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Nonprofits seek to recruit food producers in Southwest Colorado through educational opportunities

Cost of land and irrigation can result in poverty-level wages for farmers
Food insecurity among the Hispanic population is 15% in La Plata County, compared with 9% countywide, according to data from the Good Food Collective. (Courtesy of The Old Fort at Hesperus)

La Plata County nonprofits are trying to improve food security in the area by boosting agricultural production, in part by luring more people into agricultural sectors by creating more educational opportunities in the field of study.

Those involved have launched a new partnership called EAT FAIR, which stands for equitable access to food, area infrastructure and resource.

The partnership is a combination of the Fort Lewis College’s farmer training program at The Old Fort in Hesperus, Good Food Collective, La Plata Family Centers Coalition, Manna soup kitchen, Durango Food Bank and Durango School District 9-R.

The partnership’s goal is to increase agricultural production to provide more food availability with funding from the La Plata County commissioners’ Social Impact Fund. La Plata County commissioners designated $800,000 to the partnership.

It was part of the $11 million La Plata County received from the American Rescue Plan Act during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Good Food Collective Director Rachel Landis said the pandemic shed light on food insecurity issues in the county. She said about 11% of La Plata County residents experience food insecurity.

According to a needs assessment conducted by Good Food Collective, Hispanic people experience food insecurity at a higher rate on average than La Plata County and Colorado populations. The food insecurity rate among the Hispanic population is 15%, compared to the county and state averages of 9%.

La Plata County Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton said the pandemic put a strain on local food systems. She hopes the partnership among nonprofits will allow for the community to better prepare in the event of another emergency.

“I remember going out and seeing a line at the Durango Food Bank wrapping around that block,” she said.

The group’s intent is to create consistent access to food that would support an individual’s well-being. However, this presents a question of what type of food would actually support an individual’s well-being. While many food assistance services have been around, they often are distributing packaged goods and foods that lack nutritional value.

Landis said the groups in La Plata County have been working to offer nutritional options for food assistance services. But when it comes to federal government services like SNAP and SNAP for Women, Infants, and Children, it seems the services are meant to provide people with any food available.

“They’re like, ‘OK, who can get me the cheapest calories possible so that I can get calories out to people?’” Landis said. “I think what we’re seeing, which is not surprising, is that people will have access to food but it might give them diabetes or some other health problem and now you’re in this vicious cycle of having higher medical costs.”

As a result, money is spent on medical bills rather than having sufficient food.

“We work on getting healthy food to people or food that supports people’s well-being,” she said.

She added that what might be considered healthy could differ based on someone’s cultural background.

Another area EAT FAIR is looking at is economic opportunities for disadvantaged segments of the population and ways to create a higher rate of food production. Landis said demand for food outpaces production in La Plata County.

That is the result of high production costs and the number of people living in the community outnumbering production output.

A concern among members is that the cost of land and irrigation are so high that some farmers make close to poverty wages depending on the year. Landis said agricultural land can cost millions of dollars in La Plata County.

The average salary for those working in agriculture is around $34,000 per year, according to Region 9 Economic Development’s 2022 Livable Wage Report.

Old Fort Farmer Training Coordinator Elicia Whittlesey said the upfront production cost for beginner farmers varies based on size of production and property but regardless it can be enough to put them into an early financial hole.

These costs can include building water infrastructure, tools or building storage sheds.

“Some producers are able to come in with capital support and others, who are aspiring or beginning farmers, may not be able to count on having those kinds of financial resources,” Whittlesey said.

That is why The Old Fort offers an incubator farm program in which beginner farmers can get water, coolers, wash station space and technical assistance. But because current facilities rely on open wall harvest sheds, producers and students cannot store food in the winter.

One of the partnership’s larger projects is building a community processing barn at The Old Fort at Hesperus, which would allow them to store crops year-round.

“There is a list of crops that can be grown for storage, which means that we can sell local potatoes, carrots, beets, onions, winter squash and other items from when we harvest them in September and October, through January, maybe even March or April,” Whittlesey said.

That will also benefit beginning farmers by allowing them to have steady income year-round rather than relying on seasonal income that comes with harvesting crops.

Also, in collaboration with The Old Fort, EAT FAIR is trying to help build business skills for future food producers. That allows beginning farmers and students to learn skills like business planning, financial development and market development strategies.


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