Building a regional food system in Wyoming, a "value-added desert"
Mary Randolph, Kim Porter and Ted Craig are putting the pieces together to build a strong local food system in Wyoming.
They represent the Wyoming Rural Development Council, the Wyoming Business Council's Agribusiness Division, and the Wyoming Department of Agriculture respectively. They're not working alone. With partners like the University of Wyoming's Cooperative Extension Service, Wyoming Farmers Market Association, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, Conservation Districts, schools, non profits and producers around the state, they're a formidable team. Through these partners they've done an unbelievable amount in the last few years using USDA support in strategic ways.
New opportunities for local food marketing...
The group knew that direct sales kept more money in the pockets of Wyoming's producers and began to see considerable consumer demand for locally-produced foods. In 2005, when the group first started its work, there were 10 farmers markets in Wyoming. To help additional markets get started, the Wyoming Business Council began making $500 grants for signs, canopies, and other equipment. "A small amount of money did a lot," says the Business Council's Kim Porter. Today, there are 44 farmers markets across the state.
... creates opportunities to boost local production
Supplying that many markets required production levels that Wyoming was lacking. "We were relying heavily on folks from other states driving to Wyoming to sell in our markets," says Mary Randolph, Executive Director of the Wyoming Rural Development Council. "We needed producers. But we don't have the most optimal climate for fruits and vegetables - we can do root crops, dry beans, hay and grains, but crops like tomatoes, cucumbers and pepper have a hard time growing here."
"So funding from the USDA's Specialty Crop Block Grant Program allowed us to work on extending the growing season for these crops." says Ted Craig, Grants Manager of the Wyoming Department of Agriculture. The group also saw the local food system as a great way to recruit new, young farmers and ranchers in Wyoming. "At our annual Agrifuture conference" - where 75 percent of participants are youth - "the most well attended sessions are talks on local food production and marketing," says Randolph.
... creates opportunities to extend the growing season
The Wyoming Specialty Crop Grant Program, funded through USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, created a small grants program that the group used to subsidize the construction of seasonal high tunnels. Also known as hoop houses, these temporary greenhouses allow farmers to get a crop in the ground earlier and harvest it later. They also conserve soil, water and other resources.
By making small high tunnel grants to producers and nonprofits that rely heavily on volunteer labor to help construct them, the group has been able to build 80 tunnels around the state. "It really raises awareness among producers that you can do this - because they see their neighbors doing it," says Randolph. "We started with 6 season extension grants in 2008, and this spring we are funding the construction of 19 high tunnels. As a requirement of the grant, farmers have to have a farm day, speak at a conference or hold some other educational event - so there is a real knowledge-sharing component." They've also funded nonprofits to promote high tunnel production at schools, research stations and county fairgrounds.
... creates opportunities for year-round sales
With so many Wyoming producers now able to extend their growing season late into the year, the next logical step was the development of winter farmers markets. The group started with a pilot project in Cheyenne, "and it just took off," says Porter. Six winter markets were held, with 22 vendors participating per market and 1,000 customers attending on average. Over the first year, the producers in the market made $85,000 in sales - a great boost to the local economy during the winter months.
... creates opportunities for value-added food businesses
"With the high tunnels, we're seeing more and more produce being grown year round," says Randolph. "But producers were coming to us and saying they had no place to do value added. They were using church basements, or the local bakery in off-hours, but it wasn't working well." So the group secured a Federal-State Marketing Improvement Program (FSMIP) grant from USDA, which was used to explore barriers and opportunities to marketing value added agricultural products.
They realized that county fair buildings around the state were underutilized and could potentially be used as commercial kitchens for producers and other food businesses. "The FSMIP grant allowed us to go around state and analyze the state fair facilities to find ones that were the most cost-effective to upgrade," says Craig. "You add a mixer, a steam kettle, some packaging equipment, a label maker... for $30,000, you can upgrade an existing facility to really make it work for small producers wanting to add value to fruits and vegetables." The first upgraded facility has just opened in Torrington. Goshen County Economic Development Corporation is helping with marketing and business plans, while the fair manager oversees the commercial kitchen.
... creates even more marketing opportunities
With this crop of committed producers, strong consumer demand, and new products, the group then explored the possibility of an online market to connect producers with new customers. They were able to use additional USDA Specialty Crop Grant funds to pilot the online market concept in Southeast Wyoming. Customers order from producers in four counties, expanding those producers' marketing opportunities. The group is seeing strong interest in other parts of the state for their own online market, so they're looking into making the pilot market into a formal cooperative and working with other areas in Wyoming to coordinate their systems.
... creates opportunities, and challenges, in distribution
Wyoming isn't an easy state in which to transport food. "The distribution part of it has been a real challenge," says Porter. "In Goshen County you can grow anything - it's great weather - but how do you get that product to the Big Hollow Food Coop in Laramie, at 7,200 feet?" Getting products over the mountains and around a state with a small, widely distributed population is no easy task. The online cooperative is purchasing a refrigerated trailer to help manage distribution. In cooperation with the University of Wyoming another FSMIP grant was obtained to research barriers to distribution of local food in rural Wyoming. They're investigating cooperative models for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in rural areas, which would allow small producers to pool their products and serve a wide geographic area. "There are a lot of challenges," says Randolph, "but we can't say enough good things about the USDA grants." With this support and with help from their other partners, the group has been able to create economic opportunities that bring revenue, healthy food, and community spirit to Wyoming's local food system.