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Community Food Stations: Transforming the legacy of extractive energy and revitalizing the rural food system of Colorado's Western Slope

Balancing the needs of farmers, consumers, and the environment to increase community resilience and health.

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Lead Applicant Organization Name

Farm Runners

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small company (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Valley Organic Growers Association, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, ENGAGE Delta County, Slow Food Western Slope, Slow Money Two Forks Club

Website of Legally Registered Entity

www.farmrunners.com

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Hotchkiss, Colorado

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

The Western Slope of Colorado, a geographical and cultural designation, is the area of Colorado that lies west of the Continental Divide.

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

The Western Slope of Colorado is home to our business, Farm Runners, and the community we serve. Farm Runners was founded in 2015 with the aim of bridging the gap between small scale food producers in the valleys of the Western Slope with customers in the less agriculturally productive communities of the region. Since then, we have expanded our network to include many more farming communities, a local market and cafe, and a community supported agriculture program.  

Not only is this place home to our families and our business, it is also within our realm of influence. We are located centrally in Hotchkiss, CO and within about a 5 hour driving distance of all “borders” of our chosen place. As an existing hub for locally grown and distributed food, we have the capacity to understand, network and collaborate with all of the communities within the Western Slope. We have already cemented relationships with more than 80 farms and over 300 restaurants and institutions in 20 communities within this region. We are actively involved in advocacy and development organizations that represent various stakeholders within the area, including Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, Valley Organic Growers Association, Valley Food Partnership, Western Slope Conservation Center, Colorado State University cooperative extension, Slow Food Western Slope, Slow Money Two Forks Club, ENGAGE Delta County, Region 10 Colorado, and the Western Colorado Alliance.

As young entrepreneurs, we have a vested interest in the economic vitality, environmental sustainability, cultural preservation, and revitalization of health in this region.  

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Convergence of Human Culture and Landscape

The Western Slope of Colorado is defined as the roughly one-third of Colorado that lies west of the Continental Divide. It includes the beginning of the Colorado River Basin and its transition zones from the peaks of Rocky Mountains to the Colorado Plateau- with an elevation change of about 3000 meters. It is a strikingly rural landscape, comprising more than 30 percent of the state’s land, but only 10 percent of the population.


The unique landscape of the Western Slope provides for a rich and diverse source of economic vitality and cultural identity. As Western State University history professor, Duane Vandenbusche, writes, “Perhaps nowhere else in the state is the convergence of human culture and landscape more apparent than on [the] Western Slope.” Indeed, our culture and economy are marked by a predominant dependence on the land for our livelihoods - whether it be agriculture, tourism, or energy development.


Agricultural Heritage

The intricacies of geography and solar abundance (we get over 300 days of sunshine a year) form many unique micro-climates. These micro-climates have shaped the development of agriculture on the Western Slope since the Ancestral Puebloans started growing beans and maize as long ago as 350 BC.  Over millennia, increasingly complex irrigation systems have transformed the arid valleys and mesas into productive agriculture centers. Without irrigation, agriculture would be impossible here. 


In the center of the region, hot days and cold nights lend themselves to specialty crops such as tree fruit, sweet corn, and a budding wine industry -temperature swings increase sugar development in all these crops, helping create the flavors that put “Palisade Peaches” and “Olathe Sweet Corn” on the national map.  The dry climate and low pest and disease pressure has made the area particularly suited for organic production methods.


At higher elevations, the agricultural economy is dominated by cattle ranching. Public lands are used to graze livestock, while fodder is cultivated in lower elevations. Fodder takes vast amounts of valuable production land and (along with the boom of newly legalized hemp production) there is increasing land access competition for farmers considering growing human food. These production types generate a starkly opposing cultural mixing pot.


More that Unites than Divides

The vastness of land and opportunity on the Western Slope is a source of division, separating its people into ideological camps about how best to use (and conserve) its resources; however, there is much more that unites than divides. Though socioeconomic status and lifestyles vary greatly within the region, this place is defined by its shared values: (1) the preservation of rural and natural environments (2) a small town feel and sense of community (3) freedom to live the way we choose (4) a steady economy with work opportunities and ability to grow (5) the honoring of tradition and heritage while looking towards the future.


