There are umpteen reasons why even mindful Springs shoppers might buy cherries from Chile more often than peppers from Pueblo, and Dan Hobbs would be justified in complaining about most of them.
But Hobbs is a first-generation farmer, meaning he didn’t inherit an uneven playing field—he chose it. And over 16 years in Pueblo, he has maintained a Thomas Edison-esque commitment to finding some way to even things out.
This isn’t the first time he’s felt that maybe, just maybe, he’s found it. But in a long-vacant middle school east of the city, he and his fellow Arkansas Valley Organic Growers (AVOG) have made believers of philanthropic royalty including the Anschutz, El Pomar and Adolf Coors foundations. As importantly, they have convinced the dozens of people buzzing around what’s now called Excelsior Food Hub, from operations manager Andrea Tidwell on down.
“I firmly believe this is how we get our food to the people,” Tidwell says.
At Excelsior, nine member farms basically pool their resources to run as one bigger, faster, stronger operation. “The idea,” Hobbs says, “was to build infrastructure in the rural area, close to the farms, where we could aggregate, distribute, market together—do together what we couldn’t do alone.”
If garage-sized walk-in coolers and chunky crop-washing machinery don’t ignite your imagination, just think fresh food. Excelsior makes it possible to reliably bring the Arkansas Valley’s best crops—peppers, tomatoes, Hobbs Family Farm’s famous garlic—to Springs-area restaurants, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members and Whole Foods markets within two days of harvest. That means better flavors, longer shelf life and greater nutrition.
Consumers have gotten tastes of these benefits at farmers markets. But as Hobbs explains, “Colorado Springs unfortunately is one of these places [that] overbuilt on the farmers markets, so almost none of them are viable. They spread the customers out.”
In other words, it’s difficult for working farmers to drive from market to market to chase a critical mass of sales. Those farmers could respond by selling more of their food to restaurants and institutions. Hobbs personally built a strong relationship with Whole Foods, and for 15 years he drove a minivan of his product to them weekly. (Now AVOG makes the delivery.) “But from a satisfaction standpoint, it wasn’t as exciting as getting food onto local people’s plates,” he says.
Food hubs offer another way, and Hobbs appreciates that their roots reach all the way back to the 1920s and ’30s. Those were the days of agricultural cooperatives in which growers would meet to buy and sell supplies, and brainstorm ways to counter industry consolidation.
“There’s just such a rich history of cooperation in agricultural country,” Hobbs says. “You think of all these independent and individualistic farms, and there is that … but there’s this other layer of the social fabric where we’re just tightly knit together.”
Farmer-owned operations like Excelsior are rare, but Hobbs says he knows of 16 food hubs within Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming. And here’s where the communication and transportation advantages of today can take the model to another level. Excelsior is setting up a four-hub trading network that promises to bring Springs consumers potatoes, quinoa and spinach from Alamosa; poultry products from Western Kansas; and dry beans and corn products from Cortez.
“We’re kind of taking ‘local food’ to ‘regional food,’” Hobbs says, adding that different weather and soil conditions make each region ideal sources for different products.
Excelsior hasn’t yet turned a profit, but it’s getting closer. Tidwell says the group is marketing to restaurants all the time. Later this year, it will debut products such as cubed squash and shredded carrots from its certified cold kitchen; if all goes well, local grocery stores could carry those in 2017. Also, AVOG hopes to sublease some of the 26,000 square feet it’s not currently using in the old School District 70 building.
For now, consumers can buy into its CSA. Through mid-November, members will receive their weekly bounty at one of eight sites throughout Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs, Black Forest and Pueblo. Promises AVOG stalwart and current president Susan Gordon, of Colorado Springs’ own Venetucci Farm: “Your food is going to be a more meaningful experience all around.”
—by Kirk Woundy