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Colorado cluster wants to boost local food’s economic heft

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Getting food from a farmers field to a market or a restaurant can be tough. Behind the scenes parts of the supply chain like distribution and processing are often forgotten. (Natalie Maynor/Flickr)
Getting food from a farmers field to a market or a restaurant can be tough. Behind the scenes parts of the supply chain like distribution and processing are often forgotten. (Natalie Maynor/Flickr)
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Luke Runyon is Harvest Public Media’s reporter based at KUNC in northern Colorado.

More cities want to take eating local food from just a hip trend to an economic generator, but as in many grassroots movements, there can be some growing pains along the way. Northern Colorado advocates are trying a new model to spur growth and they’re borrowing ideas from the tech sector.

It’s called a food cluster and it’s based in Fort Collins, Colo.

The cluster model is seen as a way to address those pains by bringing all the regional players together to solve problems affecting each piece of the supply chain that takes a locally-grown carrot from the ground to your plate.

“It’s great to do all that farm to table stuff, but let’s now figure out how to make it impactful,” said Josh Birks, economic health director with the city of Fort Collins.

To help make local food more accessible, Fort Collins is supplying seed money to get the Northern Colorado Food Cluster off the ground. Its success will be judged on much more than just additional markets and restaurants. A successful cluster should add jobs and tax revenue to the local economy, Birks said. The city’s played a role in coalescing other industry clusters around clean energy and water issues.

“We’re taking a concept that has been successful in more traditional industry areas, like technology, or the renewable energy space and we’re trying to apply it to something that’s very different: a food system,” Birks said.

These clusters help business owners share ideas and facilitate planning, Birks said. They’re part policy council, part think tank, part task force and part trade association. Ashley Colpaart, the Northern Colorado Food Cluster’s coordinator, says another part is facilitating dialogue about “the constraints in the food system, but also the opportunities.”

One the biggest challenges in growing a food system is lack of communication, Colpaart said. Farmers who run small operations rarely have the time to network, and bigger companies don’t see the benefit in working with smaller entities. That leads to a food system where only the big companies talk with each other, and vice versa for the small guys, leaving the crucial connections in the middle absent and unformed.

“A lot of the constraints on agriculture is who controls the middle parts of the distribution chain and the processing and manufacturing all of that’s happening by very large companies that are controlling prices and access points,” Colpaart said.

One thing that distinguishes the Northern Colorado Food Cluster from its cluster cousins in technology and water is its membership. Most industry clusters are insular, only open to businesspeople in that sector. The food cluster’s welcoming input from everyone, using the logic that everyone eats and therefore everyone should be heard in a discussion about a changing food system.

That approach can have pros and cons. If you speak with officials at another city with a food cluster, San Francisco for example, the focus is more on industry players.

“I don’t know that the average person really cares about aggregating and moving produce in big trucks,” said Diana Sokolove with San Francisco’s planning department. “It’s kind of an ugly back-end side of the business.”

There’s real passion for local food, Sokolove says, but few people are thinking about the middleman, which is an essential step in helping small farmers profit and shoppers buy affordable food. That’s where cities can come in to identify and fortify clusters, said Becca Jablonski, a postdoctoral fellow in the agricultural and resource economics department at Colorado State University.

“I think having some kind of organization that’s helping to bring together different constituents who are all part of the same food system and helping to think through different opportunities, at any scale, is really important,” Jablonski said.

Nationwide interest in local food has spawned an explosion of farmers markets, farm to table restaurants, stylized farm and food publications, and backyard chicken coops. But in some economist circles, all that growth is just “cute,” niche markets that have yet to bear fruit for everyone, especially marginalized groups. City officials have a vested interest in seeing local food take off to support jobs and feed people, Jablonski said. And if there’s already talent in the local community, there’s no need to lure bigger firms to relocate, just boost the ones you have.

In many cases, the local and regional food movement has gone far beyond being “cute.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture has taken notice. Other local food clusters in cities like Louisville, Kentucky, and Portland, Oregon are also taking shape. But Jablonski says getting the local food movement away from its cute image, could mean a shift in what the word local even means.

“Is it just farms that sell at farmers markets directly to customers that are considered part of the local food system,” Jablonski asks. “Or are we talking about something much more broad? And I would argue that that broader definition is much more useful.”

That broader definition includes the cute parts of the system, and the behind the scenes businesses that aren’t.