February 2007

Buy-local movement gains steam in area

By Melissa Betrone

PEGGY AND TONY LITTLEJOHNNot so long ago, residents of Southwest Colorado relied on their own abilities to provide for their families — planting and growing a garden, raising chickens and slaughtering some hogs and cattle. People alive today remember salting, curing and canning meat to get through the long, cold winters in the days before refrigeration. Trips to town netted sacks of sugar and salt from the store and bags of flour from the mill, often made from wheat grown by the consumer, to use in preparing home-baked bread and meals cooked in a real kitchen.

This mode of survival required a large amount of time and labor, as well as knowledge of many skills and a resonance with natural yearly cycles. It brought families together in the fields and in the kitchen. It mandated creativity by the cook, who was faced with the same ingredients day in and day out.

By default it also resulted in healthful lifestyles based on nutritous, locally grown food and the hard work of production. It’s not such a bad thing to eat bacon and eggs from your own pigs and chickens every morning if you then spend 10 hours in hard labor, mending fences, herding animals, and pulling weeds. And farm adventures made for lively conversation over the TV-free family dinner.

It’s easy to romanticize the homesteaders’ lifestyle, but the fact remains that farming is hard work with a small financial return. Compounded with the power of urban thrills luring farm kids to cities and the development of technology to increase efficiency, today’s production system involves a very small number of people producing food for the entire nation. We are enjoying phenomenal returns per acre for grain and legume crops and have transformed beef from a luxury item into a must-have at every meal. The United States produces so much more than it can consume that it ends up giving boatloads (literally) of food away to countries struggling to feed their citizens.

But mass food production has its costs. After 10,000 years of sedentary agriculture devoted to developing highly nutritious and safe food calories, our system has been transformed in the past 60 or 70 years into a production and distribution machine with radically different prioties. Shipability, appearance, uniformity, shelf life and compatibility with mechanical harvesting equipment are now valued over nutritiousness. Food choices are influenced by marketing and dieting trends rather than healthfulness or seasonal appropriateness. Taste is sacrified for calorie-free sweetness and carb-free microwavable meals.

Many people have become dissastified with this trend, however, and as a result a burgeoning local-food movement has arisen nationwide as well as here in the Montelores community. It has taken a variety of forms, from establishing farmers’ markets to rejuvenating gardening clubs to educational presentations and more.

A grassroots campaign headed by local growers Matt Keefauver and Rosie Carter is encouraging folks to consume farm-grown products from Montezuma and Dolores counties — both to ensure the continued success of local farmers and to supply residents with fresh foods.

“Local food is closer to the table,” Keefauver said. It travels less, thus requiring less fossil-fuel input, reducing air pollution and cutting the chemicals needed for food preservation. And consumers know exactly where their food came from, reducing fears about possible contamination with germs.

Studies have shown that most food travels an average of 1,500 miles before reaching your table, initiating the process of decay en route. By reducing the “food miles” of your dinner, you improve your personal and environmental health.

“The best way for a local person to support the movement is to buy locally,” Keefauver said.

Carter’s support for the campaign arose partly from self-interest — she and her husband, Chuck, raise organic produce on their small farm, Stone Free Farms, outside Cortez — but also from a general concern for the area’s economy and for the success of farming, which helps preserve open space.

“Montezuma and Dolores counties raise a lot of food, but it is not always available to local consumers,” she said. Farmers’ markets provide a seasonal link to some products, but not everyone can make it to the markets during their limited hours of operation.

To make it easier for people to buy local, Keefauver and Carter are working on a local-food directory in conjunction with the Southwest Colorado Organic Growers Club to provide information to link producers with consumers.

Linking local producers with local consumers is a win-win for everyone — consumers get products grown for their taste and quality, and farmers enjoy better returns for their efforts. On average, producers make about 10 cents for every dollar invested in the conventional production/distribution systems, but make closer to a dollarfor- dollar profit on local sales. And farmers tend to spend the money locally.

For people interested in not only supporting local producers but becoming producers themselves, the Organic Growers Club provides an opportunity to learn more about gardening on the Colorado Plateau. The groups meets every third Wednesday in the Cortez Journal conference room, 123 Roger Smith Ave., Cortez, with a potluck from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., followed by club business and usually a presentation or roundtable.

Nancy McGill, who spearheaded the growers club, is glad to see that there is enough interest to sustain it now. “Because we live in a rural area with an agricultural focus, it only makes sense to look for food grown by our neighbors,” she said.

Over time, McGill has witnessed a shift from emphasis on organic foods to an emphasis on local, especially as organic production has been adopted by companies that continue to use an industrial approach to food production.

The farmers’ market season begins in June, with the Saturday morning market in Cortez opening then and the Wednesday afternoon market in Doloes soon after. Mancos also hosts a farmers’ market on Thursday afternoons during the growing season.

Michele Martz of Songhaven Farm in Cahone, Colo., enjoys selling at the markets, and believes that “farmers’ markets fit with a local food movement because they teach the consumer what can be grown here and what is our season.”

Martz has noted that while the Cortez farmers’ market used to be chaotic and sparsely attended at times, changes made in the last season have improved the organization and inspired as many as 45 vendors to set up on the busy summer weekends. Consumers also tend to spend more time shopping there, she said, visiting with friends and turning the market into a social event.

At markets, “farmers learn a lot from each other,” Martz said, swapping notes on pest problems, favorite plant varieties, and strategies to deal with climatic challenges.

Eating local food makes sense on a number of levels for people concerned about food quality, the environment, consumption of fossil fuels, preservation of open space, maintenance of community connections, and the vitality of the local economy.

But while McGill appreciates the ways in which eating locally contributes to the bigger picture of sustainability, she said the best reason to buy local produce is simple.

“The food is fresher and it tastes better,” she said.