Community members discuss ways to improve the local food economy Thursday at the Steamboat Springs Community Center.

Photo by Scott Franz

Community members discuss ways to improve the local food economy Thursday at the Steamboat Springs Community Center.

Ranchers, business owners brainstorm ways to grow Routt County's local food market

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— Locals looking to trace the ups and downs of Routt County's local food market don't need to look any further than Strawberry Park.

In the early 1900s, the area was known for the large strawberries it produced.

But much has changed since then.

Early frosts and cold snaps killed the crops, and eventually, they stopped growing all those strawberries.

The county's growing season that lasts 59 days doesn't make the venture very cost efficient.

Routt County Extension Director Karen Massey said Thursday afternoon it's time for the county to once again rethink its local food market.

“We can't do what we did 50 years ago,” Massey said as dozens of local food providers, ranchers, government officials and nonprofit leaders came together to brainstorm ideas for the future of the local food economy. “Too many things have changed in Routt County to think we can do what we did 50 years ago. But there is an interest among both producers and consumers to make local food available and accessible to people here. We just have to figure out the best way to do it.”

The 43 community members who came to talk about the complexities of local food gave it their best shot Thursday.

If the makeup of the attendees at the workshop was any indication, the market here has evolved to include many small-scale but passionate food suppliers who have spent their lives around agriculture and others who are ready to use new techniques to expand its reach.

Hayden resident Tammie Delaney talked at her table about her quest to create a local food hub in western Routt County.

Across the room, Ben Saheb, a videographer from Steamboat Springs, talked about his desire to make local food “fun, fresh and sexy” to the area's younger demographic through films and social media.

Lauri Aigner shared how she grows vegetables aeroponically in her home.

Others, like master gardener Eileen Grover, weren't trying to dramatically shake up the local food market.

Grover has been growing vegetables for about 10 years, and in keeping with the tradition of family members before her who donated the excess to friends and relatives, she now gives her excess to the local food bank.

“I'm interested to hear about what other people are doing and how we might improve our local food bank,” Grover said.

Using electronic clickers now popular in college lecture halls, Grover and the other participants then voted on the ideas they were most excited about.

The top vote-getter was to spur local governments to have their departments collaborate more and make it easier for local food producers to earn approval.

Other recommendations included launching a new equipment co-op for local food producers and creating a new way to license local producers more easily.

In addition to the competition from bigger, nonlocal food providers, the regulations on local food providers were listed as one of the most significant barriers holding the market back.

That came to a head in January when John Weibel's desire to make small batch cheese on his ranch in the lower Elk River Valley drew a lot of attention.

Weibel wanted the Routt County Board of Commissioners to see his venture as an agricultural use and not a commercial one that would have to adhere to some stricter building codes.

To Weibel's disappointment, the commissioners ruled he had to adhere to the building code.

Massey said the case was one of the things that led to Thursday's food dialogue.

“There are just a lot of people with innovative ideas in agriculture that bump up against county regulations,” Massey said Thursday. “The county commissioners want to support local food and have asked for a full reporting of this process. They want to support what the community wants, but they also are charged with keeping our community safe and our workers safe. The question is, how does the community make priorities when it comes to all these competing values?”

She added that there is no right or wrong answer.

The forum was organized by the Northwest Colorado Food Coalition, the Community Agriculture Alliance and the Center for Public Deliberation at Colorado State University.

Massey hopes the event can serve as a model for other counties that want to have a serious conversation about a topic that evokes as much emotion and dialogue as food.

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210, email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottFranz10

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Comments

John Weibel 1 year, 2 months ago

The building code, states that one would need to provide engineering for a structure that is built on a concrete foundation, bolted to it and is still sound to show that it can withstand the snow, wind and seismic loads of the valley. To need to provide engineering for a structure that has weathered those elements for 50-100 years and has not been altered and is in good shape is absurd.

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John Weibel 1 year, 2 months ago

One change that I requested in January was that one would not need a special use permit to operate a dairy in Routt County, I needed to pay for, which I hoped others would not neeed to do so. I learned today, that that requested change was passed by the planning board and commissioners. So in that respect I am satisfied with the helpfulness of the county.

The other rule change I sought was that a non-conforming structure (one designed to house livestock most likely, not humans and would need exceptions), could be attached to a conforming structure without the need for a wall of separation aka, the firewall. The non-conforming structure and the conforming one would both need to be to code in relation to fire safety requirements, but many old barns will never be able to have cost effective engineering preformed on them as their curved roofs will most likely prohibit that. Given that they have weathered the environmental conditions for many moons, it could be inferred that they will do so for much longer - if one used visual inspection to ensure that they have not had rot set in and in those areas where it has, then they are repaired. My barn is still level and the expense of providing engineering for it or to operate out of a trailer to prepare my milk in have been more than I could afford at this juncture. The firewall, would have caused long term structural instability and was something I could not accept.

