Community Agriculture Alliance: The challenge of eating local foods

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In recent years, several bestselling books have promoted the environmental and health benefits of eating locally.

This has become such a popular movement that Time magazine has described this food trend by stating, "Local is the new organic." Even the National Restaurant Association found in a recent survey of restaurants that serving locally raised foods was one of the 2009 top trends in the restaurant business.

A focus on eating locally has spawned the term "locavore" to describe a local resident who tries to eat only food grown or produced within a 100-mile radius. Many studies have found that consumers are willing to pay extra for the "local" attribute because they think that buying from direct food sources are a more effective means of influencing the environmental quality and the local economy.

Historically, northwestern Colorado has grown a wide variety of produce. Commercially grown lettuce, spinach, potatoes and strawberries all have been viable agricultural ventures in Routt County's history. These crops and many more still are grown in gardens, but there no longer is farm-scale production in the area. To buy directly from farmers, many locals have partnered with Community Supported Agriculture programs in which they receive a weekly share of fresh, seasonal produce while guaranteeing income to small-scale farming operations.

In the Yampa Valley, animal products provide the primary source of locally produced food available today. This is because of several factors but mostly it is a result of our cool environment. We have a limited growing season that is too short for raising many crops, yet it provides good forage for livestock. Animals can effectively harvest forage and turn it into muscle protein.

Locally, at least four different companies are selling beef under local labels, and elk, lamb, eggs, pork and bison also are commercially available.

Routt County Extension is working to increase the offerings of locally produced food through a variety of efforts. With our network of Colorado State University-trained master gardeners and food preservation volunteers, numerous workshops and educational opportunities are offered to the community to promote more homegrown and canned foods.

By bringing ranchers, restaurateurs and local food enthusiasts together, we have discussed the potential for more local agricultural products to be consumed within the valley. Two pending grants will provide a sensory analysis of locally raised beef and create large scale demonstration plots of various cultivars of locally grown produce.

If you would like to participate in a community dialogue to discuss the future of a local, sustainable food system for the Yampa Valley, make plans to attend a meeting from 6 to 8:30 p.m. March 18 at the Steamboat Springs Community Center. To RSVP for this event or to learn more about local food production in Routt County, contact the Routt County Extension office at 879-0825.

Karen Massey is a family and consumer science extension agent with the Routt County Cooperative Extension Office.

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