Raising locavores: Supporting sustainable food culture in Jackson Hole

By on December 9, 2014
Nutritious grasses, a pristine water supply and a stress-free environment contribute to Lockhart Cattle Company’s toothsome beef. CHASE LOCKHART

Nutritious grasses, a pristine water supply and a stress-free environment contribute to Lockhart Cattle Company’s toothsome beef. CHASE LOCKHART

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – Why should we care where our food comes from? That is the million-dollar question leaders of the Eat Local movement are answering.

Locavores – or people whose diets consist only or principally of locally grown or produced foods – are becoming more prevalent in Jackson Hole. Nestled in a valley surrounded by incredible natural beauty, rich soil and ample space for farming and ranching, Jackson is in a good position to be a leader in sustainable living.

Jackson community members and food industry leaders are spearheading a movement to become less reliant on imported foods and foster a production model that is self-reliant with environmental conversation top of mind.

The United States’ current food structure is highly industrialized and complex, meaning our food is coming from sources that are on average 1,500 miles away, according to The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

Greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fueled transport vessels, paired with the use of herbicides and pesticides, harm our already fragile environment.

Local food usually employs sustainable and organic production methods that promote greater farmland biodiversity, and some organic fields require less irrigation. Smaller farms can easily adapt to planting a diverse crop set. While eating local doesn’t necessarily mean eating more “green,” it’s likely that smaller area farms are using sustainable farming methods.

Founder of Jackson Hole Foodie and FoodSHIFT director Dr. Annie Fenn is a pioneer in the local food movement. After moving here 20 years ago as a medical doctor with a deep interest in the correlation between a clean diet and overall health, Fenn dedicated herself to making connections with local farmers.

“Back then, I had a hard time finding a lot of local food,” Fenn said. “I sought out the cheese maker, the baker, the farmer with the best garlic, the best greenhouse greens and poultry. These things are easier to find now, but it’s proof that it pays to be curious and ask around for what you want.”

Fast forward 20 years and Fenn, along with Christian Beckwith, director of the SHIFT Summit conference, conceived the foodie sector of the festival, FoodSHIFT. A massively successful and educational experience for attendees, the weeklong festival was a chance to present local sustainable food in a fun way through cooking seminars and workshops.

“We wanted people to be curious about how food connects them to the local and global landscape,” Fenn said. “We are a community of do-it-yourselfers with a tradition of hunting, fishing, foraging and gardening. Our food culture is intertwined with our culture of health and outdoor activity.”

Slow Foods’ Teton Food Tour is a way for area chefs to showcase their imaginative skills while engaging with the community about sourcing local ingredients. CHRIS DICKEY

Slow Foods’ Teton Food Tour is a way for area chefs to showcase their imaginative skills while engaging with the community about sourcing local ingredients. CHRIS DICKEY

The price of pleasure

It would make sense that people in and around Jackson Hole would strive to eat locally as much as possible. However, the painted picture isn’t all that rosy. Often, eating and producing locally grown food is a personal choice that for now is more expensive than imported goods.

The Lockhart Cattle Company in South Park grows and produces local beef that stays solely within Teton Valley. Chase Lockhart, along with his parents and brother, Cody, operate a sustainable grass-fed beef ranch, feeding their cows homegrown hay year-round. They provide beef to a few nearby restaurants and markets, but keeping their products hyper-local hasn’t always been easy.

“Winters are long and there’s a lot of costs associated with feeding,” Lockhart said. “But our family tradition has been to keep the beef close to home and that’s how our operation was set up. It makes sense that we carry on that tradition.”

While it may be more economically feasible up front to send cows away to feedlots in Colorado, the Lockharts remain steadfast in their investment to small and local accountability.

“When you grow and produce locally, you can have an impact on a product every step of the way,” Lockhart said. “In a world where you buy a pound of ground beef that’s made up of 100 different cows, I’m able to trace the entire life cycle of my animals.”

For consumers, grass-fed local beef is often more pricey than the competition’s industrially produced beef. Yet, the taste of local, fresh and sustainably raised beef is rich and flavorful in a way that many would say justify the price point. One could argue that the same goes for any locally produced food.

Slow Food in the Tetons’ mission statement, “Linking the pleasure of good food with a commitment to the community and the environment,” begs the question: What’s the price of pleasure?

Slow Foods Teton Chapter Director of Operations Carter Cox believes the pleasure of eating well isn’t a right reserved only for the wealthy.

“By getting more and more people to make conscious eating choices, we can affect agricultural supply and demand on a local level,” Cox said. “There are CSAs [Community Supported Agriculture] that offer payment plans so you can get a lot of fresh produce for an affordable price.”

Dale Sharkey, Co-Owner of Cosmic Apple Gardens in Victor, Idaho, boasts more than 200 CSA members during the growing season. The cost of a CSA membership is nearly half of what you would pay for full market price produce during the 16-week harvest.

“Our focus and commitment is feeding local people,” Sharkey said. “Last growing season, we fed 800 people a week. That’s roughly 2.5 percent of our area’s population.”

Food affordability is key to orchestrating a vast community-based agricultural model, but the price of farmland raises a few red flags. Less than 3 percent of land in Teton County, Wyoming, is privately owned. Land up for grabs often sells for prices well beyond economic feasibility for farmland.

