Farm Hub sprouts up locally

New organization aims to cultivate area's small growers

Its path forward is ill-defined now, but the newly-formed Montezuma Valley Farm Hub has a clear mission: to help small-scale agriculture producers get started and overcome barriers to market entry.

The fledgling group is only two months old. It relies on the efforts of a core group of eight volunteers.

Their most visible endeavor so far is High Desert Homesteading, an eight-week course with seminars on soil science, raising poultry and backyard livestock, keeping orchards and bee houses, and raising crops - everything from grains to tomatoes. Experienced growers from the area teach each seminar. They know the tricks of the trade, how to do more with less, what works and what doesn't in this climate.

About 100 people showed up for the introductory class and social on March 6, triple the number organizers expected. Roughly 60 of those have stuck around for the ensuing seminars, which continue until May 1.

Not everyone cares about the distance their carrots or ground beef have traveled. They might balk at the cost of local food or think the health benefits are overblown. But to Melissa Betrone, one of the eight volunteers, the number of people who do care is significant. She believes a groundswell of consumers are craving "connection" with their food.

"When you, as a producer, are growing apples or raising beef or digging up onions, then box them up, load them in a truck and never see them again, you've lost connection to the ones who eat those things," she said. "As a consumer, too, you pick a potato off the shelf. You don't know who watered it, cared for it, harvested it."

The mass shipping of food products across state and international borders, now the norm, is only enabled by a continuous supply of cheap fossil fuels, Betrone said. Petroleum fires up the machinery needed to harvest crops, powers the factories that process and package them, and runs the planes and trucks that deliver them. In the old days, conversely, people ate what could be grown in a garden or by neighbors. The burgeoning local food movement shows many consumers' interest in coming back full circle, and Betrone thinks Montezuma County is primed for it.

"There is a huge knowledge base of producers, and their ancestors, who've been on this landscape for 100 years or more," she said. "Other folks who moved in more recently bring knowledge about marketing and how to make agriculture a business. Working together can potentially create something powerful here - a local food supply."

However, the young people (or not so young) who want to try their hand at agriculture face many obstacles, said Bob Bragg, another volunteer. Fertile land is expensive for those who don't inherit it. So is machinery. Then there's acquiring water rights, imperative in a semi-arid climate.

"If a farm isn't a legacy left to you by your family, you're probably looking at big up-front expenses. And there is lag time between your initial investment and when you can start paying it off," Betrone said.

When Southwest Colorado Community College nixed its agriculture program, Bragg added, it opened an education void. The local Colorado State University Extension office does what it can to disperse information, but the Farm Hub hopes to augment and expand upon that.

"Oftentimes the Extension programs are a one-day shot. We are aiming for something more comprehensive," Bragg said.

The Farm Hub is now pondering a few more ambitious long-term goals. Bragg and Betrone, who both work at KSJD Dry Land Community Radio but have backgrounds in farming, support more infrastructure to help producers get their bounty to local restaurants and grocery stores efficiently. They mentioned a cold storage facility and regional distribution hub as two examples. Since farm machinery is expensive to buy, and often designed for big operations, Bragg floated the idea of a rental service with miniature tractors, plows, harrows and rotary tillers. The Farm Hub could also connect aspiring young farmers with those nearing retirement, who might want to lease out or pass along their land, he said.

At a presentation last Wednesday, a few residents offered suggestions.

Rocky Moss liked the idea of turning grass lawns into gardens, based off a movement that started in Eugene, Ore., although she questioned where the labor to tend the gardens would come from.

"Come on over to my house," she said, laughing. "I just need 20 volunteers."

Doug Sparks, who has a backyard orchard, noted how the cultural expectation of "perfection" limits what foods people are willing to try. They associate organic with worm-ridden apples and misshapen bell peppers.

Still another idea was expanding the use of hoop houses and grow domes to allow for fresh fruits and vegetables year-round, as Gail and Vic Vanik of Four Seasons Greenhouse and Nursery have done.

"We're in a regrouping stage. As an organization of volunteers, we don't have much structure yet. We're going to spend some time kicking around ideas," Betrone said. "The (Homesteading) class was an achievable, measurable goal. Because of it we know there's interest. I have confidence, if we're reasonable with our expectations and don't set ourselves up for failure by biting off more than we can chew, we'll succeed."

Bragg said the blank slate will let the Farm Hub respond to specific topics most in demand. The homesteading course was broad in scope and only scratched the surface.

"If people want to get into the nuts and bolts of goats, pasture management, greenhouses or fencing, we can bring in instructors to cover that," he said, adding that he hopes the Farm Hub becomes a forum where producers can share ideas.

Aside from the health and sentimental benefits of local food, Bragg believes it can be an economic boost. After all, everyone eats. If every consumer in Montezuma and Dolores counties diverted 5 to 10 percent of their weekly food budget to local producers, he said, more money would stay circulating here instead of accruing to large grocery chains and processors based far away.

lukeg@cortezjournal.com