Ranchers, business owners brainstorm ways to grow Routt County’s local food market | SteamboatToday.com

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

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

— 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.

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"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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