Support eating local by expanding definition of local

I wanted to share this article written by my uncle in response to an “Eat Local! Week” in Boulder, Colorado. He told me, “I was rather amazed that the leaders of their local food movement only consider Boulder County as their local environment. Unless they tear out their patios to raise more sweet corn, they might need to raise their sights a little.”

By Chris Frasier
Posted here: 09/01/2011 01:00:00 AM MDT

Frasier Meadows-1My granddad ranched in Boulder County in the 1940s. He grazed Hereford heifers on soggy meadows at the corner of Baseline and Foothills Parkway. There was no divided highway in those days, just four barbed wires dividing his pasture from the neighbors.

In 20 years, his pastures had been swallowed by the city. His meadows were paved, and the heifers moved east, onto the High Plains of eastern Colorado. Anyone looking for a local food supply would do well to follow those heifers, developing relationships with ranchers and farmers on the sparsely populated eastern Plains, as Boulder County’s agricultural land has long been too fragmented to support many people interested in "eating local."

This week I attended a lecture during Boulder’s "Eat Local! Week." The Chautauqua barn was filled with foodies, gardeners and social reformers, all looking to stock their larder from nearby farms. Speakers held out hope that Boulder County could feed them all. The idea of local food excited everyone’s senses — tidy fields yielding a bounty that travels just a few miles, and is touched by fewer hands, on the way to the table. There’s 25,000 acres of open space here, the speaker boasted, a seemingly vast resource. But in the half-century since my granddad turned out cattle beneath the Flatirons, land values have driven agriculture away from Boulder County.

The growth that claimed my granddad’s meadows has been tempered somewhat by some of the state’s strictest growth restrictions. As a result, open space is at a premium, assuring that undeveloped land is either publicly owned, or highly subsidized. The bulk of the county’s prized open space consists of marginal farmland, hills that provide a buffer against encroachment from the east. Most of the fertile valleys have either been subdivided, or parceled into horse properties. Very little food would be produced today in Boulder County if existing farmland were not shielded from high property taxes through conservation easements, or supplemented through recreational development. Boulder just isn’t a farm town.

But at the same time that Boulder’s population exploded, the flat-horizon counties to the east have lost half their population. Not a single county in the eastern third of Colorado has shown any population growth for nearly a century, if you don’t count prisoners imported to exploit the cheap cost of living in depressed Plains towns. Many of our farming counties have lost population every decade since the 1920s.

As people packed to leave, agriculture thrived. Colorado ranks near the top for production of wheat, corn and cattle, and the Plains counties lead every category. The area produces more food each harvest than those counties could consume in an entire generation.

But when Colorado’s bumper crops and mature livestock are ready for harvest, practically every ton is shipped out of state. The vast majority of our state’s livestock and grains are loaded onto trucks and rail cars bound for rural counties in western Nebraska, Kansas and the Texas panhandle. There, cattle are "finished" in large feedlots, and slaughtered nearby. Every fifth truckload of corn is distilled into ethanol fuel. Wheat is milled in the Midwest, or barged down the Missouri for export. Most all of our home-grown produce flows east, out of the state.

Our family ranch in Washington County is typical. Although we graze several thousand head of cattle within two hours’ drive of the Pearl Street Mall, it’s only by accident that any are slaughtered as "grass-fed" beef. That would be the unlucky steer that busts a leg, and is humanely harvested for hamburger. The rest are gathered off of the range each fall to be trucked east, joining the migration to Kansas feedlots. They might return to Boulder in refrigerator trucks to fill the meat cases of Safeway or Whole Foods. There is simply no alternative market available for the number of cattle we raise, other than through standard marketing channels.

Perhaps rather than gleaning the corners of Boulder County for hidden troves of food, those interested in a locally-sourced diet should raise their sights. Develop relationships with growers in the state’s least populated counties, and then create adding value through local processing. It’s one way to change the direction of agriculture, and turn back some of the food that’s flowing out of our state.

Chris Frasier lives in Denver, and ranches in Last Chance.

What is your definition of local?

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