Despite living at 7,000 feet where Mother Nature follows her own rulebook, a group of people is working to increase options for locally grown food. Flagstaff-based Local Fare was started by some Northern Arizona University students and faculty members who saw both a need and an opportunity.
One of the group’s members is Joanna Hale. While doing graduate work at Northern Arizona University, she saw significant food disparities: some community members were buying food at the Flagstaff Community Market and eating at restaurants serving local organic produce, while other demographics had lifestyle health issues like childhood obesity surpassing national averages.
“One of the things Local Fare is interested in is making good and healthy food accessible to a wider population. So, we’re conducting the research to find out how to make that happen,” said Hale, who is a Local Fare project coordinator.
In its inaugural year, some studies have been conducted to identify challenges and possibilities for increasing local and regional food production. Master’s student Liz Krug gathered data from restaurants, institutions (like Flagstaff Medical Center) and grocery stores throughout Flagstaff and the Verde Valley. Eighty-six percent of people and businesses interviewed said they would like to offer more local food in the future, but that quantity of goods could be a problem. “So I guess the broader question would be how do we start addressing that and I think on the production side, farmers and producers coming together and collaborating more might help address some of that insufficient volume the demand side is experiencing,” Krug said. For some, the higher cost of locally grown organic food is another obstacle.
Krug’s study discovered people of all income levels were interested in supporting local farmers.
Fellow graduate student Regan Emmons did her own research, connecting with backyard gardeners. She discovered urgency among growers for creation of a network. “So what that would look like would be about 10 backyard gardeners coming together and pooling their resources to have a stand to sell their produce,” said Emmons. “There was significant interest and we are actually trying to get that underway for the start of the Flagstaff community market for 2012.”
She also worked on another survey, examining production on a regional level. “Some of the major limitations to expansion are labor and the land,” said Emmons, along with the added requirements from state and federal food safety regulations.
Northern Arizona’s relative isolation creates another challenge: transportation. A lot of resources are required to ship produce from faraway places like Chile. Even some of the nearby ranchers ship cattle for slaughter, then haul the meat back, creating a greater carbon footprint than might be created if more work could be done in the region.
Local Fare is looking for potential solutions, including refrigeration. “Those farmers, if they get together as a cooperative, they can actually expand their ranching so they can go in together on a refrigerated truck and set up a cold storage network,” said Hale, envisioning more people eating high quality regionally produced meat as well as produce.
Local Fare is also exploring methods of lengthening the short Northern Arizona growing season and creating more quality soil, a shortcoming of the high mountain desert. And experimentation is already underway in Northern Arizona University’s greenhouse to determine the best methods and varieties of produce for growing in Flagstaff.
Phil Patterson is the greenhouse plant production manager. “We have a hydroponics system that we’re trying to develop. We’ve learned what to grow in the hydroponics containers and what not to grow,” said Patterson. In addition to hydroponics, where plants are grown in water, other varieties are grown in soil.
“We have 18-20 peppers and 18-20 tomato varieties growing in this greenhouse right now,” said Patterson. “We are just to try to determine what tastes good what grows good.”
Some restaurants like the Cottage Place and Pizzicletta have said they would regularly buy certain amounts of specific food items if they were available from local growers.
Cultivating produce in NAU’s greenhouse also gives students many hands-on learning opportunities.
Organizers of Local Fare hope to continue their work connecting growers and consumers with healthy food options in Northern Arizona. The group’s research has shown people are hungry for more locally grown organic food, so Local Fare says they will continue to address obstacles to creating a more sustainable food model for region.
Some of the funding for Local Fare comes from the Technology Research Innovation Fund (TRIF) through the Office of NAU’s Vice President of Research. FBN