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Southwest Farm Fresh Co-op lands USDA promotion grant

Money will help expand direct-sales program
Southwest Farm Fresh delivery driver Mark Llamas, member-owner MaryBeth Gentry and general manager Ole Bye pose in front of the refrigerated truck the co-op purchased in 2016. This year the co-op received a large advertising grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Mancos-based Southwest Farm Fresh Cooperative has been awarded a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant that its leaders hope will help it expand and become self-sustaining.

On Monday, general manager Ole Bye announced that the co-op had received a $229,000 Farmers Market Promotion grant. While some of the money will go toward new equipment and rent for a new warehouse, he said most of it will pay for an advertising campaign targeted to new farmers and customers. With the help of the grant, Bye said the co-op hopes to expand its small Community Supported Agriculture program to at least 350 customers within the next three years.

The co-op started in 2014 with 20 farmers in Montezuma and Dolores counties. Since then, it has expanded to La Plata and Delta counties, plus one farm in Aztec, New Mexico, and serves about 64 regular customers per season. Through the CSA program, farmers sell produce, dairy products and meat directly to consumers, who become “shareholders” by paying a portion of each farm’s operating costs in exchange for weekly boxes of food. Right now the program is a “bare-bones operation,” Bye said, supported by a percentage of sales and a few small grants from organizations like the Gates Family Foundation in Denver.

“We’re hoping the grant will increase those numbers quite a bit,” he said.

Farm Fresh has received USDA grants before, but they were focused on infrastructure rather than expansion, he said. The promotion grant is highly competitive, he said, because it doesn’t require any matching funds, and it doesn’t require the recipient to keep a log of hours and money spent on their grant program. The co-op’s application was unsuccessful last year, but Bye said the feedback its managers received from the USDA helped them land it this time around. They were the only organization in Colorado to receive the grant for 2017.

Bye said the CSA program helps small farmers by giving them more control over how their product is distributed. Multiple producers in a co-op can also pool their resources to advertise their business more effectively than they could alone, he said.

“Every dollar you spend benefits member farms, either in cash or in the services we provide,” Bye said.

Eventually he hopes to bring in farmers and shareholders from all over Southwest Colorado, and maybe beyond, he said.

According to the 2017 grant award report from the USDA, Farm Fresh will also use some of the grant money to help member farms comply with the Food Safety Modernization Act. The Farmers Market Promotion Program has been awarding grants to agricultural businesses and nonprofits since 2006.

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