Appetite for local foods benefit businesses

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Theo Otte doesn’t have to travel far to satisfy the appetites of his customers for fresh fare. The co-owner and chef at 626 on Rood obtains a lot of the ingredients he uses from the Grand Valley.

But several of the producers who supply the Grand Junction restaurant were especially close — sitting right next to Otte for an event showcasing farm-to-table connections and the people who make them possible.

Consumer surveys as well as the questions Otte hears from his customers confirm people want to feel more connected to their food and support those connections in what they purchase and where. “It’s a huge factor for us,” Otte said. “Sourcing is the biggest thing for restaurants now.”

The Colorado Department of Agriculture organized a lunch and panel discussion at  626 on Rood as part of its annual Colorado Proud tour promoting food and other products produced in the state.

The lunch featured Colorado products crafted into deviled eggs, potato cakes and melon gazpacho shooters for appetizers; a peach caprese salad; and lavender and herb braised lamb, barbacoa-style tacos and pickled beet pico for the entree. The meal was served with Snow Cap Cider, a Red Fox Vineyards rosé and Carlson Vineyards Cabernet Franc.

The panel included Otte as well as three Palisade producers: Ruth Elkins, co-owner of Sprigs and Sprouts; Bruce Talbott of Talbott  Farms; and Garrett Portra, owner of Carlson Vineyards. Max Fields and James Plate of Fields to Plate Produce in Durango also participated, as did Ron Teck, a member of the Colorado State Fair Board of Authority from Grand Junction.

Wendy White, a marketing specialist with the Colorado Department of Agriculture, moderated the discussion. White said the results of a survey exploring consumer perceptions of  Colorado agriculture reflect support not only for locally grown food, but also the industry that produces it.

While 85 percent of consumers responding to the survey said they buy Colorado agricultural products when shopping or eating out, 77 percent said the industry supplies food at a reasonable price. Moreover, 90 percent said agriculture is important to the quality of life in Colorado. Citing price and flavor as their top motivating factors, nearly 85 percent of consumers said its important to support local food systems.

White said agriculture constitutes big business in Colorado in contributing more than $41 billion to the state economy each year — including more than $2 billion worth of exported products — and accounts for more than 173,000 jobs.

At the same time, those big numbers reflect the cumulative efforts of small farms and ranches and individual producers, White said.

Talbott agreed. He said the sales of Palisade peaches from roadside stands and the backs of pickup trucks prompted grocery store chains to sell peaches and in turn bolster the market for fresh fruit. “The small farmer is the heart of the peach industry here in the Grand Valley.”

Otte said he obtains many of the ingredients he uses to prepare food at 626 on Rood within 10 miles in the Grand Valley. Customers have become increasingly curious about where their food comes from and increasingly supportive of farm-to-table efforts. Otte said he’s happy to accommodate that movement. “We take that responsibility seriously.”

Elkins said she’s seen growing demand for products made in Colorado, including products made with lavender at Sprigs and Sprouts.

Talbott also said he’s seen more interest among consumers in where their food comes from. “I think there’s a quest to find some real.”

Elkins, Talbott and Porter said the lavender, peach and wine festivals in the Grand Valley help to promote connections among consumers and producers.

Porter said the Colorado Mountain Wine Festival not only exposes wines to larger groups of people, but also gets them to sample those wines — a key first step in sales.

Despite the growing appetite for their products, farmers and ranchers also face challenges, the panelists said — not only weather and diseases, but also regulations and the availability of land and labor.

Moreover, producers are aging and retiring faster than their younger counterparts are getting into the business. Fields and Plate said they’re exceptions to the rule as twentysomethings passionate about farming and more efforts are needed to interest young people in agricultural careers. Talbott agreed. “We need to get people coming in.”

Otte said satisfying the growing appetite for farm-to-table foods depends on local producers providing a sustainable source. “You can’t do all these great things without great ingredients.”