Restoring the food balance
Growing Partners tell the story of local food

by Will Sands

On the eve of the biggest meal of the season, La Plata County residents have strong appetites, and they’re hungry for locally grown foods. After more than a year of interviews, research and fact finding, an effort to tell the story of how local food is produced and consumed is drawing to a close. The project’s goal is to better satisfy La Plata County’s craving for local foods, improve local agriculture and make it accessible to all ages, incomes and cultures throughout the community.

Growing Partners of Southwest Colorado is a relatively new, collaborative effort between the Southern Ute Community Action Program, La Boca Center for Sustainability, The Garden Project of Southwest Colorado, Turtle Lake Refuge, and the Southwest Marketing Network.

Katy Pepinsky, of the Growing Partners, explained that the group coalesced around a single goal, saying, “We wanted to identify both the needs and resources of the local food system in order to strengthen it.”

To this end, the Growing Partners were awarded grant funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the tune of $50,000. Over the last 14 months, the group has carefully studied production and consumption of local food. As a result, a draft community food assessment has been completed, topping the scales at 130 pages and eight chapters.

“The assessment contains everything from a list of different community food projects to a harvest calendar to a profile of local agriculture and food resources,” Pepinsky explained. “We also try to come up with a definition for what food security means to La Plata County residents and looked at how local food plays out for underserved populations.”

Jim Dyer, of the Southwest Marketing Network, added that the draft details trends in local food and sets the stage for enhancing local food production.

“There are some very interesting patterns in here,” he said. “This is really laying the groundwork for the future and providing us with a direction to explore improving access to local food and fiber.”

One of the study’s predominant themes is that local residents, restaurants and schools want locally grown foods to be a bigger part of their menus. However, squaring local hunger with local food supply will be a big challenge.

“As we know, agriculture is not seen as thriving in La Plata County,” Dyer said. “However, so many people want it, and we’re hearing people saying they want better access to more local food.”

Pepinsky agreed that demand is clearly outstripping supply in La Plata County. Over the last 14 months, she heard repeated calls for additional farmers markets along with restaurants and school cafeterias requesting more produce from local growers.

“We did 12 different, involved surveys, and we saw huge demand for local food,” Pepinsky said. “We’ve heard over and over from consumers, restaurants and schools that they want more local food. Unfortunately, there just isn’t the supply to keep up with that demand.”

In August, the Growing Partners went looking for ways to increase local food production. They found some answers from area growers during a food forum in Hesperus.

“We wanted to get feedback on ways to get more local production,” Pepinsky said. “And we heard suggestions about providing more farmer training and providing a land-link program to connect land owners with people who are interested in farming but don’t have the resources. We’ve also discussed developing a small distribution network or a central warehouse facility that could broaden relationships between the growers and the consumers.”

Brainstorming aside, agriculture still faces a major stumbling block in La Plata County – rising land costs. “We know it’s challenging,” Pepinsky said. “To come in and try to purchase land at this point and then have your crop cover all your expenses is nearly impossible.”

With this in mind, Dyer turned back to the community. The brainstorming needs to continue, he said, and the greater Durango community must support community-grown food if it wants more abundance.

“We definitely need some more production,” he said.

“Whether that comes from existing producers shifting away from exporting food and into local production or from new growers remains unknown. The only certainty is that the community needs to help this effort. It’s pretty hard for farmers to get started here.”

A final draft of the community food assessment is due at the end of December. At that point, concrete efforts to mend the food imbalance will begin. Pepinsky said that the Growing Partners will be applying for additional grant funding in the spring, and those dollars could go to creating a distribution network, beginning community supported agriculture programs in needy areas of the county and building on education and outreach efforts, among other things.

“This isn’t the end,” Pepinsky concluded. “Because this was a planning grant, we’re taking it to the next level in the spring. We also want to expand the Growing Partners Network. This information is for everyone, and we want to encourage people to use it.”

More information on the community food assessment and Growing Partners of the Southwest can be found at www.sustainableswcolorado.org by clicking on “Food, Agriculture and Farm to School.” The final draft of the assessment will also be posted to the site when it is released in late December. •

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