Cooperative Consumption

Working with AVOG from farm to table

by Sophie Javna; photos courtesy of AVOG

In your jaunt past Worner last Friday, you may have noticed a big white truck with the signature Arkansas Valley Organic Growers’ beet stamped on its side. You may have even seen members of the group, better known as AVOG, unloading cardboard boxes and stacking them outside the south entrance of Worner. If you were there because you’re one of the lucky Colorado College students or community members with a box to pick up, you could expect to bring it home and find it filled with an array of quality Colorado produce, grains and honey. This service, provided by AVOG every growing season, is called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). It works like this: Customers pay for the CSA in advance, and in turn receive a full box of organic, local produce every week. By paying up front, they provide farmers with a secure income for the season and ensure their own access to fresh, seasonal food, making it a win-win for customers and farmers alike. 

Of course, the CSA boxes don’t just magically appear in front of Worner. It takes time for farmers to grow the produce, a storage facility to keep the produce fresh before packaging, machines and people to process, organize and package the produce, and trucks to haul it all off to customers. That’s where AVOG’s “food hub” comes in. The former Excelsior School, an old elementary school near Boone, Colo., has recently been remade into a home base for AVOG and other local farms in need of a processing location. It’s called Excelsior Farmer’s Exchange and Beki Guion, AVOG’s general manager, describes its rural location as “right in the heart of farmland.” The space is equipped with a developing commercial kitchen, a few offices, including Beki’s, and a cooler and freezer for storage. Member farmers deliver their produce to the facility for packaging. Inside the building, 185 cardboard boxes brim with produce each week, waiting to be trucked off to pick-up spots like CC. Some CSA boxes include additional products, such as roasted chiles, which can be processed and packaged right at the hub. AVOG also grows and distributes food for farmer’s markets, grocery stores, restaurants, hospitals, schools and other local businesses.

The ability to hand off time-consuming activities, like organizing CSA shares or restaurant orders, to a general manager gives farmers like Susan Gordon, manager of Venetucci Farm, something to be grateful for. 

“It takes a lot of structure, organization and a physical place,” she said. All of that’s expensive. With AVOG, each individual farmer doesn’t have to create that whole infrastructure him or herself.” AVOG’s shared infrastructure also gave Doug Wiley, a fourth-generation farmer at Larga Vista Ranch in Boone, a good reason to become a member. “A bunch of us small famers were kind of tripping over each other, hauling food to the same places, spending money to deliver little loads to every restaurant,” he explained. “We just started to cooperate in that aspect. We had a loose alliance for a long time and we finally became official.” 

Guion, a fourth generation farmer, began her time at AVOG supplying produce from her member farm, Javernick Family Farm, in Cañon City. She recently became AVOG’s general manager, and said that, although it’s different than her previous position as a farmer, she enjoys it. “I still get to work with vegetables,” she laughed as she packed the just-roasted Colorado chiles into bags. Beki explained that one main goal of AVOG’s alliance is to let farmers spend more time on their farms and less time worrying about the logistics of marketing, deliveries and processing. “You’ve only got so much time in your day dedicated to being outside,” she said. “It’s nice to have one person take some of the work out of the growers' hands so they can actually grow more food.” 

The food hub supports AVOG’s cooperative model, which allows its 10 member farms to lean on each other for support. Dan Hobbs, a current AVOG family farmer and Cooperative Specialist at the Rocky Mountain Farmer’s Union, has had a central role in implementing AVOG’s cooperative model. Dan explained that, unlike a regular corporation that benefits its shareholders, a cooperative model exists to benefit its members: “Everyone has one vote regardless of how much equity you put in. In our case, we all benefit from marketing, distribution, access to storage, access to packaging, and eventually this [commercial] kitchen. It’s a service-based business model and a democratic form of business that we all feel good about.” The AVOG farmers demonstrate that the cooperative model can have a broad impact as well by extending their inclusive attitude to the local community. “We see that when the whole benefits, we all benefit,” Gordon said. “We’re all really committed to building a healthy economic model of agriculture that benefits not just small farmers, but the entire region.” 

