Millions of pounds of produce are ripening in the fields this fall across Montezuma and La Plata counties, and The Good Food Collective wants to make sure the nutritious harvest is delivered to those who need it.
The collective is in its first year, and it is focused on reducing food waste, eliminating fruit that will attract bears, bolstering the local food economy and providing fresh food to residents in need, said Rachel Landis, director of the collective.
The efforts are focused on answering the question: “How do we capture the extra food that is literally falling off the trees and turn it into an amazing resource for our community?” she said.
This fall, the collective wants to harvest as much food as possible from farms and gardens, Landis said. Apples in particular are bountiful this year, and Landis’ crew recently harvested 850 pounds of apples from two fruit trees.
So far, the collective has gathered 9,880 pounds of produce, and about three-quarters of it has gone to nonprofits, including Pine River Shares, Mancos FoodShare and Manna’s Wednesday night markets for those in need, she said.
The collective has five full-time staff members and it is hiring 12 part-time staff members from Fort Lewis College. They also regularly hold community events for volunteers to help glean food as well, Landis said.
Two websites connect growers with harvesters. Fruitglean.org allows anyone to list a tree in need of harvesting, and people can call fruit-tree owners to ask to harvest it, she said.
Durangoans who wish to harvest excess from their garden regularly and donate it can list themselves on freshfoodconnect.org. A staff member picks up excess produce every Wednesday on an electric tricycle and delivers it to the Manna Market, Landis said.
Gleaned food that is not fit for human consumption is either given to local animal producers or composted, she said.
In the long term, the collective wants to set up a processing center for the area’s “ugly” produce – those fruits and vegetables that may not look perfectly formed but are perfectly edible.
A processing center could serve the area’s institutions such as schools or hospitals, provide additional income for area farmers and reduce waste, she said. It could also potentially serve small, new businesses interested in processing local produce into goods, such as apple sauce or jam, Landis said.
The collective is funded by a three-year, $355,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant that pays for the director, community outreach and space in the Durango High School receiving center.
The group expects to continue the efforts once the grant runs out. Some new endeavors may generate revenue, and others may have to be supported by donations, Landis said.
“The big mission here is to strengthen our regional food system,” she said.
In February, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union representatives met with farmers in Mancos who said a lack of skilled labor was preventing them from growing their businesses, said Dan Hobbs, the union’s lead co-op development specialist.
Historically, small to mid-sized farms relied on family labor, but fewer young people are entering agriculture, he said.
“It’s a nationwide problem really in farm country,” he said.
To help address the shortage, the union is piloting three mobile agricultural crews – one in La Plata and Montezuma counties, one in Boulder and Weld counties and one near Taos, New Mexico, he said.
Over the next two years, the crews could become cooperatives owned by the laborers, who would operate year-round doing general farm and ranch services, pruning, planting and weeding. Landscaping work could serve as an important filler to keep cooperatives operating when there isn’t demand from the farming community, Hobbs said.
The cooperatives would cover their own overhead costs, such as insurance and supplies, and farmers would pay for services. As member-owners of the cooperative, laborers would share the profits, he said.
“We very much care about both. We want people to get fair wages. We want farmers to be able to pay reasonable wages,” he said.
The cooperative model for farm labor hasn’t been tried anywhere else, so the pilots will give the union needed information to help refine the idea, he said.
Sam Perry, co-owner of Fenceline Cider in Mancos, said additional labor will help tap into the region’s many historical orchards.
“We’re all united on the idea that there are millions of pounds of food that go to waste in the two counties,” he said.
While it would be cheaper to purchase juice, Perry purchases fruit from the collective’s crew and orchards in the area to help support the local food economy, he said.