The Southwest Farm Fresh Cooperative has a new permanent home in Cortez, allowing it to expand its programming.
The Mancos-based food cooperative is no longer solely operating out of a small trailer, but rather is one of three entities stationed in a former auto shop on Beech Street, with cabbage-green walls and a large walk-in freezer capable of storing boatloads of apples, lettuce and more.
The new space and walk-in cooler are game-changers, said Kendra Brewer, general manager of Farm Fresh.
“Without that capacity, we could not grow our CSA program, for instance,” she said. “There was simply no room.”
Farm Fresh received a $229,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is being used to subsidize rent at the warehouse for two years, she said.
The co-op was founded in 2014 as a way for local small farmers to band together, negotiate and seek marketing outlets. Currently, Farm Fresh includes 10 member farms in the Cortez area, three in Mancos and four in the Durango area, Brewer said.
“When you’re a small farmer, it’s really hard to sell to restaurants; it takes a lot of energy and time. When you’re farming, that’s a whole other job,” Brewer said.
Farm Fresh distributes through wholesale distribution, she said, although all the produce does not get aggregated, allowing restaurants to maintain relationships with specific farms. “And that’s a really great thing,” she said. “Because then the restaurants still have some relationship to the farms; they still know that the product they get from one week to the next is going to have some consistency.”
Another key component of the cooperative is the Community Supported Agriculture program, in which consumers act as “shareholders,” paying upfront for a portion of the farms’ harvest. This aims to create a closer relationship between consumers and farmers, with the shares directly paying for labor and material costs.
Currently, they offer a summer and fall harvest as part of the CSA program, with the summer season lasting from the end of June to mid-October and fall stretching from October through December.
They rotate through a variety of seasonal crops, and although there are eight to 12 set items for shareholders every week, consumers pick their produce up market-style.
Operating “semihomeless” has been stressful, Brewer said, and she looks forward to having more space. As of December, they are now at 20 N. Beech St., a 7,000-square-foot former auto shop, along with the Good Samaritan food pantry and a soon-to-be regional food hub.
“There’s so many kinds of things that could go on in that space, and that’s still being flushed out,” Brewer said. “Ultimately, it’s something that Good Samaritan and Farm Fresh will be a part of and will partner with and be able to utilize as well.”
In addition to the new storage capacities, the cooperative is looking to expand other programs as well. A priority for them right now, Brewer said, is making their produce more affordable, and so they are partnering with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and this year will offer double-up food bucks, a program that allows SNAP participants to double the value of their benefits in exchange for buying local, healthy foods.
“Having a share that more people can afford I think would be of good value,” she said. Shares for the 2018 summer harvest came out to $36 a week.
They will also be adding an “ugly produce” option to their CSA, in which customers can receive more produce in bulk – but the items they receive won’t be in grocery store-perfect form.
“They’re still perfectly edible, nutritious and delicious, and they have all those great qualities, but they might just not look quite right. ... Farmers have a really hard time selling those,” Brewer said.
She also is looking to hold cooking classes in their new space, she said.
“That enjoyment of cooking is really crucial to wanting to get fresh produce,” Brewer said. “And people just enjoy doing that better together, with other people.”