A cooperative has always been AVOG’s model of choice, even before it was AVOG. Tres Rios Agricultural Cooperative, the first attempt at creating a co-op of Arkansas Valley farmers, was made up of many current members of AVOG. The co-op failed in 2003 due to organizational difficulties and limited customer support but came back even stronger in 2006 when Arkansas Valley Organic Growers was founded. Doug Wiley recalls that few “food movements” existed in Colorado Springs at the time that Tres Rios was established, limiting their ability to draw a clientele. “When we started this whole local and organic food and local economies discussion, it was not nearly as popular. We weren’t really welcome in the established markets.” 

But things have changed. As CC students have witnessed in our short time as Colorado Springs residents, new businesses and organizations promoting all things local have sprung up. The trend has been embraced by individuals, too. Among these are a growing number of urban gardeners—a population of urbanites growing small plots in their own backyards. The urban garden movement has gained momentum in recent years and shows the community’s increasing dedication to sustainability. Urban populations are predicted to expand dramatically in the coming years and urban gardening has become a meaningful way to address the future decline in farmland. It has also engaged young people in a way that our current farming population has not; according to U.S. News and World Report, the median age of farmers in America is currently 55 and rising. For those of us 20-somethings who do not come from a farming background but are inspired by the food movement, urban gardening can seem the most logical, fun and easy way to introduce ourselves to agriculture. 

Urban gardening is an essential part of the conversation about where our food system is headed. However, it also illustrates a growing problem: Urbanites are losing their connection to rural, family farmers—the people Dan Hobbs calls the “main suppliers” of local, organic food. It is much easier to think of our “local” food system as located within the parameters of downtown, or even the parameters of Colorado Springs, than it is to think of places we’ve never seen—like Avondale, where Hobbs Family Farm is located, or Boone, home to Larga Vista, Doug Wiley and his family’s ranch. And this poses a threat to the entire food system. “The whole rural piece cannot be neglected or forgotten because that’s where most of the production is going to have to happen,” Gordon said. “You can’t feed the community, or even a small percentage, without that rural piece.” 

If we hope to reform the food system, we will also need to broaden our awareness of the key players involved in the local food movement and of the region in which we live. There are many ways to bridge the distance between the city and the rural farmland that make up our local community. Gordon suggests taking some time to visit the farms, see the farmland and meet the farmers themselves. “There may be a small number of famers in this watershed compared to where [some students] came from, but they are there,” she said. “And there are opportunities to get to know them and work on their farms, and to become familiar with the challenges they face.” Of course, you could always become a Colorado farmer too, suggests Doug. “I love the idea of people growing stuff,” Doug said. “We offer a way into the market for a lot of these small growers, a lot of people that probably never thought they’d ever be farmers suddenly have this calling.” Young people may be becoming urban gardeners, but they are also becoming rural farmers.

Another way to appreciate our connection to rural Colorado is to recognize that, while we do live in Colorado Springs, we also live in the Arkansas Valley, which is considered our food shed—the place where our local food is produced and eaten. This food shed is intrinsically connected to our watershed, the Arkansas River, the source of our local water. AVOG’s member farms stretch all the way to the Arkansas River basin, located at the foothills of the Rockies about two hours west of CC. The river runs south of us and passes through Cañon City and Pueblo, continues across Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, and eventually flows into the Mississippi River. Every time we turn on a faucet, water from the Arkansas River spurts out of the tap. Every time we eat dishes from Rastall with an AVOG sign, or order a CSA for the summer, we are supporting our local food shed. 

Finally, we can help bridge the distance between AVOG farmers and Colorado Springs residents by advocating for one another. “We definitely have a lot to contribute to the conversation,” Gordon assured. “It’s just logistically making that extra effort to make sure we are a part of it.” AVOG farmers will not always be able to make the one-to-two hour drive to Colorado Springs, and we won’t always be able to meet our farmers face-to-face or volunteer on their farms. But including AVOG’s voice in important conversations and decisions is a way for us all to adopt the cooperative model. By leveraging a democratic structure like AVOG’s, we promote an alternative system in which everybody gets a voice, including the rural family farmers. 

“We’re at this breaking point where as a community, I’m talking about urban and rural together, we’ve got to decide how much farming will be left here,” Wiley said. Perhaps by broadening our understanding of Colorado’s food system we can make sure that family farmers in the Arkansas Valley will be here to pass on their farm to the next generation. “Like my father told me,” Wiley concluded, “I’m glad it’s your fight now.”