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John Weibel 1 year, 2 months ago

An ag use and a low risk of fire use can be adjoined without a firewall, which Mr Dunham said would be okay. The issue has essentially been the inability to provide engineering for the barn in a cost effective manner.

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Scott Wedel 1 year, 2 months ago

Yes, encouraging local food production should not be done by putting locals at risk from the food or allowing dangerous workplaces.

But small scale food production cannot always follow regulations that keep large facilities safe. It should be recognized that often the small size of the operation helps make a place safe. Such as the danger of working in a small building and thus always just a couple of seconds from being able to exit is much different that working in a large building were workers could potentially be trapped by a fire.

And we have people living in mobile homes which are not rated for local snow loads and thus the building dept requires the owners to state that they will shovel snow from their roofs. Likewise, it should have been possible to reach an agreement that John would clear snow from the roof if it is too deep before any employee goes inside.

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John Weibel 1 year, 2 months ago

Scott,

The new barn has a 300-400# snow load rating, the historic one, which is causing all the issues, has withstood the test of time and is in fair to good shape and with a roof line at 50 feet I do not think it has ever been shoveled.

The state health department would sign off for a grade A dairy with the finishing touches being done. Though, there is nowhere to prepare my milk for sale locally and as I am trying to develop cows that are acclimated to the environment I had a 55% breed back. This as I am trying to treat the dairy cows like beef animals and give them a forage based diet, not corn, alfalfa, etc.. Far more variables at play in ag than any other business i have been in.

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Eric Meyer 1 year, 2 months ago

You likely need a new engineer. 300-400# snow loads are excessive anywhere in Routt County.

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Scott Wedel 1 year, 2 months ago

John,

I am just suggesting that if building dept has concerns for your employees and wants it engineered that there is precedent for accepting structures that are not assured to safely handle worst case local snow loads. And without an engineer you cannot be sure your building can safely handle worse case snow loads.

Maybe the barn was fully stressed by snow a few times over the years and on those occasions it wouldn't have been safe to be working inside.

So presumably, the building dept and you could agree that the roof gets shoveled before using it as a workplace if there is an exceptional amount of snow on the roof as an alternate solution to having an engineer provide a structural analysis.

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Jeremy Johnston 1 year, 2 months ago

Help Wanted: Creating a more vibrant and sustainable future.

Community surveys have identified what is important to people here when they make food choices. These include cost, convenience, safety, freshness, nutrition, sustainability, supporting local producers, and supporting local businesses. Local agriculture if done right can accomplish all these goals. It has been proven over the years that Routt can produce really great food. Greens, veggies, some fruit, grains, dairy and meats are all possible. However several obstacles stand in the way of a local food system here.

First is a lack of infrastructure. As the tourism industry rose the ag industry faded and many key pieces of infrastructure fell by the wayside and were replaced by the industrial ag system. Institutional memory of traditional agricultural techniques is close to gone. We produce tons of wheat but there is no mill to turn it in to flour. Livestock is our bread and butter but we have no slaughterhouses to turn it into meat for the local market. There are lots of farmers and aspiring farmers here but no cooperatives to consolidate crops into a reliable local supply or pool equipment and land.

That brings us to the cost of land. At a 1/2 to a million dollars for 35 acres a farmer could never expect to be able to pay for a productive parcel on farm income alone. Add to this a cost of living that makes getting affordable help impractical. Not to mention a short growing season. These factors discourage young aspiring producers from seeing farming as financially sustainable.

There is also the issue of education. Many people aren't aware of the health benefits of eating locally, the health issues that arise out of the industrial model, and that the true cost of cheap food has been externalized leaving the environment, the taxpayers, the lower class, and the third world holding the bill. The education system is also bent on turning our best and brightest into bankers and lawyers and such instead of focusing their talents on our most basic human need, sustenance.

The good news is that these problems are solvable. Where there is a will there is a way and the first step is education. If you care about your health, your community, the environment, and/or the future please take the time to educate yourself on where your food comes from. The next step is involvement. By taking an interest in local food you can become a part of the solution. Then there is action. These problems aren't going to fix themselves. Your actions are what will make a more sustainable food system possible.

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Scott Wedel 1 year, 2 months ago

Of course the joke is the difference between what people say they want compared to what they do. People talk about wanting locally grown food, but don't even buy fresh veggies at the grocery store but microwavable processed food that is cheaper and quick to eat.

And, what is sustainable is not always politically correct. Growing locally where there is a 59 day growing season is probably not as sustainable as growing where there is a normal grow season. The transportation costs and amount of fuel used by a semi to bring veggies here is probably less than used by the shopper going to and from the store.

We do need better ways of knowing where and under what conditions our food was grown. But things like local milk are generally less sustainable than milk from a sustainably operated dairy in a gentler climate.

