Center in old Excelsior School intended to boost local economy, job-creation and farm-fresh food in Southern Colorado
The move to open the Southern Colorado Food Hub in the old Excelsior School building in Avondale is part of a national local food trend that has been gaining momentum in this region for quite some time.
“The effort to establish a food hub in Pueblo County has been under way for three years now, said Dan Hobbs, a spokesman for NewFarms, the local non-profit organization that provided the capital investment for the facility.
“This project is about supporting the rural and agricultural communities of Southeast Colorado. We hope it will lead to improved income for farm families, creation of jobs and improved availability of farm fresh food from the lower Arkansas River Valley.”
Hobbs said the vision for the center is to provide cooperative managed facilities that will help famers and other local food based businesses become and remain viable.
The food hub in Avondale will be operated by Arkansas Valley Organic Growers, a farmer-owned marketing and distribution cooperative. AVOG recently contracted with Avondale resident Cameron McCoy to be general manager of the cooperative and the new food hub.
Renovations to Excelsior School are to begin very soon, and the food hub is expected to open sometime later this summer.
The new agricultural and culinary center will be dedicated to aggregating and distributing locally produced food. It will provide cold and frozen storage, dry storage, chile roasters, a commercial kitchen, access to packaging materials, custom seed-cleaning services, a farmer seed library, and product distribution for small- and medium-sized farms and food businesses in the region.
According to the National Food Hub Collaboration, a regional food hub is a business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail and institutional demand.
The United States Department of Agriculture also has recognized food hubs as a significant source of economic development in terms of job creation, increased farm income, and positive influence on the creation and success of new businesses.
One study conducted on a 16-county area of Northeast Ohio determined that meeting 25 percent of food needs locally would generate more than 27,000 new jobs in the area, employ one in eight unemployed residents, generate $4.2 billion in revenues and $126 million in state and local taxes.
“Food hubs are set up in a wide variety of ways,” Hobbs said. “We are hoping to figure out the right business model for Southeastern Colorado that may also serve as a model for other communities in the arid West that face similar challenges and opportunities.”
The goal is to save individual farmers from having to make these kinds of capital investments independently, extend the shelf life of their products, provide new opportunities through adding value to their products and collaborate with others to build economies of scale, Hobbs said.
AVOG member farmer Doug Wiley, who, with wife Kim, farms Larga Vista Ranch near Avondale, actually attended Excelsior School and played fullback on the Fighting Cardinals middle-school football team. He says renovating the school to support the local farming movement is a great use for the building.
“It always seemed a terrible waste of a good brick building when they closed it down,” Wiley said, noting the closure of the Pueblo Chemical Depot and decline in farming in Boone and Avondale led to the closure of Excelsior. “But maybe it indicates there is a future in small farming. In terms of what we envision at NewFarms, the food hub may allow new farmers or small farmers to get started in the area, or current farmers to get into another enterprise like fresh produce.”
Wiley says for his operation the food hub will play an important role in helping maintain quality of his fresh produce as well as helping satisfy food safety concerns.
NewFarm’s Hobbs noted that family farming in the lower Arkansas River Valley has been hit hard in recent years by water sales, outmigration, and drought.
“We hope that by opening this food hub we will be able to do our modest part to address some of these challenges,” he said.