Thanks to early interest shown by chefs and small-scale area farmers, Douglas County, home of the University of Kansas, developed into one of the pioneer locations for the U.S. local food movement, which has been steadily gaining in popularity over the past 15 to 20 years.
Interest in local food is now so entrenched there that a recent consultant’s report concluded that the movement was at risk of stalling as it has become “relatively mature” with “well-established demand across a fairly broad spectrum of markets.”
In Lawrence, you can now buy locally grown foods at the chain groceries and the parking lot farmers’ markets, from the menus of many of the city’s restaurants or through the various Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups. One of them delivers subscription food baskets from farmers during the growing season direct to municipal workers each Thursday afternoon in the basement of City Hall.
Most of the area movement’s farmers, according to the report, are small operators, many with vegetable or berry plots or chicken runs on fewer than 10 acres.
At first glance these growers wouldn’t seem to have much in common with Chris Schmidt, who farms 2,000 acres of wheat and dryland corn and has about 150 beef cows in Rawlins County on the High Plains of northwest Kansas, bordering Nebraska and about 50 miles east of Colorado.
But Schmidt also is a local food movement pioneer. And while the Douglas County market is maturing, the one he and fellow producers in the High Plains Food Coop serve has been growing at the rate of about 40 percent a year, with expectations it could double or triple that in each of the next five years.
Members in four states
“Our first orders were in April and May of 2008. We had $1,100 in sales and about 30 customers in Denver,” says Chris Sramek, the cooperative’s vice president of consumers. “Now it is about $15,000 a month and about 300 customers. We had 12 farms in ’08, and now we have 50 farms participating in the coop.
“We have 700 to 1,000 items, depending on the season, available online for consumers to purchase directly from the farms. Our producers are actually spread across four states, a few in Nebraska, about 50 percent are in (eastern) Colorado, there’s one in the Oklahoma Panhandle and the rest in Kansas.”
Sramek was working as economic development director for Rawlins County when he and Schmidt and a few other area producers began looking at the idea of a local farmers’ cooperative. They hoped it would put more money in the growers’ pockets by promoting direct sales of food to customers instead of simply producing commodity crops of grain or protein destined to pass through an assortment of processors, wholesalers, retailers or other middlemen who each take a cut.
In 2005, some farmers and community development officials from Rawlins County and nearby Burlington, Colo., were among those who attended a workshop in Lindsborg sponsored by the the Ogallala Commons, a nonprofit group dedicated to revitalizing rural communities in the seven states that sit atop the massive Ogallala Aquifer.
The organization has identified 12 "assets" it considers key to sustaining community vitality, or commonwealth, one of which is the infrastructure to produce and market locally grown foods.
“It’s what we call the local foodshed,” says Darryl Birkenfeld, executive director of the Ogallala Commons. He is based in Nazareth, which is about 60 miles south of Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle.
After follow-up meetings, some Rawlins County farmers assembled a steering committee. A grant from the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union paid for a study, and by 2008 the High Plains Food Coop was up and running.
Birkenfeld said it remains one of few collective efforts on the High Plains to promote locally grown, sustainable food, and to his knowledge it’s the only farmers' coop focused on it.
A group called Local Llano promotes the production and marketing of local foods in the Llano Estacado region of west Texas and eastern New Mexico as part of a broader community development effort, but it doesn’t include a coop. There also are some individual farmers and ranchers who have developed ways to distribute their products directly to consumers.
'A strong success'
“I think it's a strong success,” Birkenfeld says of the High Plains Food Coop. “There has been a very dedicated group of volunteers … but it seems to have grown steadily and put down a strong foundation.”
Birkenfeld says farmers drawing from the Ogallala Aquifer produce 30 percent or more of the nation’s food, “but you would be hard-pressed to find food in the grocery stores from our regions."
“If we’re going to have young people coming back to our communities to create careers and have families, then we need to invest in a local food system,” he says. “It fits very close to national trends, people wanting to know where their food is from and know their farmers. If you don’t have food resiliency, it is hard to attract people to live in your community. So a community that has a farmers’ market of whatever size, that’s a plus.”
Sramek says High Plains did a feasibility study last year examining the potential to meet growing demand for local food in Denver and other Colorado Front Range cities.
'The market is there'
“There’s a lot of demand coming now from institutions and restaurants, not just the direct consumer, and looking at how this fits into the bigger picture of a local food economy,” Sramek says. “Straight and simple, the market is there. Can it be developed is probably the biggest question.”
The coop already is talking with a Denver consumers’ coop that wants to bring locally grown food into that city’s poorer neighborhoods, where it can be difficult to find affordable, nutritious food.
Sramek says the biggest barrier to meeting the demand in the Front Range cities may be a lack of farmers willing to try.
“We looked at all that,” he says, “and saw there is potential for the next five to seven years to grow to $1.5 million in sales. But our 50 producers could only supply about 35 percent of that.”
That means the current coop producers must grow more, or more farmers must be found. It also means there will be a need “for a more robust delivery system with more refrigerated trailers, more storage and more pickup points,” Sramek says.
Some members of the coop clearly have an eye on increasing production or have already started.
Sramek says a member in Bird City now has a commercial-scale hydroponic vegetable growing system in place, “working to provide more for an institutional and small grocery-type market.”
Schmidt, president of the coop, is working with some other members to build a mobile poultry processing facility to USDA standards that could be pulled from farm to farm in order to meet the growing demand for locally grown chicken and turkeys.
Currently, the nearest chicken processing plant is about 250 miles away, he says.
In addition to his commodity farming, Schmidt sells beef, chicken and eggs through the coop.
The additional money from the coop sales has been a boon to his family’s farm.
“For one thing, it has made it possible for my nephew to come back to the farm,” says Schmidt, who farms with his brother. “He decided he’d like to come back to the farm if the opportunity was there, and this marketing has definitely made it possible. And at the present time we’re making plans where another family member can also come back to the farm. Hopefully in the next few months that will work out.”
Mike Shields is managing editor of KHI News Service, an editorially independent reporting program of the Kansas Health Institute.