the panel.
Still, Talbott was impressed by the sweeping, inclusive spirit of the summit, which encouraged interaction between everyone from representatives of the wheat, corn and beef industries to the manager of food operations for Denver prisons.
He described it as "a collision of different mindsets and visions and a blend of what's real, what's practical and what's desired."
"Farmers are private, proud and passionate about what we do, and we think we can let the quality of our products speak for us, but it doesn't," he reflected. "These forums are good because we are having these conversations and sharing the desire to find solutions."