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jerry carlton 1 year, 2 months ago

Jeremy I agree it is a great dream but just a dream. I grew a large garden when I lived on 5 acres. Potatoes, beets, carrots, lettuce, various greens, yellow squash. acorn squash, zuccini squash, rhubarb, and even started asparagus the last two years. It all tasted 10 times better than what I buy in the grocery store. I am soon leaving for Arizona where all the produce comes from Mexico and California. It costs about 30% of what produce costs in Steamboat and there is a much wider variety. Unfortunately it does not taste any better than that in Steamboat but we eat a lot more of it because of the prices.

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mark hartless 1 year, 2 months ago

Pray for more global warming.

With a growing season of 49 days it's your only hope...

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mark hartless 1 year, 2 months ago

Scott,

You are right. These people just want to feel good and tell everybody how they did something "sustainable" even if the reality is that just living in a place like Steamboat is environmentally irresponsible.

Classic leftists don't want the truth, they just want to FEEL good about their actions. Whether their actions actually add up or not is immaterial.

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Jeremy Johnston 1 year, 2 months ago

59 days is our frost free period. The growing season for hardy vegetables stretches from early May to early October. Something like 150 days and season extenders can add a month to the frost free period. We actually have an ideal climate for growing cool season veggies. To me "sustainable" means a method that works, doesn't deplete the resources used in that method, and can be repeated in perpetuity.

I agree that truly "sustainable" is more important than just local. The problem with transporting food long distance to market is that it necessitates an extremely large scale model that lends itself to unsustainable practices so "local" is inherently more sustainable. This is a broad generalization and I realize that if I lived in Iowa "local" could be industrial scale monoculture and cafos which are obviously unsustainable and that truly sustainable products make their way here from elsewhere.

There is no regulation on the usage of the word sustainable. Just because something says sustainable on the package doesn't make it so, but you can visit my farm and see my practices for yourself. That's an accountability you can only get with the local food model. As far as milk goes we have some of the best grass/hay anywhere and I would say that the energy used to put up the hay and feed it out is far less, I'm guessing less than a quarter, than that used to import milk over mountain ranges.

As a local producer I can say that there are people who really do want local food. I've never come home from the farmer's market with much left over and I would bet if City Markup were filled with local product, that is what people would eat. Especially if someone where making frozen pizzas with local ingredients.

Cost is a major factor. Microwave dinners are cheap, fruits and veggies are less so. The only reason that this is so is because the true cost of the cheap food has been externalized. Federal subsidies pay large scale monoculture producers (corn, wheat, and soy which make up most of the products in the center aisles at the mega mart) to sell their yields for next to nothing. Without this government support the price of these items would double or triple. Fruits, veggies, and other whole foods would look cheap considering their superior nutrition.

Routt is generally highly educated and educated people make educated decisions no matter which side of the aisle they fall. Living in Steamboat is not unsustainable in and of itself, just living here sustainably may take a bit more work and sacrifice than it would elsewhere and growing our own food is a part of that equation. It's the post-industrial lifestyle that is unsustainable. Without going back to traditional pre-industrial lifestyle, none of us will be 100% sustainable. I think feeling good about one's self is important and even small things can add up in the big picture.

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John Fielding 1 year, 2 months ago

Jeremy, your observations are incisive and well articulated. Thank you for your participation here and especially for what you do at the Barn.

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John Weibel 1 year, 2 months ago

I forgot the other request I had of the commissioners in January was that the county views the preparation of ones own agricultural products as an agricultural activity in all departments of the county.

Baling hay could be construed as a commercial or industrial act, based upon the building departments interpretation of the code book. Commerce, really requires a free flow of goods or services in and out of some location.

This is not commerce, it is agriculture and in about 3-400 square feet that if it simply stored my milk it would be excepted from the building departments oversight.

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John Fielding 1 year, 2 months ago

This is a problem we have at all levels of government and in nearly every activity. The regulators want to be able to regulate, they feel they have a mandate from the people because the department exists. In fact in most cases the authority was enacted to cover a very specific perceived danger to public health or safety, never intended to be interpreted and enforced broadly.

Bailing hay, especially the big bales, is an industrial activity, commercial in every respect. The industry is agriculture. My cousin the nurseryman calls his hundreds of greenhouses flower factories, and in fact they do manufacturing there, they just use a biological process along the way. But so do brewers and sewage treatment plants. By regulatory logic there is no reason not to regulate bailing hay.

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mark hartless 1 year, 2 months ago

Just give them a while, John. They'll figure that out and the regulation will be forthcomming. In fact the charge for GROWING marijuana (where it is still illegal) is actually "MANUFACTURING"...

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Scott Wedel 1 year, 2 months ago

Well, another issue which Routt County is behind the curve is ag growing of marijuana.

It makes no sense and is an environmental nightmare to grow in warehouses. It is just crazy to use so much electricity for lights and air conditioning instead of using greenhouses and natural sunlight.

We are going to lose the local grow related jobs to the counties that allow greenhouses for mj growing.

None of the arguments of potential problems of grow operations justifies the county ban on mj grow operations. Greenhouses should be viewed as ag. And if/when mj growing is done on farms then at least we have greenhouses that could then be used for local food production.

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