DENVER – Max Fields and James Plate were born to bring delicious homegrown Colorado produce from the farm to the table. After all, it’s in their name.
The owners of Hesperus-based Fields to Plate Produce were featured Wednesday during a luncheon highlighting Colorado Proud, a 15-year-old Department of Agriculture program that promotes Colorado food and agricultural products.
Sitting among state officials and business leaders wearing suits at the plated affair inside the History Colorado building in Denver, Fields and Plate appropriately stood out, with their dirty, callused hands from long days pulling root vegetables.
After a 27-day statewide tour, Colorado Proud selected local ingredients for the farm-to-table luncheon, including beets from Fields to Plate Produce. They produce three varieties of beets, including golden, red and candy cane.
“It has really just opened up doors like crazy, as far as opportunity and networking, just meeting people and getting involved in the agricultural community in the Southwest,” Fields said of the Colorado Proud program.
But what Fields to Plate has truly benefited from is an incubator program partially funded by a specialty crop grant operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Fields to Plate leases land from Fort Lewis College at an inexpensive rate. At 23 years old and just beginning to tackle student debt, Fields and Plate were able to launch a business while still studying agriculture thanks to the grant.
“It’s an opportunity for beginning and young farmers to get into the business, and have resources available for rent, for lease – as opposed to actually going in and buying it all,” said Fields. “So, you can get a feel for what it is like to run a farm business.”
One of the men responsible for the specialty crop grant is Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar, who when he was in Congress pushed for the provision to be included in the Farm Bill. As a sixth-generation San Luis Valley potato farmer and rancher, Salazar knows something about the importance of the agricultural industry.
There are more than 36,000 farms encompassing 31 million acres in Colorado, providing more than 172,000 jobs and contributing more than $40 billion to the state’s economy annually.
Gov. John Hickenlooper, who gave brief remarks but was unable to stay for the luncheon, said the state has a responsibility to educate the public on where food comes from.
“The more people learn and understand where their food comes from, the stronger that makes the network ... ” said Hickenlooper. “We’re just beginning to scratch the surface.”
Food in Colorado has recently been in the spotlight after citizens successfully petitioned to place an initiative on the November ballot that would require labeling of genetically modified foods.
But Salazar has concerns, suggesting that the initiative could raise the price of food on Coloradans who are still recovering from the economic downturn. He said he himself uses seeds that contain GMOs on his farm, which works “perfect.”
Cost also weighs heavily on the minds of Fields and Plate, though they don’t necessarily oppose GMO labeling. Their focus now is simply on expanding their business.
Over the year, they have grown from a half-acre to 1 acre of land on a parcel shared by at least five other farmers. Fields to Plate supplies about 20 restaurants in the Durango area, and it has a wholesale account with Durango School District 9-R and Fort Lewis College.
But the farm can lease for only four years as part of the incubator program, so the two burgeoning farmers already are looking to expand.
“It’s increased our vision for local food production,” Plate said. “We’ve expanded our vision for what we can actually bring to the table and produce locally and feed our local communities. ... It’s just bolstered our overall drive.”