Almost 10 years ago, shortly after Alex Seidel opened his nationally acclaimed restaurant, Fruition, he bought a 10-acre farm near Larkspur, where restaurant chefs like Matt Vawter would spend every fifth day growing and harvesting some of the food items that would later appear on diners' plates.
Almost 10 years ago, shortly after Alex Seidel opened his nationally acclaimed restaurant, Fruition, he bought a 10-acre farm near Larkspur, where restaurant chefs like Matt Vawter would spend every fifth day growing and harvesting some of the food items that would later appear on diners’ plates.
For Vawter, who is now Seidel’s business partner on another venture, Mercantile Dining and Provisions, located inside Denver’s Union Station, working at the farm was a transformative experience.
“We started very small but now it’s grown to where we are harvesting 100 pounds of produce a couple of times a week,” he said. “What I took away from it is just how hard it is to actually grow things and raise animals and a new appreciation for the process — and it’s a very long process. It’s given me a whole new level of respect for farmers.”
Located inside the bustling revitalized train station downtown, the Mercantile strives to “connect the dots” between field and table while providing “the full narrative” behind every ingredient, an approach that has become increasingly trendy since Fruition opened.
Rather than supplying all of the restaurant’s needs, the farm is billed as a “learning center” and an experiment in sustainable growing. Fruition and the Mercantile continue to cultivate relationships with other farmers and purveyors and deliberately relay that information to diners and shoppers, Vawter said.
They also work to preserve Colorado’s abundance during the relatively short growing season.
“We just made 500 jars of cherry jam,” Vawter said. “That’s one way to enjoy Colorado cherries the whole year.”
Across the cavernous building and down the stairs from the Mercantile market and open air kitchen, Colorado Proud officials kicked off a month of promotional activities with a similar goal: provide consumers with more background about the state’s vast array of fresh and prepared food items.
That included discussing challenges and uncertainties as well as successes, mirroring what Chef Vawter learned by getting out of the kitchen and into the field.
“People don’t really know how hard it is to be a farmer,” he said. “It’s a battle every year.”
Even when farmers are blessed with relatively good growing conditions, slim margins and stiff financial pressures continue to drive agricultural consolidation. Farm automation is reducing the number of farms and shrinking the size of rural communities.
According to Colorado Ag Commissioner Don Brown, the Yuma farm he and his wife and son operate today supported 72 different families back in 1922, when his family first settled in the area. Meanwhile, the farms that remain are capable of producing more grain than ever before, he added.
Businesses and infrastructure that provide services to farms are shrinking too. At one time, the state ag department was responsible for inspecting 200 grain elevators across the state, but that number has dwindled to around 35 today, according to Deputy Ag Commissioner Chris Wiseman.
“Staples like corn and wheat are facing an economic crisis,” Commissioner Brown continued. “These crops are being grown below the cost of production. We are facing very dire circumstances out in our rural communities, and we are going to see foreclosures.”
He followed that up by stressing trade’s role in helping to prop up prices. Colorado farmers don’t just produce food for their neighbors: their products are sold into at least 115 other countries, he said.
Todd Inglee, the current chairman of the Colorado Beef Council and president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, talked about several recent trade-development trips he participated in. Exports to countries like Japan, South Korea and Canada that are hungry for U.S. beef add $277 a head to the price domestic ranchers get for their cattle, he said.
Inglee lives in Arvada and direct-markets his products locally through Ralston Valley Beef, but he believes the industry needs to continue opening markets and merchandizing products overseas to create opportunities that will sustain farmers and ranchers.
When asked to share the biggest challenge he confronts in operating his business, he offered one word.
“Pricing,” he said.