“Land in Jackson doesn’t trade at agricultural value,” Lockhart said. “Property value affects land buying, and when it comes down to dollars and cents, right now it’s more profitable to build a golf course than to raise beef.”

In addition to farmland and food costs, the price of education can be daunting for some. Slow Foods in the Tetons sponsors several workshops and seminars that focus on local foods, from seafood sustainability seminars to cooking demonstrations. But prices for these programs range from $10 to $80 per session and sometimes seem more like a luxury than a right for all.

“We’ve tried really hard to explore food in our valley by offering workshops as affordable as we can,” Cox said. “In the future, we hope to offer scholarships and reduced prices so that everyone can start thinking about celebrating good, clean and fair food.”

Jackson Hole Foodie, Dr. Annie Fenn. DAVID J. SWIFT

Jackson Hole Foodie, Dr. Annie Fenn. DAVID J. SWIFT

A chef’s perspective

A world-class skiing and outdoor destination like Jackson attracts renowned chefs who have a deep interest in sourcing the best ingredients possible for their menus. Local ingredients are arguably the freshest and tastiest.

“Our local chefs are the ones who inspire us to try new things, and they decide what food is trending, therefore driving the demand,” Fenn said.

Local Restaurant on Town Square butchers and sells Lockhart Cattle Company beef, the first of Jackson’s steakhouses to put local beef on their menus. Chef Wes Hamilton at Couloir at Jackson Hole Mountain resort has been hugely influential in his quest to source from only local ranches and farms. Chef Matty Melehes developed a food map for Q Roadhouse’s menu that traces menu items to its regional source.

Roger Freedman, Fine Dining Restaurant Group co-owner and executive chef, began navigating Jackson’s nascent food scene after moving here in 1992.

“Back then, there wasn’t a lot going on,” Freedman said. “I was frustrated at first but as more ranches and farms popped up, my approach to developing menus changed.”

Freedman credits places like Cosmic Apple Gardens, Snow Drift Farms and Alpine Farms for sourcing local ingredients. He also uses a private farm called Leaping Lizard Farm to get items that might ordinarily be tricky to get in the winter.

“A lot of the time, you’re stuck with only summer availability for local produce,” Freedman said. “But, Leaping Lizard has greenhouses and will grow whatever I ask, from eggs to arugula – even in the winter.”

Problems with supply have been a challenge to Freedman when trying to offer local food items as menu staples.

“When you write a menu, you have to be prepared to offer it all the time,” Freedman said. “Sometimes a single farm can’t keep up with the volume you’re going through. There’s also competition because some farms are exclusive to a single restaurant.”

Limited product supplies means chefs are left to scrounge around for what they can get. When that happens, Freedman features local products as specials, ordering supplemental ingredients from San Diego-based Nature’s Best Garden.

“Grassroots foods is still in its infancy and is the exception, not the rule,” Chase Lockhart argues. “Sometimes it’s easier and cheaper to stick with more consistent products from the industrial food trucks like Sysco and US Foods.”

Sustainability workshops from Slow Foods, such as cooking classes, inspire young people to take control of their nutrition while stirring their passion for food. CHRIS DICKEY

Sustainability workshops from Slow Foods, such as cooking classes, inspire young people to take control of their nutrition while stirring their passion for food. CHRIS DICKEY

Sowing seeds for tomorrow

Although Jackson has made progress providing locally sourced foods to residents via grassroots projects like Snow King’s People’s Market (summer farmer’s market), locally sourced restaurant menus and the inception of sustainable foods workshops and seminars, one thing is for sure: it will require a long, uphill battle to shift attitudes about food and achieve an affordable and sustainable food model.

The good news, however, is that many Jacksonites are beginning to recognize the economic, social and environmental implications of investing in local, sustainable food solutions.

“People should care about where their food comes from because of their health,” Lockhart said. “Not to mention, when it comes to having a diverse community, agriculture has to be part of it. We have to hold on to and value it.”

Concerning tourists, the potential is enormous for Jackson Hole and Teton Valley to become an agritourism hotspot. Visitors who can explore nearby farms and ranches to see where Wyoming beef comes from and participate in hands-on events like farm dinners and Slow Foods’ Teton Food Tour can offer direct support to local farmers and purveyors.

“I believe that what we choose to eat defines us as a community,” Fenn said. “When visitors come here, of course they will be awed by the Tetons, the Snake River, our national parks, and our charm. But wouldn’t it be amazing if they were equally inspired by how we take care of ourselves and our environment?”

It’s no secret that long, cold winters affect our region’s availability to fresh produce.

“Yes, it’s difficult to grow in the winter, but that doesn’t get you off the hook,” Cox said.

A project from MD Nursery in Wilson will be Teton Valley’s first winter farmer’s market. Slated to open in January 2015 and run every first and third Saturday of the month through March, it will provide a centralized place for people to access local produce in the winter.

Vertical Harvest, a year-round, hydroponics greenhouse slated to live in downtown Jackson adjacent to the parking garage, will grow and sell local produce. Their mission is to provide all residents with fresh produce at a “competitive and consistent price.” Tackling the problem of farmland shortage in the area while addressing the high costs often associated with eating locally, Vertical Harvest and other greenhouses are one creative solution for growing food.

“To get this thing going, we first need to get people excited about food, even if it’s not local,” Cox said. “We can teach people how to prepare meals themselves or how to grow a potted plant on their front porch. When people start putting truly good food in their mouths, then they will realize how important it really is.”

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