What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

89046

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

563138

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Challenge 1: Harmonize the needs of farmers & consumers to increase the consumption of locally produced foods

In order to strengthen the economy and increase measures of health across the population, the consumption (and consequently, production) of locally produced foods must rise. Currently, local foods are neither accessible nor affordable. Geographically remote areas in the Western Slope are increasingly dependent on discount retailers convenience stores selling packaged and “cheap” foods imported from outside of the region. We must thwart systems that keep fresh food “too expensive” for most rural consumers. 


Simultaneously, we must balance the need for family farms to make a living wage on their land.  Agriculturally productive land is becoming more scarce and less affordable - a problem made worse by the fact that the population of the Western Slope is slated to increase by 67% by 2050. Technology that increases the efficiency of production on less land must be coupled with policy that discourages farmers from developing their land for non-agricultural purposes.


Geographic isolation inhibits access to the lucrative markets of more populous urban centers. Farmers must be able to make money selling their goods locally. While this can seem at odds with “affordable” food, it will be made possible by taking advantage of economies of scale and developing a culture that values fresh, locally-grown food. 


Challenge 2: Stabilize food production in a volatile climate.

Climate change has made the extremes of weather in Western Colorado more unpredictable and drastic. We anticipate this volatility to show in more intense drought cycles and more extreme winters. Water conservation is of utmost importance. We need technology and policy that promotes the efficient use of limited water resources and prioritizes agricultural water use over urban development. Other advances will also be required to moderate the impact of a volatile climate: greenhouse technology that will make year-round growing affordable and widespread; and the breeding of seed varieties for drought-tolerance and other regional challenges. 


Challenge 3: Protecting our land and water from extractive energy development

Energy extraction (in the forms of coal mining and oil and gas drilling) is a main economic driver on the Western Slope, as well as a major risk to the land, air, and water our food supply depends on. We must overcome the legacy of extractive industries and bolster an economy based on regenerative agriculture and renewable energy. National and state policy that favors renewable energy development is only part of the solution. To date, we have not adequately addressed the real economic burden the loss of these industries places on the population. We must replace extractive energy with industries that offer jobs and economic vitality to the region. 

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Our Vision is a local food system based on a network of independently run Community Food Stations (CFS) that will provide:

-Accessible and affordable healthy food 

-Lucrative markets for farmers

-Environmentally sustainable storage and distribution of food

-Community resilience and empowerment


Origin: From Gas Station to Local Food Hub

This vision started when Farm Runners moved its operation into an abandoned gas station. At the time, the business only operated as a wholesaler - buying food from local farmers and trucking it to population hubs in the region. Today, it has expanded to include a retail grocery and local foods cafe.  Our 2050 Vision takes this concept and expands its scope to a spoke-and-hub network of Community Food Stations across the Western Slope. 


Collaborative Economies 

The CFS model increases demand for local food and ensures that farming is a financially viable enterprise. It does so by providing multiple markets for farmers through collaborative marketing. Distribution to wholesale establishments across the region is key; the significant volume of these outlets provides a sustaining baseline for the operation as a whole.


Shortening the supply chain and reducing transportation costs significantly increases a farmers share of each food sale (up from the average 14.6 cents to about 60 cents of every food dollar) and helps retain the community's food dollars within the region, creating a significant multiplier effect as those dollars continue to circulate in the local economy.


Healthy & Affordable “Convenience” Foods

The CFS model repurposes extractive energy infrastructure for food system transformation. By locating CFS within defunct gas stations, we harness cultural disposition towards “convenience” while supporting diets that are based on fresh, nutritious and regionally produced food.


Using existing infrastructure and shared resources, a CFS provides healthy food at a lower cost. Utilizing modern technology, a CFS is able to coordinate with growers to plan for production and just-in-time harvesting: food is as fresh as possible (increasing its nutritive value, and therefore, consumers health) and post-harvest waste is eliminated (allowing growers to pass on cost savings to consumers).


Solar Powered & Refueled

In a system fueled by extractive energy, the energy needs of fresh food transportation, storage, and marketing represent both an environmental toll and cost factor of fresh food. In our system, CFS are also hubs for energy generation. Each roof will house the latest solar technology, supplying the energy needs of the operation as well as EV recharging stations for delivery vehicles and shoppers alike. 


