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Online farmers market cuts out middleman in La Plata, Montezuma counties

General manager of Southwest Farm Fresh Cooperative is pushing for programs that support food justice
Gary Wallace picks up his order of vegetables from Lydia Lauhon, a volunteer with Southwest Farm Fresh Cooperative, on Thursday in Durango. The SWFF has given local farmers another outlet to sell produce and connect directly with customers. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Can’t be bothered with going to the farmers market in person? That’s OK, because now there’s an online farmers market serving Southwest Colorado.

Residents of Durango, Cortez, Mancos and Dolores can cut out the middleman and order locally produced food directly via Southwest Farm Fresh Cooperative’s online marketplace.

The online farmers market began with the onset of COVID-19 restrictions in 2020. The co-op wanted to tap into the emerging market of online food sales during that time, said SWFF Board President David Banga of Banga’s Farm.

Vegetables being distributed out of the back of a refrigerated truck by Southwest Farm Fresh Cooperative on Thursday. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“It worked really well. People were excited about it and it was really needed,” he said.

The co-op was created in 2014 as a farmer-owned marketing and distribution business that focused solely on wholesale. SWFF has maintained the wholesale aspect of the business and distributes food to restaurants and caterers such as Durangourmet, Ore House, Primi Pasta and others.

In 2016, the co-op launched a Community Supported Agriculture service. The CSA service is a way for farmers to get their products directly to tables through weekly pickups. In most CSA systems, customers don’t get to select specific products; rather, they get whatever farmers have available.

But since the development of the online farmers market in 2020, SWFF customers have been able to select specific products from farms across La Plata and Montezuma counties and pick up orders at their nearest distribution area – no grocery store needed.

There are about 20 farms in the co-op including Durango vegetable grower Mocking Crow Farm that joined this year. The most popular products are lettuce mixes, tomatoes, carrots, cheeses and meats.

Lydia Lauhon, a volunteer with Southwest Farm Fresh Cooperative, fills an order of vegetables on Thursday in Durango. The online farmers market is open from 10 a.m. Sundays and until 8 p.m. Mondays, with pickup from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursdays out of a refrigerated truck. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“Local, sustainable and high-quality. Those are really our values,” Banga said. “Every farm is under 5 acres, which really keeps quality high. The short distance that food is moved helps with sustainability. Small farms just tend to be more environmentally friendly, in general. The farmer usually eats a lot of the food they are growing and they tend to care about the food a little bit more.”

Banga said the cost of the co-op’s products are competitive with normal farmers market prices and that the online/pickup service is more convenient.

“The main reason I find that people don’t come to a market on Saturday morning is because they want to be doing something else, more recreational,” he said.

Because all SWFF members run their farms differently, they set their own products’ prices, and customers know which farms they are buying from.

“In general, with farmers, we have so much challenge with the weather and insects that I find we don’t really mess with competing with each other. It’s hard enough,” Banga said. “We generally just end up helping each other.

“There’s actually another farmer who’s a member of the co-op, who I directly compete with, who is growing on my property,” he said. “We are all pretty friendly.”

Banga said he and other member farms have felt the pressure of inflation, especially regarding supplies and fuel, but that there hasn’t been a huge raise in prices on the marketplace this year.

Despite challenges farmers are facing, Southwest Farm Fresh Cooperative is looking to grow. Joining the co-op is a boon for new farmers because they can immediately begin getting their food into customers’ hands, Banga said.

“We are always looking for new producers and new customers,” he said. “But getting the word out isn’t the easiest because it is online. Farmers markets are like a special event, everyone knows it’s there and it’s very social. So, we’re still working on getting the word out, particularly in Durango. Per capita we sell more to Montezuma County. But I know there’s a big market in Durango.”

Different types of squash being distributed by Southwest Farm Fresh Cooperative on Thursday in west Durango that members of the co-op will pick up. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The SWFF board hired a general manager, Shawn Fagan, in March. Fagan wants to focus more on getting farm fresh food on families’ tables, keeping the wholesale distribution aspect of the business small.

“At our size, you kind of really have to pick, we aren’t large enough to serve all of those people and restaurants,” he said. “It means a little more to me to have a direct impact on the community as opposed to funneling it through a third party. It just feels better to me that way.”

Fagan is also pushing for programs that promote food justice. SWFF shoppers can purchase food donation boxes while placing their online order. The boxes are donated to Good Sam’s Food Pantry in Cortez, which offers emergency food assistance to anyone who needs it. Any leftover SWFF products are also donated to Good Sam’s, Fagan said.

Fagan and SWFF recently began distributing food to 25 families that consist of under-resourced women, infants and children who are eligible for supplemental nutrition benefits and education.

Fagan started programs at SWFF for elderly Utes and elderly Montezuma County residents. He is also working on getting SWFF certified to accept electronic benefit transfers and food stamps.

“We already serve a good portion of the affluent,” he said. “The underserved want good food, too, and need good nutrition, as well. I want to get all of these farmers’ products into that market.”

Lydia Lauhon, a volunteer with Southwest Farm Fresh Cooperative, looks over orders of vegetables on Thursday in Durango that members of the co-op will pick up. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Farmers interested in selling through the co-op can reach out and begin immediately, Banga said. But there’s a one-month trial period for quality-control and reliability before producers can begin receiving member benefits, which include extra marketing.

The Southwest Farm Fresh Cooperative online market opens at 10 a.m. Sundays and closes at 8 p.m. Mondays. Pickup is from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursdays out of a refrigerated truck at locations in Durango, Bayfield, Cortez, Dolores and Mancos.

To shop the market, visit southwestfarmfresh.com.


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