Building A Local Food System In A Rural State

Sep 26, 2014

Brad Holliday's mobile chicken coop.
Credit Melodie Edwards

It's not just in big cities that people are buying up kale and bison jerky. Rural Wyomingites are trolling farmer's markets for purple tomatoes and emu oil, too. The state now has 49 farmer’s markets that have done over two million dollars in revenue just this year. But some farmers and food advocates who want to expand the availability of artisan foods say Wyoming is struggling with some deep challenges. 

In his pumpkin patch, eleven-year-old Michael Shaw pokes around under broad, drooping leaves. He’s not sure of any of the names because he lost his seed map.

“These two look like orange cuties,” he says. “A miniature variety of pumpkin. It’s orange with lighter orange stripes. And this is a specialty melon called Tigger and when it’s ripe, it’s going to be red and orange.” 

This year, Michael is the family gardener. His dad, Chris Shaw, says that’s because he had his hands full just getting all their animals settled onto the 40 acres they recently purchased to start a sustainable farm.  They have chickens, dairy goats, an alpaca and even Berkshire hogs. Shaw says he’s learning quick what sells at farmer’s markets—like their specialty pork. Shaw says it’s not “the other white meat” since good pork—fed, like his, on local grains and Wyoming pasture—is actually red. And it’s this quality that allows him to charge quite a bit more for his meat than you’d pay at Safeway.

“When you’re doing homesteading,” Shaw says, “you always have to look at premium products. You can’t compete on commodities. So you have to look for niche markets.”

In a state of 500,000, though, you might wonder how many niche markets can there be?  Ken Meter is President of Crossroads Resource Center, a national organization that studies food systems around the country. He says starting a farm in a rural place like Wyoming isn’t as crazy as it sounds. 

“The sparse population and the remoteness may be a real advantage because you’re in a town that’s small and you care about your neighbors and you understand the impact of what you do much more vividly than if you’re in a big city.”

Meter says for sustainable farmers to succeed in rural places they need to build on that natural community to create a complete system to gets local foods from farm to plate.

“Put a piece of paper on the wall,” Meter says, “and say, who’s got dairies? Who’s got cattle? Who’s got hogs? And who’s got grocery stores? Who’s got empty warehouse space that’s not being used that we might use in a different way?”

But in Wyoming there are some food options that just aren’t going to be available, no matter how glad the farmer is to grow it or the consumer is to buy it. Take dairies for instance.

“It’s a shame because we used to have a lot of dairies here,” says Powder River Basin Resource Council’s Bill Bensel. “Star Valley used to be a big dairy place. Only in the last 20 years they’re gone except two, I think.”

Bensel’s been working with Sheridan County Commissioners and recently succeeded in changing the zoning codes to make it easier for farmers to put up roadside stands and greenhouses. He’d personally like to see local dairy products in the stores.

“Real cheese with real taste? Wouldn’t that be nice? Put a Wyoming label on it?”

“We have no processing plants in the state of Wyoming,” says Assistant Manager Linda Stratton with the Wyoming Food Safety Task Force. And she says Wyoming cheese isn’t possible without a dairy processing plant. “We only have 12 dairies in the state of Wyoming that are grade-A dairies. But they do have to meet the pasteurized milk ordinance to be able to ship that product out of state. And all of them have to ship product out of state to be processed.”

It’s the same tricky problem with the state’s most famous product: meat.

“We’re a cattle state,” Bensel says. “But we have a heck of a time processing them in Wyoming where we want to get it in our school, we want to get it to our local consumers. But we don’t have a USDA plant in Wyoming.”

Five corporate slaughter houses process 84-percent of all U.S. beef. And without a USDA stamp-of-approval, farmers can only sell their meat raw directly to customers, not to restaurants or groceries. Bensel says that’s seriously limiting small-scale farmers’ ability to increase profits.

Tucked into the folds of the Bighorn Mountains, farmer Brad Holliday is raising poultry and vegetables. Holliday is working to restore his soil by moving his chicken coops around his land to spread manure and “good” grass seeds. He points a calloused finger out at the land and squints.

“This pasture and this pasture here, three years ago when we started were cheat grass prairie dog towns.  We changed it with the chickens in two years. And we’ve actually brought the good grasses back.”

The soil has improved so much, this year he cut four-and-a-half tons of dryland hay. He says for Wyoming farmer’s like him who prioritize healthy food and land the nation’s food system works just isn’t fair.

“We understand there’s probably always going to be restrictions and rules,” Holliday says. “But there needs to be parity between the size of the operation. Because somebody who’s doing a hundred jars of sauerkraut a year can’t do the same thing as someone who’s doing a million.”       

Holliday says he doesn’t want to take over the world with his farm. He just wants to make a good living doing what he loves.

Please see the story State-Inspected Meat Can Be Sold To Businesses-But Only In Wyoming that provides a clarification to this piece concerning state-inspected meat.