Community Third Spaces: Creating Resilience & Empowerment

We believe in the power of community interactions to both preserve cultural heritage and foster community-led progress. Each CFS becomes a gathering space for information sharing, civic engagement, and political involvement.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

In 2050 the Western Slope of Colorado food system is equitable, regenerative, and resilient. It balances the needs of farmers, consumers, and other industries within its bounds. The web of community is founded on the connection between producer and consumer facilitated through Community Food Stations.


The agricultural landscape is made up of a multitude of independent family farmers, growing a diversified assortment of vegetables, fruit, grains, and proteins. Agricultural production is valued for its ability to drive economic growth, nourish the population, and preserve the culture of the Western Slope. Farmers are able to afford land and keep it in agricultural production throughout generations. Technological advancements make it easier for farmers to form connections with customers, reduce waste, and “weather the storm” of a changing climate.


Local food is the primary source of calories and nutrition for the population. People recognize the value of investing in fresh food. They take pride in the way their food was grown and who it came from because they can see the impacts with their own eyes.


The abundant natural resources of the Western Slope are protected from extractive and exploitive industries. The people that come to visit the region contribute to the local food system by purchasing from establishments that use local food. Their appreciation for the landscape will be intrinsically tied to an appreciation for the food it produces.


When our food system engages with food systems beyond its borders (and it must, because we all still need chocolate and coffee), it does so through networks that also value equitable pay to farmers and the overall health of the world.


In 2050, locals and visitors will walk through a single doorway at a convenience store turned Community Food Station, connecting them to our region’s local environment, diet, culture, technology, policy, and economy.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Local Food First

“There should be a [system] to promote local self-sufficiency in food. The cheapest, freshest food is that which is produced closest to home and is not delayed for processing. This should work toward the most direct dealing between farmers and merchants and farmers and consumers” - Wendell Berry The Unsettling of America


Our Vision is based on the premise that food grown in on the Western Slope can and should be purchased and consumed primarily within the region. We see a future in which the food system is supportive of this premise, and Community Food Stations as the mechanism to facilitate this change on the Western Slope. 


Catalyzing Food System Change Around Shared Values 

We will only be able to catalyze the birth of a new food system by engaging multiple stakeholders around the same values. The Community Food Station system addresses the themes of environment, policy, diets, technology, culture, and economics by leveraging the shared values of the Western Slope:


1) Preservation of rural and natural environments:

We must start with the environment, for it is what shapes our culture and diet, informs our policy, and enables our economy. In 2050, the vitality of the region will be based on the synergy of agrarian livelihoods with outdoor recreation and tourism --all dependent on the protection of public lands and open spaces and the conservation of clean air and water. 


When local food is at the center of the plate, eaters are connected to the ecological impacts of their food system. If the effects of soil degradation, water pollution, pest resistance, and loss of biodiversity are made visible in our own communities, we can no longer treat them as hidden externalities of a food system we have no control over. 


When consumers are linked to their farmers, they become intimately aware of the connection between environment and food supply. Moreover, we will see more clearly the connections between the health of our farmers, the health of our land, and our own bodily health. Farmers interests and consumer interests become one in the same when each is dependent on the other for their wellbeing. Regenerative agriculture, then, becomes an economic and cultural imperative -driven by the demand of consumers for food that contributes to the health of their environment and bodies. 


2) A small town feel and sense of community:

There is no need to belabor the fact that current food and agriculture policy damages community health and vitality: propping up corporate consolidation of profit and resources, pitting farmer against consumer, and supporting unhealthy diets. We envision a local food system that is able to circumnavigate these harmful policies as well as mobilize the community around resilience and self-sufficiency.


Community Food Stations reconnect customers to their neighbors as well as their food. By acting as “Third Places,” they provide locations where communities can interact and learn from each other. We envision these spaces as host sites for education, information exchange, and civic engagement. They are places that embody the belief that we have more that unites us than divides us. From a place of unity, the community can leverage their connections and shared resources to enact political and cultural change. 


3) Freedom to live the way we choose:

The Western Slope is a place where the “Wild West” is still alive and well - in the landscape as well in our shared cultural identity. Across the political spectrum, people of the Western Slope are an independent lot. However, the current industrial food system, governed by political economics on a global scale, has marginalized the rural community. We have lost our sovereignty when it comes to food. Farmers are dependent on the whims of global commodity markets and consumers are beholden to the corporate entities that control food production and distribution.


