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We need to define 'local' 

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I write on behalf of seven farm families and our distribution partner, Ranch Foods Direct. We've been working together for 11 years to supply restaurants, stores, farmers markets and other accounts in Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs. We are mostly small-scale diversified farms along the Arkansas River and Fountain Creek in Pueblo, Fremont and El Paso counties, and our association is called the Arkansas Valley Organic Growers (AVOG).

We want to explain our view of the "local food system" and to describe current business practices that are eroding our ability to sustain and thrive. We are compelled to action because the interest and energy around "local foods" has created confusion among consumers and opportunism among third-party distributors.

Colorado Springs' support for local food has developed slowly. A committed core group of consumers demands local products at natural food stores, farmers markets, CSAs (community-supported agriculture programs) and restaurants, making it possible for Arkansas Valley truck farms to supply produce, meats and other products.

Because of our short growing season, we earn most of our income in summer and fall. We are not a full-line service company and do not substitute for food service distributors. Our customers make room for local farm food when it comes in. This summer we saw major pressure on prices, and reduction of business, due to larger, regional commercial farm interests and questionable business practices.

One major national distributor recently initiated a "buy local" campaign. This distributor is sourcing produce from large northern Colorado farms, advertising it as "local" and accepting losses and minimal margins to secure market share in the Springs. Thus, restaurants claim "local food" on their menus. The direct result for us is the inability to compete and a loss of sales.

There is no widely accepted definition of "local." We think, in the arid West, the best way to define local is by watershed or water district, for, after all, there is no food without water where we live. In El Paso County, that means the Arkansas Valley and its Fountain Creek tributary. The Colorado, Rio Grande and Platte rivers are "regional" in our book. We're glad to see Colorado products sold in lieu of those from California, China and Chile, but we're outraged by distributors' tactics that reduce our market share during peak season.

A second major impact on family farms this year was multiple new farmers markets. There simply are not enough farmers to supply the number of farmers markets in the Springs. Yet, many neighborhoods and urban projects want to establish new markets. So a relatively small number of farms get divided among multiple markets, few of which have critical mass, of customers or vendors, to be viable. Excess produce can take up some of the slack on the vendor side, but they, too, are starting their own independent markets! We plan to continue devoting our energy to the Wednesday and Saturday Colorado Farm and Art Markets at America the Beautiful Park and the Margarita at PineCreek, and we ask others contemplating Saturday or Wednesday markets to coordinate with us.

If you care about local food, farms and ranches, we respectfully ask that you vote with your fork. Ask direct questions about local food when you go out to eat. Encourage local businesses to respond to your desires.

We ask national distributors to respect our seasonal local food economy, discontinue harmful business practices, and make allowances for your customers to buy fresh produce when in season.

We propose hosting a Local Food & Farm Forum this winter to think strategically about the future of local food here. Afterward, we would like to lead a process to develop a local strategic plan.

We hope to sustain a public conversation that shapes and preserves the future of this vital aspect of our local economy.

Big thanks to the stores, restaurants and schools that walk their talk. We hope more customers will sort out for themselves what local really is.

Dan Hobbs, of Hobbs Family Farm in Avondale, writes on behalf of Mike Callicrate, Ranch Foods Direct; Jay Frost, Frost Farm, Fountain; Susan Gordon and Patrick Hamilton, Colorado Springs; Beki Javernick, Javernick Family Farms, Cañon City; Ryan and Betsy Morris, Country Roots Farm, Pueblo; Marcy Nameth, Greenhorn Acres, Fowler; Doug and Kim Wiley, Larga Vista Ranch, Boone.

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