Supporting young farmers to grow food destined for the dinner tables of underserved populations sounds like a win-win for all involved. But can it work, realistically and financially?
An effort is afoot to find out.
“This model we’re working on could be really cool,” said Sam Perry, owner of Fenceline Cider in Mancos. “We’re hoping it will enrich our whole community, from the ground up.”
Recently, a partnership has formed between the Good Food Collective, High Pine Produce in Mancos, the Rosen & Perry Ranch and local philanthropist Tom Buffalo to test the waters of an innovative, social enterprise farming project.
The goal: provide young farmers with the opportunity for a fair, steady income, while at the same time, delivering fresh, healthful foods to insecure populations.
The obvious challenge, said Good Food Collective Director Rachel Landis, is to keep operational costs low to serve low-income individuals and families. And it appears the answer lies in a consortium of grant writing, volunteer time, tax deductions and nifty, nonprofit finagling.
“In order to keep costs low and thus be able to serve this important segment of our community, the Good Food Collective will leverage our nonprofit capacity to wrangle community volunteers to get out on the land, get our hands dirty and support some of the labor portion of this project,” Landis said.
The project, called Potatoes to the People, began this year in a sort of test phase.
First, it started with donations.
Perry offered extra land on his apple orchards in Mancos and near Turtle Lake, northwest of Durango, for planting crops. Buffalo donated seed money to kick-start the project, which was spent on various things, including equipment. And Landis brought volunteers through the Good Food Collective.
Max Kirks with High Pines Produce joined as the farmer who’d lead the production of the crop.
Kirks said the project’s organizers were constantly crunching the numbers to make sure the end product would result in a price per pound that would reflect the work he put into cultivation but also come in lower than the wholesale price so it could be donated to local food banks.
Potatoes were selected as the crop for the project’s first year because of the relative ease of growing them compared with other crops, Kirks said. The hope, he said, is to come up with a model that works, then expand to five to 10 standard crops, such carrots, lettuce and onions.
In Colorado, one in six people is food insecure, meaning they don’t know where their next meal is coming from, Landis said. In La Plata County, one in eight people is food insecure, including one in four children.
Liane Jollon, director of San Juan Basin Public Health, said the lack of access to healthful foods is a serious health issue. Less expensive foods tend to be less nutritious and can lead to obesity, and all the health risks that come with it.
“We support anything that increases access,” she said.
Many young farmers, Perry said, get into growing food because they want to provide these populations with quality produce. But many times, the sheer cost of production forces farmers to sell their foods only in high-end markets, such as expensive restaurants or farmers markets.
“If you could go to the food bank, and there’s the highest quality local produce available, that could be really inspiring,” he said. “You’re on the same level as everyone else in the community because you have access to that same tier of food, and I think the social component to that is underappreciated.”
One of the biggest obstacles for young farmers, Kirks said, is access to land, which comes at a high price in Southwest Colorado. This project hopes to open the dialogue between farmers and landowners who potentially want to use a parcel to grow food that will ultimately be donated to local food banks.
Kirks said a new state grant, called the Food Pantry Assistance Grant, directs about $500,000 in funding for food banks and pantries, 90% of which has to be spent on Colorado Proud products.
“Programs like that are helping launch the next wave of getting food to where farmers feel it needs to go,” he said. “Because we don’t want locally grown food to be an elitist thing, we grow food so it can go to the people who need it.”