Community Food Stations empower consumers and farmers to be active participants in their food system. One way they do so is by shortening the supply chain and increasing transparency in sourcing. With the help of technology, each consumer will be able to know where their food is coming from and how it was grown. We believe customers, when given the choice and information, will choose to support a farming system that is sustainable and regenerative.


4) A Steady Economy with Work Opportunities and Ability to Grow

Extractive energy development has been one of the few bright lights of the Western Slope economy, providing good paying jobs (along with healthcare and retirement benefits) in an otherwise declining economy. However, dependence on energy sector jobs has made the stability of the region very fragile. Rural communities on the Western Slope have been suffering from economic stagnation and urban flight for the last number of years- the partial result of a dying coal industry and new regulations governing oil and gas development.  As the spending power of rural families has decreased, so has their ability to purchase healthy, fresh foods. This has only served to increase the profits of corporate retailers hawking cheap industrial food and destabilize the bodily and economic health of the region even further. 


The Community Food Station model reverses these trends and provides a culturally-appropriate path towards prosperity. By growing a network of independently owned food businesses, we stabilize the economy and offer opportunities for sustainable growth. To serve the needs of Community Food Stations and the farmers that supply them, a host of other trades will be revitalized as well: input suppliers, water engineers, drivers, electric vehicle mechanics, plant breeders, renewable energy technicians, just to name a few. 


The CFS model harnesses the small business multiplier effect by empowering locally owned businesses at all levels of the food system: employing more people per unit of sale, retaining more employees during times of economic downturn, and recirculating a greater share of profits back into the local economy. 


5) Honoring of Tradition and Heritage While Looking Towards the Future

“As Coloradans continue to grapple with the unpredictable economic and ecological effects of a changing climate, the rugged heartiness of the Western Slope’s residents will certainly be tested. Yet, the region’s traditions of innovation and determination will serve it well, and its residents will continue to take pride in the good things they have managed to wrest from the land.” -Duane Vandenbusche, professor of History, Western State University


Diversifying Crops and Diets in Colorado’s Beef Country

To nourish the Western Slope primarily with local foods, a diversification of the agricultural landscape must take place. Economic and environmental imperatives have created a farming culture dominated by cattle ranching and hay production. We must honor this tradition and value the production of livestock as part of a diversified farming economy. At the same time, we must address the fact that our diets are marked by the overconsumption of red meat and the underconsumption of plants. In a system that divorces the production of livestock from the production of vegetable crops, this is detrimental to our cropland and our health.


We must reintegrate livestock management into diversified farming systems, thereby leveraging the carbon sequestration of perennial pasture and taking advantages of organic fertility and high quality protein provided by livestock. Additionally, we must provide economic opportunities for those farmers seeking alternatives to livestock management and fodder cultivation. Community Food Stations provide a market for a diversity of vegetable, fruit, and grain products. More importantly, they offer an opportunity for education and cultural change by making plant-based calories more available. 


Using Existing Infrastructure to Grow New Industry

Before the days of refrigerated shipping and corporate concentration of food production and distribution, the Western Slope was home to numerous canneries, grain mills, meat processors, and independent food companies. These associated industries preserved bumper crops, offered additional revenue streams for farmers, and made it possible to eat local food in every season. Today, these elements of the food system are strikingly absent. Placing local food back at the center of our diets will necessitate a revitalization of local post-harvest industries. 


Utilizing existing infrastructure as a foundation for a new food system will create a symbolic bridge between the past and the future. Turning convenience stores into Community Food Stations is just the start. Warehouse and manufacturing infrastructure currently utilized for extractive energy development will be repurposed as processing and preserving facilities. Unlike corporate industrial food processors, the decentralized facilities will concentrate on producing minimally processed products (i.e. whole grain flours, pre-chopped vegetables, IQF fruits) which facilitate the convenient use of local food on a large scale.


A New Energy Economy 

The CFS model is dependent on the proliferation of solar technology across the food supply chain. A poetic transition from extractive energy development to solar innovation harnesses the human assets and abundant natural resources to fuel an regenerative economy.


Thinking Global, We Act Local

The scalability of this system can be taken all the way to the global community but it must start one by one on a smaller scale. In the words of Wendell Berry, “No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity.” 

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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Exciting to hear your progress on the other side of the Rockies. Let's connect! Dr. Kelly. Kellyphgs@gmail.com