JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
The three acres of farmland above the Old Fort Lewis campus near Hesperus are bedded down for the winter, their produce harvested and soils tilled. The land may look barren now, but in only a few months’ time this little plot will become the center of an experiment to foster not only a bounty of produce but also a new batch of local farmers.
The Old Fort Market Garden Incubator Program will provide new farmers access to irrigated land and education in order to help them start their own operations.
“My hope is that it will allow people to experiment with the potential of growing their own food, whether that be on a personal or market level,” said Gabe Eggers, the agricultural director at Twin Buttes Garden who will be a teacher and mentor for incubator farmers. “This program is designed to allow people to get their feet under them as growers.”
Born out of an idea that started in 2009, the program is now accepting applications for its inaugural season, which will begin in January.
The program is much more than simply giving new farmers a piece of irrigated land and wishing them good luck, said Beth LaShell, coordinator of the Old Fort property who manages the incubator program.
Applicants will be required to attend weekly classes where they will create business plans, find and analyze potential markets and learn how to grow food in the region’s fickle climate. Farmers also will have access to on-site training and mentorship throughout the growing season.
Mike Nolan has been a trial incubator on the site for the past two seasons. During that time he helped set up irrigation and tested different crops on the land. He will be an on-site advisor for the new farmers.
Applicants can request an eighth of an acre or a quarter acre. The land is priced to be affordable compared to market rate prices, LaShell said.
Grant money from the now-dissolved La Boca Center for Sustainability provided money for fencing and irrigation infrastructure on the land, and a Colorado Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Grant will fund training, equipment and mentorship for participants.
The program has already received “tremendous interest,” LaShell said. Almost 20 people, including several Fort Lewis College graduates, contacted her about possibly applying, she said. Organizers will probably choose about 10 incubators for the program’s first year, she said.
The program is a good investment in the local food community, said Darrin Parmenter, extension agent with the Colorado State University Extension Office, which is a partner in the program.
Increasing the numbers of growers locally directly affects the region’s food security, Eggers said.
“When we talk about actually feeding people (with local produce), not just supplementing their diet, you’re looking at (needing) hundreds of acres under production,” he said.
Eggers said he hopes news of the program eventually attracts people from outside the area who will end up staying here and producing food.
Many people involved in the world of local food said there is a host of untapped markets in the region.
Jim Dyer, director of Healthy Community Food Systems, said estimates show that La Plata County residents purchase $129 million of food annually but spend only 2 to 3 percent of those dollars on local food.
“That tells us there’s a huge potential there,” Dyer said. “We can do an awful lot more than we’re doing now.”
Eggers agreed that the local market is far from saturated in terms of its ability to absorb local produce. In five years of farming here, he has never been able to meet the demands of his accounts at restaurants and natural foods stores.
Meanwhile, Durango School District 9-R has bought about 15,000 pounds of produce from local farmers since August, said Krista Garand, the district’s director of student nutrition.
Local farmers currently aren’t growing enough produce to satisfy the school district’s demand, Garand said.
Eggers and Nolan also see potential for Mercy Regional Medical Center and Fort Lewis College to become local food consumers.
The hope is that once incubator farmers establish a successful system of production and a viable market they will be able to create their own operation elsewhere.
“(The incubator program) is a stepping stone,” LaShell said.