Agriculture is king in Montezuma County. And the people making a living doing it are getting a bad deal.
That's the assessment of Ken Meter, a food systems analyst and president of Crossroads Resource Center, based in Minneapolis. At a conference titled "Focus on Food: Local Food as a Foundation for Economic Stability," he said that farm and ranch operations across the country - Montezuma County included - are not reaping the full benefits of their labor due to indebtedness and rising input prices.
Locals gathered at Koko's Conference Center Thursday to hear Meter's diagnosis and discussion about how the county can bridge the gap between producers and consumers. Currently, nearly all agricultural product grown locally is exported out of town. Only 1.2 percent is sold directly from farmer to consumer. There are positives - that number is growing rapidly (doubling in the last 15 years), and is three times the national average. The first Cortez community garden sprang up two springs ago, and area schools doubled their local offerings in 2012, to 6,000 pounds. But on a macro level, it is still dismally low, Meter said. The overwhelming majority of food is still trucked in from elsewhere and sold in supermarkets.
The status quo is giving farmers and ranchers a raw deal, Meter said.
The most productive agricultural year on record was 2011, measured by total revenue. But any potential gains in profit to farmers are lost because prices for fuel, fertilizer and machinery continues to climb.
"Each time (farmers) have started to earn a little money, input prices rise accordingly," Meter said. "Cash income is lower, in real dollars, than what farmers earned in 1929."
"They're earning $91 million less today than 40 years ago, despite the gains in productivity," he added.
Meter studied different socioeconomic factors to get a better handle on the Montezuma County food economy.
The county's 25,442 residents take in $865 million in total income, or about $34,000 per capita. However, one-third of the population lives below the eligibility threshold (185 percent of the federal poverty line) for assistance programs like food stamps and low or reduced-price school lunches.
Of the 1,123 farms in Montezuma County, on 704,000 acres, 47 percent consist of less than 50 acres. A farm was defined as any enterprise selling more than $1,000 of product per year, meaning it includes everything from mechanized, high-volume commodity operations to tiny "hobby growers."
"If economists focus only on big farms, you miss almost half (the picture)," Meter said, adding that small-scale plots can adapt more swiftly to changing market forces - and palates.
Forage crops for livestock - like hay, oats and alfalfa - are the biggest moneymaker, at $12 million, followed by cattle ($8 million), ornamentals ($2 million), and grains, oil seeds and edible beans ($2 million).
The county has 22 vegetable farms, yielding approximately $247,000 each year, and 61 fruit farms, yielding $879,000.
For a food system to be sustainable, Meter argued, it needs to be less of a linear supply chain and more of a "food web", where growers, processors, distributors and consumers are interconnected. Perhaps the most important link is grower-consumer.
Seventy-eight county farms took part in direct sales, totalling $311,000, mostly through farmer's markets in Cortez, Mancos and Dolores and community-supported agriculture deals, where consumers buy a farm share before the growing season and receive a box of fresh produce each week in return.
Meter envisions a future that expands on such set-ups and is less reliant on petroleum. With its isolated location, Montezuma County would be acutely vulnerable to a price shock or disruption in oil supply.
To be sustainable, he said, a food system must address four principles: health, wealth, connectivity and capacity.
The health and wealth components are straightforward. Poor diets are a leading cause of obesity, heart disease and diabetes, and treating them drives up medical costs for the whole of society.
"(Nutritious) food is the first line of defense to staying out of the hospital," he said.
Wealth, too, is obvious: If farmers are not making a stable living off the land, how many will stay with it?
The second two points are less tangible but no less integral.
Food is a magnet, Meter said. People gravitate toward it and connect around it. They form bonds and share stories by cooking and eating together. He described how his ancestors left Bohemia - now the Czech Republic - in the late 1800s and how following generations have used food to remember their roots.
"World War II destroyed all the old buildings. The language is forgotten. All we have left is the recipes," he said.
Finally, for local food to work, consumers need skills to prepare it. Too often pots, pans and utensils are replaced by the quick ease of pre-packaged meals and a microwave.
"One hundred years ago most people in this county could take a pig from a live animal to pork if need be," Meter said. "We've gotten dumber, even though our food is prettier, with more bells and whistles, and packaged nicely."
A sweeping paradigm shift is needed, he argued.
"The current system is failing on all four counts. Health problems at great societal expense, wealth for some at the expense of others, we're growing more disconnected from one another and dumber about food preparation."
If much of his talk was sobering, Meter ended with a note of optimism that Montezuma County, and the country, are moving in the right direction.
Local food advocates are hoping to keep the momentum going.
"Five years ago, if a conference like this were held, you'd have nowhere near the attendance," said Tom Hooten with the Colorado State University extension office.
LiveWell Montezuma, a cosponsor of the conference, will release a food assessment in April based on survey responses from 40 producers and almost 600 consumers. The report will include a summary of edible foods grown here and barriers to distributing them locally.