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Challenges of a Colorado Local Food Initiative

Even in a county that’s largely supportive of local farmers, getting a quarter of your produce locally can be difficult.

By Brendon Bosworth

Mark Guttridge peeled back the white fabric draped across the floor of his hoop house, a greenhouse roughly 100 feet long, 30 feet wide and 12 feet high, with plastic pulled tight across its metal frame. He unveiled three neat rows of leafy vegetables ­– dark green spinach, bright lettuce and bok choy obviously thriving in the tunnel-like warm environment.

“We just planted these in the last week of January,” Guttridge said.

It was a cool afternoon in early April, with clouds hovering over Guttridge’s 30-acre Ollin Farms. The farm faces a suburban development and is flanked by Highway 119, which connects Longmont with Boulder.

Guttridge is a regular at the Boulder County Farmers’ Markets, where he and his wife Kena sell their produce on Wednesdays and Saturdays in the warmer months. He also sells directly from a stand at his farm and supplies 120 families signed up for his community supported agriculture program with boxes of vegetables each week.

Guttridge’s operation is an example of a localized food chain. His vegetables are grown, sold and bought within Boulder County’s borders.

Besides locally grown produce being fresher than imported food and healthier than industrially processed foods, there is also a social value attached to buying and selling local food, Guttridge explained.

“There are obvious health benefits, there are obvious flavor benefits, but the subtle thing that drives it all, to me, is this idea of community and being able to share things with your neighbors,” he said.

Building up Boulder County’s local food system – increasing the capacity for food to be grown, processed, distributed and sold within the county – is a goal of Boulder-based nonprofit organization Transition Colorado. The organization’s outlook is informed by the global Transition movement, a grassroots effort tied to the Transition Network in the United Kingdom and focused on strengthening communities dealing with what Michael Brownlee, cofounder of Transition Colorado, refers to as a “convergence of global crises.”

With his silvery hair pulled into a neat ponytail, 64-year-old Brownlee has a contemplative mien that melds with an unmasked pessimism about these impending crises: peak oil (the point at which global oil production hits its apex and begins to decline, resulting in rising fuel prices), global warming and economic instability.

Re-localizing the food economy dovetails with localizing manufacturing and energy production and is key to curbing consumption of resources, he said during an interview around a small conference table at the organization’s headquarters, a three-level house in Boulder.

“We’re not saying we want everything to be produced within a 100-mile radius,” he said. “We’re saying we want to shrink the local food shed, our food shed, to be as local as possible.”

Transition Colorado has a goal of steering the county toward 25 percent food localization by 2020. To outline the economic benefits of achieving this goal and map out the strategies for reaching it, Brownlee has enlisted economist and author Michael Shuman to compile a report on the county’s food economy.

Shuman, who holds a bachelor’s in economics and international relations as well as a law degree from Stanford University, has written similar reports for the state of New Mexico and a cluster of 16 counties surrounding Cleveland in Northeast Ohio. He is the director of research at Cutting Edge Capital, a B-corporation that helps small and mid-size businesses raise capital. He is also director of research and development for the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, a Washington-state-based organization that supports and connects networks of locally owned, independent businesses across the country. The alliance incorporates about 22,000 businesses in the United States, Shuman said over the phone.

Twenty-five percent localization means that the gap between the current level of food production and complete self-reliance – the point where the county is producing enough to meet local demand ­– is closed a quarter of the way, with no drop in exports, Shuman explained.

While localization involves shrinking the distance food travels from its origin to consumers’ plates, it also involves increasing local ownership of enterprises in the local food system, he said.

“One of the things that I try to emphasize in these studies is that there’s a temptation to focus on fresh food and how much of fresh food that is grown gets into consumers’ hands and that’s the end of the study,” said Shuman.

“And in point of fact, that part of the food system is a tiny percent. The vast majority of the food system is restaurants and grocery stores and the distribution points and the transportation system and the purchasing from institutions. When you start to take those things into account, you have a much richer picture of what your strengths and weaknesses are.”

For Boulder County, Shuman will use an economic modeling tool that is used by government agencies and universities to calculate how a move to 25 percent localization could benefit the county.

In the counties he assessed in Northeast Ohio, which have a combined population of 4.1 million, Shuman calculated that a move to 25-percent food localization by 2020 could result in the creation of close to 28,000 new jobs. Theoretically, this means that one in eight of the more than 214,000 unemployed residents could find work, he said.

Shuman’s Ohio study projects that the shift would generate $868 million in additional wages each year and bring in more than $100 million dollars in taxes for the region.

Shuman’s report identifies various challenges to achieving this goal in Ohio. These include acquiring land for new farms, training staff for new food businesses and promoting a culture of local food buying among consumers. The study also highlights the need for a formidable $1 billion in capital for building infrastructure and getting businesses off the ground.

Brownlee is under no illusions as to the challenges facing his organization’s efforts in Boulder County. Besides upping the amount of food grown within the county, other changes include building food-processing facilities, such as canneries and slaughterhouses, and creating a better system for distributing food from local farms, he explained.

A benefactor who prefers to stay anonymous, but lives in Boulder County, has donated $1.5 million to start a fund to support the development of small farms and food processing, distribution and storage businesses in the county that are fundamental to the food system, Brownlee said.

“We’re also looking for ways to expand this fund,” explained Brownlee. “Following the slow money principle, we want to encourage increasing local investment in the local food system.”

Continue reading this article on The New West.

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