The Role of Waves of Grain in the greater Front Range Local Food System

The Role of Waves of Grain in the greater Front Range Local Food System

Why Local Food Matters

I (Ben) grew up on an organic farm in Maine in the 70s. In college I studied the history, literature, and philosophy of ancient Greece. I was fascinated to learn how the City of Athens developed farm subsidies. When the inherent boom and bust cycles of farming, even back then, led growers to abandon their land, the region lost their productive soil, animals, tools, and knowhow. As Athens became dependent on long haul trade routes for basic foodstuffs, those supply chains were increasingly easy to manipulate by merchants and the City faced political coercion from trading partners. The Athenians instituted farm subsidies to keep local production high, as a matter of social and economic security.

A farmer we know in Kansas described what happened when Denver announced lock-downs during the pandemic. Long lines of cars crossed into Kansas and within 24 hours all food was gone from supermarket shelves. Colorado has woefully inadequate processing and storage facilities for food. It appears we have less than 24 hours of food supply on hand in our state. We are utterly dependent on long haul trucking from California, Mexico, Wisconsin, and Texas. Same situation as ancient Athens. It’s time to re-build our local food systems.

When we spend money at a typical grocery store, most of those dollars go out of state, never to return. When we spend our money in a local food system, the great majority of that stays local and is immediately spent again in the same community. The effect of these fast turn dollars is a higher standard of living for everyone in our city and county.

Long haul trade routes, bringing food from Mexico and California and across the Midwest needlessly burn fossil fuels, when much of this food could be grown, processed, and stored in Colorado. Long haul also diminishes food quality, as nutrients begin to leach out of fruits and vegetables as soon as they are harvested. Washing, packing, and shipping foods for long haul further diminishes their vitality and nutritional profile. Meanwhile, being on or near farms and seeing green growing things and animals in our community also improves mental health.

According to a national policy speaker at the Colorado Food Summit last month in Denver, the USDA spent 5 decades focused on consolidation in agriculture, building up mega corporations. That strategy was meant to create stable prices and supply in the US. During the pandemic, the fragility of our nation’s local food systems was laid bare. Unfortunately, those monster corporations that we created are now leaving the US to focus on growth in China and Africa. Let me say it again: It’s time to rebuild our local food systems.

A Quick History of WOG

In 2022, four Boulder County dads launched Waves of Grain as a farm-to-family food coop to help local people buy more from local farms, and help farmers sell more to local fans. We were driving around to half a dozen farms to buy the food we wanted, but found it impractical. We organized multi-family orders and aggregated goods from over 20 farms and food makers. In 2023, we doubled our volume and also started our own grow operations on a 2-acre organic farm at Nyland Cohousing in Lafayette. We experimented with farmers markets and a pop-up farm stand.

By the end of 2023, we had suddenly evolved into a mid-tier food systems link, connecting farms, food makers, and food hubs to retail markets from Denver to Fort Collins. Based on our current agreements and commitments, we will quadruple our volume in 2024.

 

About Ben and Red

The coop is legally an LLC but the Coop’s operating agreement structures our organization as a worker’s cooperative. The current worker owners are Ben Sargent and Red Clifford.

  • Red is a Navy veteran and has worked on a farm in Puerto Rico, Boulder County Farmers Markets, and East Denver Food Hub. In 2023, Red graduated from CU Boulder with a Masters in Sustainable Food Systems and served as Grow Manager for the coop’s Nyland Farm. Red recruited our new team that will operate at Nyland as Friends Farm in 2024.
  • Ben grew up on an organic farm in Maine in the 1970s and just retired from a long tech services career, where he held operational, marketing, market research and global business consulting roles for 30 years. Ben began researching agriculture 7 years ago in anticipation of this career shift.

 

Together, Ben and Red have guided the coop’s growth as it doubled volume in 2023, and built the relationships with customers, market managers, farms, and processors to enable the expected quadrupling of volume in 2024. We expect some of our 2024 fully paid intern-style contractors to gain owner-worker positions in the coop by 2025.

 

Where We’re At

While WOG maintains a loyal following online, our exponential growth comes from in-person sales. WOG has been embraced by two of Denver’s largest farmers markets (South Pearl Street and Highlands Square), plus Broomfield, Louisville, Erie, and Fort Collins (Winter). We expect to run weekly pop-up farm stands in South Boulder, Lafayette, Longmont, Fort Lupton, and Fort Collins.

Market managers tell us they don’t have enough produce and are relieved to have Waves of Grain with ample supply from multiple farms. For Highlands Square and Fort Collins Winter, we have been literally the only booth with local farm produce on many weekends. Farmers also appreciate WOG, because they can get their produce to market without leaving the farm.

Waves of Grain seeks to grow access to local food. Therefore, we must also grow production of local food. If we can’t keep supply and demand in balance, then farmers fail when a surplus causes prices to collapse, or customers give up on healthy food when prices rise out of reach. Figure 1 shows how farms in our network will benefit from Waves of Grain, as we grow our infrastructure and personnel to become a mid-tier player in the Front Range.

To expand beyond DTC (“direct to consumer”), the main thing that farmers need is access to stable markets where they don’t need to be standing in a booth themselves. WOG encourages farmers to sell as much as possible DTC, where they can capture the full value of their efforts. However, when one of our farms calculated the cost of self-marketing via CSA and farm stand, they determined that wholesale is more profitable, due to the cost of sales when self-marketing. They are eager to expand their wholesale business with WOG in 2024. Another WOG farm is changing their model to 100% wholesale – to cut the farm’s marketing and sales efforts to near zero. DTC works up to a point, but for farmers who want to expand further, wholesale allows them to focus on their core activity, which is producing food for our community.

In 2023, Waves of Grain helped farmers by extending their reach to farmers markets and pop-up stands staffed by the coop, so the growers could stay in their fields. These farms are grateful to partner with WOG for market access because WOG offers them a better price than other retail outlets. WOG also promotes each farm and ensures that customers know what farm each vegetable comes from, and when customers ask, they can hear about the farm practices. WOG trains booth staff about our farms and we hire staff with farming backgrounds and food interests. For our paid internship contractor model, we select market staff who want to learn for their own career path development. Some of them will become worker-owners of the coop in time.

Here's how you can help us Gear Up for 2024

Waves of Grain is seeking immediate funds to establish local food access infrastructure. Our urgent need in 2024 is to increase our storage and distribution capacity, which is needed to support our existing food access channels via farmers markets, pop-up farm stands, and online.

  1. Contribute to our 2024 Gear Up campaign
  2. Join as a Member or Renew your Membership
  3. Grow It Forward” our special $100 gift coupons. Each coupon (gift card) entitles you to buy $100 worth of groceries online in the next 12 months. The first time you use each coupon, we’ll tuck an extra item into your box. Note: You must be a member to purchase from the shopping cart in 2024.
  4. Do you have an extra car, truck, van, freezer, fridge, chest cooler, or folding banquet table? We are also looking for these items and more, as contributions. To inquire, please reply to wavesofgrainco-op@pm.me.

 

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