Our View: Commissioners are locavores, too
March 29, 2014
Producing food in Northwest Colorado always will be more of a challenge than it would be in milder climates. But there's no denying that there is a growing interest here in the satisfaction, nutritional benefits and sustainability that comes with growing produce and raising livestock closer to home.
With that in mind, we think Routt County government took a positive step this week with new plans to demystify the steps local food entrepreneurs must take to live up to county regulations. Those regulations govern where and how commercial operations may operate. And from building department rules that dictate fire safety standards, to environmental health department rules that pertain to sanitation in food production areas, those regulations are meant to protect public safety. And they aren't going away.
But the steps taken this week — which also happened to be Community Agriculture Week — are intended to make it easier for food entrepreneurs who may be embarking on a new, and somewhat unfamiliar venture, to understand the challenges they face.
In the past couple of years, people hoping to start produce, meat processing and dairy-based businesses have entered the county permit process and found out their endeavor would be more complicated than they first envisioned. Given their passion, some have felt the county was putting up unnecessary barriers to the growth of a new cultural movement that is going forward on a national basis.
The county commissioners demonstrated this week that they empathize. They agreed to an initiative sparked by the Community Agriculture Alliance, with the support of Colorado State University Extension, to establish a new "introductory" approach to the county planning process. It would begin with food entrepreneurs filling out a simple one-page form describing their business plan. The form would be circulated to all of the pertinent county department heads who then would meet informally (not in a regulatory process) to give the business owners their tentative reactions to the plan.
The expectation is that food entrepreneurs would gain a better understanding, not just of what county regulations require of them, but also whether or not they are prepared to start a food production business.
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There is historic precedent here for local food production that goes beyond the dominant practice of growing grass hay to feed to beef cattle. Routt County was a hub for strawberry and lettuce production early in the 20th century until refrigerated shipping allowed growers in more advantageous climates to send produce all across the country.
It may take a lot more support from the community in the 21st century to produce and promote food grown in the Yampa Valley.
The city of Steamboat Springs economic development intern Casey Earp advanced a self-described "pie in the sky idea" in December 2013 that envisioned using the vacant TIC campus on the city's west side as a place to grow and process food indoors and even perhaps host a farmers market.
That particular vision might not prove to be financially realistic. But we think Earp is onto something. Beyond simplifying the entrance into the county permit process, we may need a certified test kitchen, where a variety of small producers can preserve jelly, or make small batches of cheese, for example, under the guidance of a mentor.
Consumers can find locally produced food right now at retailers from Clark to Steamboat as well as at the farmers market all summer. If we are to become locavores, this week's action by Routt County is a step in the right direction.