Conference Refines Ideas for Sustainable Eating

Each April, farmers, ranchers, retailers, restaurateurs and eaters gathered in Western’s University Center Ballroom, seeking answers to questions concerning economic, environmental and personal sustainability, such as:

Western’s Environment & Sustainability and Business Administration programs jointly sponsored the event, reflecting its focus on not only ideas but also practical economic solutions.

  • What livestock and crops will grow reliably and find reliable markets in the Gunnison Valley?
  • What do consumers want from local markets and eateries?
  • When do they want it?
  • What are they willing to pay?
  • What do producers need in order to provide these things?
  • How do small producers deal with food-safety, labeling and land-use rules designed for large agricultural companies?
  • How can growers and processors profit in a competitive market while maintaining sustainable practices?
  • Is there a food product that could become a signature item for the Gunnison Valley?
    CSU Extension's Eric McPhail addresses Farm-to-Table Conference

The assembled group of nearly 100 students, academics, farmers, ranchers, business people, concerned consumers and government officials didn’t find definitive answers to these questions, many of which were raised at the first conference in 2013. But they shared ideas, experiences and perspectives that should move toward solutions.

Eric McPhail, director of Gunnison’s Colorado State University Extension office, outlined many of the issues surrounding local agriculture, particularly the challenges for small producers in a regulatory system designed primarily for corporate farming. Kathleen Curry shared her experiences as both a rancher and retailer trying to provide local food with her Tomichi Creek Natural Beef and The Local Market on Gunnison’s Main Street. Kalon Wall of Crested Butte’s Sunflower Supper outlined the complications – and rewards – of adapting his restaurant’s ever-changing menu to the seasonal availability of local produce.

Dr. Michael Vieregge, Western professor of Business Administration, said, “I thought we made great progress on the questions raised at our first conference. We had a good cross section of academic and industry insights, addressing some key concerns.”

Vieregge presented to the conference a survey data from local restaurants, showing they purchase only 5 percent of their food from local producers.

“Quantity and timing of supply is the main reason they cite for not buying locally,” he said. “Quality is not a concern.”

Vieregge, originally from Germany, was particularly interested in identifying or creating a signature food for the Gunnison Valley, a product people would enjoy while visiting, perhaps carry home with them or send as gifts to others. He notes regional cheeses and meat products abound in Europe, with many towns and valleys known for their particular flavors. In a ranching community, cured meats might seem an obvious choice. And to that end, he invited a butcher and restaurateur from Austin, Texas, to share their experiences creating special food products.

Ben Runkle of Salt & Time

Ben Runkle was a vegan for 10 years before he moved to Austin and decided he wanted to fully understand his food. Surprisingly, that interest led him to making sausage. He paired with Bryan Butler, an experienced butcher, and their salami, sausage, bacon and other meat products sold well at local farmers markets. In early 2013, they opened Salt & Time butcher shop and salumeria, adding chef Josh Jones to make fine sandwiches, and now, dinner three nights each week. They source their meat from local ranches, pricing classic cuts high so they can sell the whole animal. Much of what isn’t cut for sale or serving goes into sausage, salami and similar products.

Salt & Time has a goal of purchasing all food locally, but Runkle said that’s not always so easy.

“Local is a moving target,” he said, noting that he reaches out hundreds of miles to some producers, even as he seeks closer alternatives to save on transportation and increase freshness. “You’ve got to cut yourself some slack. The fact that it’s not perfect right away doesn’t mean you’re not moving the ball forward.”

Runkle, as had others earlier in the afternoon program, said U.S. Department of Agriculture rules complicate the meat business for small producers. But he also said direct sales of meat, from butcher straight to customer, are more flexible, if still subject to local health department rules.

“You can do anything but slaughter if you’re selling directly to consumers,” he said.

As he spoke, others in the room – many of whom had pointed out the problems of raising cattle, pigs, goats and sheep in a remote valley with no slaughterhouse – took notice. Talk turned to creating or contracting with a mobile slaughterhouse, essentially a refrigerated tractor-trailer rig with butchery inside. Participants began to discuss a dried- or cured-meat product that could be sold directly to the community and visitors – and by direct mail order.

Dr. Jonathan Coop, Western assistant professor of Biology and Environment & Sustainability, says, “The guys from Austin definitely pointed out some alternatives for processing. However, note they are still stuck with USDA-certified slaughter. This is still a big obstacle here. The nearest facilities in Delta and Salida are still far from convenient for producers, retailers and consumers who want local beef.”

Earlier in the day, Coop, who partnered with Vieregge to organize the event, shared a survey measuring consumer interest in locally produced food. It showed shoppers were willing to pay substantially more for local, carefully raised produce and meats. But Curry and others said costs for these can be higher still, and that most shoppers appreciate the convenience of chain stores that allow one-stop shopping.

Coop conceded, “Local consumers aren’t conditioned to pay a fair price for quality local produce.” But he added that is just one area that needs to be addressed for sustainable eating in the Gunnison Valley – and elsewhere. “It’s a question of how do we value food?” And to change that, he said, requires:

  • Economic and regulatory adjustments.
  • Improvements in distribution and timing. Most people, he explained, don’t want 40 pounds of sweet tomatoes in August. They want a few each month, throughout the year.
  • Consumer education, concerning seasonality, the value of better, tastier food and the effects of food choices on their future – and the world’s.

“We’re too dependent now on non-renewable food sources,” Coop said. “Multiply that by climate change, and we have a very serious situation.”

Stan Irby
The evening concluded with the screening of “Across the Fence,” a documentary by Jack Lucido, associate professor of Communication Arts at Western, followed by a question-and-answer session with veteran rancher Dale Irby. His family was one of several profiled in the film. He talked at length about challenges ranchers face, from livestock prices and regulations to misunderstandings and gates left open by recreational users of lands they lease from the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

He noted the proposed listing the Gunnison sage grouse as an endangered species “could ruin us.

“If I were to run over a bird with my tractor …”

Story and photographs by Greg Smith, Western Marketing and Media Relations.

Date: 
Monday, April 21, 2014 - 1:15pm