FEATURE: The New Local Food Economy

By on December 20, 2016

How to harvest that fresh farmers market feeling year-round.

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JACKSON HOLE, WY – Access to local food year-round is not among the perks of living in a mountain town. After all, winter here is long and the growing season is short. Even the most resolute locavore struggles to source local food once the snow flies in Jackson Hole.

Now the community’s enthusiasm for farmers market fare, typically available from July to October, is about to be put to the test. Slow Food in the Tetons, the local chapter of the international organization devoted to local food culture, just launched a winter farmers market in Jackson. Yes, you read that right: a winter farmers market.

Just like the Wednesday market that locals have come to know and love in the summer, this winter iteration of the Jackson Hole People’s Market, the brainchild of Slow Food director of operations Scott Steen, has a happy hour atmosphere, live music, and local and regional produce for sale directly from farmers. It’s only one Saturday a month, but it’s a start.

Not only will you be picking up fresh produce and more at the winter market, there are a number of food entrepreneurs launching permanent businesses in Jackson to keep that farmers market feeling going all year.

Missing the Sunnyside Swine breakfast sammy from Sweet Cheeks Meats? Now you can visit their permanent butcher shop, that opened this month in Midtown, where it’s on heavy rotation in the sandwich line-up.

Maybe you became addicted to all the little jars of fermented goodness at Maya Organics? Now owner and chief fermentista Maya Nagy brings her farm stand to your door with a delivery service of her all-organic line of nut butters, nut milks, condiments, fermented fruits and veggies, and more.

Even your weekly bundle or box of local food purchased through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm share doesn’t have to end just because it’s winter. There is an ever-expanding list of winter farm shares available for meat, dairy, produce, canned goods, and even prepared foods.

Oh, and what about “local winter produce,” a phrase that is rarely uttered in a mountain town? Last winter intrepid farmers Alex Feher and Brent Tyc of Huidekoper Ranch rigged up an old wood-burning stove to grow winter greens in their greenhouse on Teton Pass. This year they are offering a microgreen salad mix grown in their new “grow room.”

This is the first winter that Vertical Harvest, Jackson’s very own hydroponic vertical greenhouse, will be cranking out greens, herbs, tomatoes and microgreens from the side of a parking garage.

“When it comes to eating local food, summer is covered; it’s dialed in,” said Ian McGregor, Slow Food in the Tetons’ board president. “It’s the other eight months we need to figure out.”

Indeed, many locals hope the valley’s food economy will grow with even more options for eating close to home. Which begs the question: Are we ready to embrace a year-round local food economy in Jackson Hole? If the farming community rallies to grow produce in the winter, will we all show up to buy it?

“I think it will sell like hotcakes,” McGregor said. (Read  more about this savvy local foodie on page 19.)

The definition of “local food,” as per the People’s Market bylaws, is food that is grown within a 175-mile radius of Jackson. According to Steen, only 5 percent of the food consumed in Teton County is locally produced.

No one really knows the exact impact winter farmers and Vertical Harvest will have on increasing that 5 percent. Nona Yehia, co-founder and CEO of Vertical Harvest, estimates the hydroponic greenhouse will grow 100,000 pounds of produce per year, satisfying just 1 percent of the county’s need.

“We are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of addressing the demand for local food in our community,” she said.

But remember what it was like to buy food in Jackson Hole in winters past? Many of you have deeper roots than me, but my memory goes back to my first winter as a full-time Jackson resident in 1994. The term “food desert” had not yet been coined but it aptly described the lack of quality food in my adopted mountain town.

There were no farmers markets, no community gardens, no CSAs. Surely there were a handful of hardy locals growing food for their own consumption, but gardening was definitely not a thing.

Everything on the shelves at the only two supermarkets in town, Albertson’s and Food Town, was imported from afar, accruing thousands of food miles in the journey. Fred’s Market, in the space that now houses Sotheby’s International Realty on Broadway, had a check-out line designated “locals only” but the food was anything but local.

Alpenglow Farms farmer Ted Wells of Victor, Idaho, was the first to sell local greens and garlic to Jackson Hole businesses and a handful of restaurants. Harvest Bakery and Café and Choice Meats carried his produce, followed by the Westside Store and Deli (now Aspens Market). Chefs at the Snake River Grill, the Blue Lion, Nani’s and the Range (RIP) were the first to embrace sourcing food directly from a local farmer. Wells, by the way, still grows certified organic greens, garlic, herbs, flowers, and highly coveted Sungold tomatoes from his farm over the hill.

Of course, Calico was ahead of its time by actually growing its own produce behind the restaurant. Who remembers picking up a bag of spinach and a pizza to go at the old Calico?

It could be argued that the course of the local food culture changed forever in 1995 when Sloane Andrews Bergien purchased a small farm stand, called it the Jackson Hole Farmers Market, and started sourcing produce from Teton County, Teton Valley, and as far away as Washington State. Bergien developed a loyal following who trusted her to hunt down the best fruits and veggies around.

