Written by Mikkela Blanton

In the throes of the coronavirus pandemic — during which the integrity of food supply chains has been threatened and the implications for their various actors have been dire in some cases — exploring different avenues to elevate (the various definitions of) regenerative agriculture in Colorado has become more urgent than ever before. 

On the evening of June 24, 2020, the Regenerative Agriculture and Local Food Systems Committee of 350CO hosted three food system experts as part of its monthly webinar series to discuss resiliency in the state’s food system, trends and issues with small and beginning farms, and the Colorado Farm & Food Systems response team. You can watch the full webinar here.

Nicole Civita, JD, LLM — who serves as the sustainable food systems specialization lead for the University of Colorado Boulder Masters of the environment program — kicked off the conversation with an overview of three key aspirations for a future food system: a food system that’s regenerative, resilient, and redemptive. 

While regenerative agriculture generally refers to the practice of building soil health in order to maximize carbon sequestration, this wasn’t what Civita focused on; instead, regeneration in a food system means shifting towards how we can feed ourselves and do good, she stressed, explaining that regeneration as a concept refers to the intentions and actions that continually enhance the vitality of a community, place, or system. 

We should also strive for a food system that is resilient. Resilient food systems are diverse, distributed, natural, innovative, social, inclusive, just, and deliberate, she explained, providing examples of where the failure to prioritize these aims has led to food system failures. For example, the hyper-consolidated nature of the meat supply chain has led to disruption during COVID-19. 

Then Civita touched on the third goal for our food systems: redemption. Articulating that redemptive acts are those that are intended to right prior wrongs and compensate for harms or clear debts, she acknowledged that there have been many wrongs committed throughout our food systems by various food system actors, and that now is the time to start focusing on various routes to redemption. Building on the work of Soul Fire Farms, Mile-High Farmers, and FrontLine Farming, various pathways to redemption were outlined, including (but not limited to) ending penal farms and agricultural exceptionalism, creating pathways to legalization for undocumented people laboring in the U.S., and providing capital, tax breaks, and incubation services to workers and community-owned cooperatives, especially those that generate wealth for BIPOC. 

Building off of Civita’s energy, Professor of Agribusiness and Extension Economist with Colorado State University Dawn Thilmany jumped in to provide Colorado-specific context, discussing local markets and some of the trends related to local food and direct markets in our state, as well as some of the challenges and opportunities. Dawn provided detailed figures and statistics related to consumers’ growing interests in local food, the increase in the number of food hubs throughout the country, and the rapid growth of food policy councils in North America. 

The data shows that in a conventional system, a farmer only collects an average of $1.55 for every $10 spent on food; the rest of that money goes to distributors, processors, marketers, and retailers. On the contrary, for every $10 spent on local food in a direct market, the farmer receives closer to $8-$9. Not only does this provide the farmer with more capital that they can use to further their efforts related to regenerative farming, but it also means that money stays within the community — a fact that has broader economic effects. What’s more, we also know that farms are more likely to survive if they participate in direct-sale markets.

However, there’s a tension between developing avenues for farmers to receive a larger portion of the dollar and how farmers can generate enough sales and the volume they need in order to maintain farm viability. 

“We really feel like U.S. policymakers need to understand how different the business models are for these types of farmers and that the policies that were great and supportive for the ag sector of 1950 are no longer appropriate and targeted right to be supportive of the farm business models that have become more innovative and, quite honestly, more consumer-responsive in this day and age,” Thilmany made a point of. 

Thilmany also provided a brief overview of various programs and opportunities, such as bringing farms to schools and elements of a community that make the survival of a food hub more likely. She concluded by saying, “Compared to 20 years ago when I started in this field and I had to dig hard to find any study, I’m just so excited to see the level of intellectual and community-based activity that’s going on to do some really authentic discovery and technical assistance and applied research to inform the policies and market programs that are going on in the space.” 

To wrap up the discussion, Wendy Peters Moschetti, the director of strategic initiatives for LiveWell Colorado (the rebrand of which will be released August 1), presented on the Colorado Food and Farm Systems Response Team’s work. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the group — which is made up of 14 organizations that came together through rapid networking in March 2020 — meets weekly (the calls are open to anyone who is interested) and has facilitated the creation of the COVID-19 Response & Rebuild Fund to support producer supply chain disruptions in local communities. Taking cues from Dawn Thilmany and her colleagues’ work, the group has committed to identifying market producers who may be losing access in an immediate and long-term way as a result of the pandemic, as well as ensuring that all Colorado producers are equitably connected to resources. The team has looked to anecdotal evidence, qualitative and quantitative data, and more to understand who is still experiencing disruption and not receiving assistance. The group focuses on the needs of small and mid-sized growers, direct-market farmers, BIPOC farmers, veteran farmers, beginning farmers and ranchers, and female farmers.

To date, the fund has issued $140,000 to 27 different producers and two intermediaries. The second round of applications just closed — selected grant recipients will receive about $200,000 in funding collectively, with limits on how much funding is available per producer or intermediary. There is approximately $190,000 remaining to allocate. Funding can be used for various types of support, including PPE, costs of migrating to online sales platforms, equipment leases, employee leave, and other additional operating costs. The fund is one example of how local advocates and food system actors are coming together to elevate regenerative and resilient practices in our state. 

To learn more about regenerative agriculture and local food systems in Boulder and Colorado, we invite you to join 350 Colorado’s Regenerative Agriculture and Local Food Hub on Facebook. You can view the full webinar using the link here.

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