Into the Hub
Farmers Find Strength in Numbers Through Service Center
By Rebecca Jones
Dan Hobbs, with wife Jamie Dunston, is raising funds to open the Farm Service Center in southeastern Colorado to help small- and mid-size farmers store and process foods for market.
Photography by Dan Sidor
Jay Frost's family has been farming and ranching in El Paso County's Fountain Valley for 50 years. Cattle, sheep and hay have been the focus on the family's 400 acres.
In the past 10 years, however, Frost has broadened the focus to include vegetables. On just four acres last year, he managed to fill his root cellar with lots of potatoes and onions, and he's got lettuce growing in a small greenhouse.
Frost knows there are more people in the valley and beyond who would buy organically grown produce such as his. But if he expands production, how will he get the produce to market economically when he and other small- and mid-size farmers lack the infrastructure and efficiencies of scale that large farms enjoy?
That's a problem Dan Hobbs and NewFarms, a 501(c)3 organization in southeastern Colorado, hope to address.
Hobbs, a NewFarms volunteer, is raising funds to construct the Farm Service Center to open later this year in Avondale, east of Pueblo. Already, the Colorado Health, Boettcher, El Pomar, Anschutz, Packard and Gates Family foundations have contributed to its estimated $325,000 cost. The hub will be easily accessible and will provide the sorts of infrastructure – cold-storage facilities, a commercial kitchen and post-harvest supplies – that will allow small- and mid-size farmers to store, package, market and transport their produce more efficiently. Farmers pay fees to use the facility.
"It will reduce the need for these [farmers] to duplicate the infrastructure on their own farms, but it also offers the opportunity for them to add value to their crops," says Hobbs. "The kitchen will let them do some minimal processing. We'll have the equipment to roast chilies, dehydrate tomatoes, peel garlic, chop onions – so it turns it into something that can generate revenue during the off-season and provide buyers like restaurants and schools with more readily usable food products."
Hobbs' roots are not deep in farming like Frost's. Hobbs is a fifth-generation Denver native, but he has long been involved in a variety of projects to encourage small farmers in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico to adopt more sustainable farming practices, work cooperatively to build economies of scale and feed people locally.
NewFarms is working with officials in Colorado Springs School District 11 to provide its schools with more fresh produce. "With any luck, we'll have some impact on children's health over the years," Hobbs says. "District 11 is a big account that farmers can best take advantage of by aggregating their product, which will be possible as a result of the Farm Service Center."
Once completed, the service center will reach out to small- and mid-size farmers primarily in Pueblo, Otero, Fremont and El Paso counties. Hobbs thinks it could draw farmers from southeastern Colorado as well.
Frost is already on board with the project.
"There's at least nine of us I know who will participate, and there's probably another 10 or so farms right in that area," he says. "The logistics of hauling and storing is such a big thing for us. Having a more centralized hub will be ideal, especially if fuel prices go up."
Hobbs sees the service center as addressing one of the many critical needs small farmers must meet to remain viable.
"Small farmers are very challenged because they not only have a small land base they're working with, but many of them have come into farming as a second career. They're not generational farmers. So they have land payments, lack of infrastructure, and a lack of knowledge and skills. It's just multiple layers of challenges and barriers. We want them to stabilize, to become profitable, but it will take everything we can muster to have that happen," he says.