Then sometime in 2000, businessman Jim Darwiche had an idea. A radical, outlandish, fantastic idea. With lots of new people moving into the valley, and along with them, an influx of money, he sensed the community was losing its core. He wanted a place where everyone would be welcome: old-timers, newcomers, everyone.

“Where everyone can be even,” he said. “It has to be free. It has to be fun.”

The Jackson Hole Farmers Market on the Town Square was born. (Read about Darwiche, the father of this area’s farmers market, on page 12.)

Around the same time, locals were introduced to the concept of buying a farm share, or CSA. Two farms in Victor, Idaho, paved the way for  CSA culture: first, the now defunct Blue Flax Farm, followed by Cosmic Apple Gardens, the area’s first certified organic and biodynamic farm established by Jed Restuccia in 1996. (Raise your hand if you were a charter member of one of these first CSAs!)

As locals started getting to know their farmers, and with time, their ranchers too, the demand for local food grew each year. When food enthusiast and writer Sue Muncaster launched a Teton chapter of Slow Food USA in 2008, the community was ready to embrace an organization that celebrated local food. (Read more about Muncaster’s vision for the local Slow Food chapter on page 15.)

Slow Food in the Tetons has since spawned a series of community programs designed to increase access to local, clean and fair food. They created a partnership that helped Vertical Harvest get off the ground and launched the Wednesday People’s Market in 2015. They host events throughout the year designed to connect people with the sources of their food supply. And they are cultivating the next generation of foodies by taking elementary school kids into the kitchen and out into the field to learn where their food comes from.

Fast forward to 2017.  Teton County is no longer a “food desert” but it makes me bristle when I hear newcomers call it that. We will never have the year-round bounty of California, the South or the Pacific Northwest. After all, mountains outnumber agronomics around here. But check out the menus at all of the best restaurants and see how chefs are doing amazing things with local food. Walk the aisles of Jackson Whole Grocer, Pearl St. and Aspens Markets, and Lucky’s Market and check out all the locally sourced foods.

“It brings me joy to walk around Jackson Whole Grocer with my beer and see them as part of that vision,” Muncaster said. “They wouldn’t exist if people weren’t embracing local and organic food.”

What does the future hold for this area’s burgeoning year-round food economy? Do we have the capacity to grow more of our own food? And is it possible to have a glut of local food?

“As long as the industrial food system still exists, we simply cannot have enough local food producers,” Feher said. “The more we can produce within our community, the more we limit what we need to source from across the country.”

Tyc agrees, and he believes that in order to embrace a local food economy, people need to change their expectations about what types of food should be available to them throughout the year. “If we were to buy food more seasonally, buy more in bulk for freezing/preserving and be willing to sacrifice some of our daily menu choices, then our local food economy would really start to boom.”

It’s also about being open to innovation. McGregor likened Vertical Harvest to the first airplane. “It’s one of the first of its kind. It excites and motivates people to build structures like them, so we are not so dependent on global systems to ship in food.”

Now, McGregor wants to tackle the cost of local and organic food. “It’s just not the cheapest option,” he said. “We need to shift the food economy so it is more affordable for a wider range of people. It’s sort of exclusive and elite at the moment. With increased production, that price could come down.”

Maybe we need to look no further than our backyard to start doing that. Curtis Haderlie of Haderlie Farms sees a way. “Yes, right now Jackson is not being fed completely by local producers, but I do think it’s possible,” he said. “I think as a state, Wyoming has the ability to become food independent. I say that because of our abundant energy resources that could be an inexpensive heat source for greenhouses, especially if we could use flare gas. Using cogeneration at coal-fired power plants could also provide inexpensive heat.

“Wyoming has enough beef to feed our citizens,” he continued, “why do we ship most of it out of state? We have enough sheep for meat and wool. We have enough land, clean air and water and labor resources.”  Haderlie laments the public’s lack of understanding about the risks of outsourcing food to other states and/or countries. But he says Jackson can be the leading community in the state to establish a true local food culture.

During the first Jackson Hole People’s Market of the winter last Saturday the parking lot of the Teton County Fair Building was full. The Minor Keys played old-time blues, and there were throngs of people perusing the farmers market stands. Locals lined up to purchase microgreens, vegetables, bone broth, fermented foods, canned goods, beef, cheese, and local beer and wine. It was impressive to see how many people had come out for the market on the first bona fide powder day of the season.

Surveying the scene, Carter Cox, a Slow Food board member, observed, “Embracing local food is not just a trend. It’s really here to stay.”

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About Annie Fenn, MD

After delivering babies and practicing gynecology for 20 years in Jackson, Annie traded her life as a doctor to pursue her other passion: writing about food, health, sustainability and the local food scene. Follow her snippets of mountain life, with recipes, at www.jacksonholefoodie.com and on Instagram @jacksonholefoodie.

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