Eating Locally in Colorado?

How much is local?
How much is local?

All over the country, foodies are advocating the wonderful benefits of eating locally. Save on transportation costs (both financial and environment). Know where your food came from and who grew it. Fresher is healthier. There’s no shortage of good reasons to base one’s diet on food produced within a hundred mile (approximately) radius. In fact, several noted authors have written books on the topic.

Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, tells the story of her family’s experiment with eating locally for a year. It’s a great book, and I highly recommend it. Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food (another book well worth reading) also touches extensively on the subject.

After reading these two books plus a host of other articles, I was ready and eager to jump on the bandwagon. After all, I keep a flock of laying hens and a substantial vegetable garden—and what could be more local than your own property? But, I don’t grow everything we eat, and not everyone has space or time for a garden. What were my options?

Well, it turns out that living in Colorado has a few drawbacks. Our high altitude, sunny skies, and rocky mountains may be great for vacations, but they spell disaster for farmers. Just last week I woke (after a day in the 70s!) to a layer of ice on my birdbath—in June! My soil test indicates we live on sandy silt (with lumps of clay). It was more along the lines of decomposed granite before I started amending years ago. And all that sunshine means no rain. Our average of 15 inches varies widely from year to year.

Still, there are farmers’ markets in the area, and I decided to see what they had to offer. That should be local, right? Here’s a sampling of what I found one summer morning:

  • Colorado peaches! Yup, trucked from the other side of the mountains, along the Colorado-Utah border. That’s just a little over 300 miles from our house. Not too bad.
  • Texas watermelons. Again, hauled here by an enterprising grower. I guess we’re so desperate for things that don’t grow here, we will pay enough to cover the farmer’s transportation costs. Since I don’t know where in Texas the melons originated, I measured the miles to the middle of that huge state: 677 miles if you take the interstates.
  • “Hatch” chili peppers. Love those roasted jalapeños—and these are from neighboring New Mexico. Distance? 579 miles to Hatch, where most peppers are grown.
  • Tomatoes. I actually thought these might be local until I spied the boxes they’d arrived in, piled behind the fruit and veggie stand. They had “California” stamped all over them. I can get the same thing at the local market for half the price.
  • “Olathe” corn. This one confused me, since there’s an Olathe in Colorado and an Olathe in Kansas. Since I don’t know which one supplied the corn, I checked the distance to both. Olathe, Kansas is 576 miles; Olathe, Colorado a mere 258.
  • “Rocky Ford” cantaloupe. These melons are definitely worth waiting for. Sweet, juice, and impressively local at 111 miles from home. But man does not live on melon alone.

Colorado does grow a few other crops, mostly along the Arkansas River in the southeast part of the state, and in the northeast near Greeley and Ft. Collins. During the summer, “local” lettuce, beans, perhaps some potatoes show up regularly in our supermarket (which tries hard to buy Colorado-grown). This limited selection of local foods is true for most of the inter-mountain west. (I think it interesting that Barbara Kingsolver actually moved her family from Arizona to Virginia in order to undertake their year of eating locally.) Let’s face it—Colorado is famous for skiing, not groceries.

In fact, the only truly local (to Colorado Springs) large scale agriculture is ranching. The short-grass prairies won’t support crops (for the reasons cited earlier), but they used to hold vast herds of bison. To a large degree, cattle fill the same niche. Although frequently bashed as a waste of resources, raising beef is the most environmentally friendly agricultural option for most of our state.

I had pretty much given up on eating locally in Colorado when a friend told me about her “farm subscription.” Much to my surprise, we actually have some “Community Supported Agriculture” (CSA’s) here. Although I’m still growing my own garden, a CSA may be worth looking into. But that’s a topic for another day.

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