The August sky above Goshen County’s only winery shares the same deep blue tint as the firmament above Napa or French vineyards.
The similarities end there, however.
Acres of alfalfa and corn surround the 11,000 vines of Table Mountain Vineyards (TMV) in Huntly, Wyoming. Those are crops rarely found rubbing leaves with the vines of Bordeaux.
In the late afternoon sunlight, vineyard owner Patrick Zimmerer holds forth on the winery’s short history, which is indeed brief.
TMV produced their first grapes, all 400 pounds, in 2004. This feat rendered them Wyoming’s oldest vineyard, as Zimmerer explains, because Wyoming’s first winery, Terry Bison Winery of Cheyenne, had just corked their last bottle.
In 2009 TMV produced 50 tons of grapes and eleven different types of wine, including mead. While Zimmerer calls TMV “one big experiment,” the enterprise actually enjoys modest success. TMV is completing a 9,000 square-foot wine processing facility
Dressed in a short-sleeved polo sporting the University of Wyoming brown and gold, plaid shorts, and ragged flip-flops, Zimmerer sips at a plastic cup of TMV Stampede Red as he talks.
It hasn’t been all wine and roses. TMV struggles with the elements that plague all Wyoming growers of green and leafy things. “We’re focused on having the plants live through the winter,” says Zimmerer.
Meanwhile the soil, although rich by Wyoming standards, has an alkaline-tinged pH between seven and eight (baking soda has a pH of 8.2), as opposed to the desired 5.5 for grapes.
The Zimmerer family also has had to battle a state legislature and liquor commission opposed to shipping wine directly from a vineyard to a customer (The solons changed the law in 2006, after some discussion with the Zimmerers).
Challenges remain. Zimmerer glances up at the sky.
“As you can see, the grapes are ripening. That’s why all those birds are dive-bombing the vineyards,” he says.
Actually, says Zimmerer, the birds prefer the acidity of almost-ripe grapes as opposed to ones ready to pick.
Zimmerer shrugs his shoulders as if picky, winged predators are just one more player in the comic opera of TMV. He admits the whole thing is a “research project gone wild,” which started as part of his UW senior agricultural economics thesis.
Yet Goshen County could use a little unorthodoxy.
While the last quarter century’s demand for energy and tourism has brought wealth to some Wyoming counties (Campbell, Sublette, Sweetwater, Sheridan, and Teton), eastern Wyoming has languished. Goshen, Platte, and Niobrara counties share the fate of other flat counties in the American West with no major cities: declining population, dwindling commerce, and lack of innovation. Year after year, these three counties show up on statistical charts as among the poorest in Wyoming.
For example, according to 2008 U.S. Census data, Goshen County had Wyoming’s second highest poverty level (of all ages) of 15.6 percent. The Wyoming average is 9.5 percent. In 2006, Platte County had an average earnings per job of $29,600, compared with a state wide average the same year of $40,655.
Niobrara County in particular has long struggled for revenue. The population peaked in 1920. Its 2009 residential assessed valuation was a mere $9.8 million compared to $516 million of its neighbor directly to the south, Laramie County.
Yet oil has once again made an entrance into Niobrara County. The county is the home of the Lance Creek Oil field, which was discovered in 1918, and where production peaked during WWII. Oil revenue has since played an increasingly small role in the local economy.
New technology called directional drilling, however, has given new life to oil and gas in the county via the Niobrara Shale. Wyoming Oil and Gas Commission figures show that in April 2007, Niobrara County produced 234,000 mcf of natural gas, a zenith last reached there during the early 1980s.
Revenue generated from this boomlet for Niobrara left neighboring Goshen County sitting at the bottom of the economic totem pole. According to the IRS, Goshen residents had the lowest adjusted gross income (AGI) of any Wyoming county in 2008.
There is some good news in that county. A new 700-bed prison in Torrington, the county seat, will likely improve the county’s demographic and economic profile. Still, prisons are an old industry, often dogged by low wages. An entry-level correctional officer in Wyoming starts at $32,000/year. Moreover, a state-owned facility funded by taxpayers, a traditional economic development tool in Wyoming, hardly qualifies as the paradigm of innovative.
Commodity agriculture is the lead industry in Goshen County, and it too has hardly been a fireball of invention.
Ideally, this is the one spot in Wyoming where agriculture might prosper. The countryside has a lush, verdant, Midwestern feel, patchworked with tens of thousands of acres of corn, beans, alfalfa and grazing black angus. Torrington has the 5th largest cattle sale barn in the U.S.
Troubling statistics lie below the surface, however. The county’s population is the same as it was in 1950. Goshen County’s only school district has been losing enrollment with depressing regularity. Local and county sources could only cough up 16 percent of the $35 million it took to run public education in the 2008-2009 school year.
As in many eastern Wyoming counties, Goshen’s population is old, with an average mean age of 44 years for men. Most of the corn and alfalfa gets water from the federal North Platte Project, which has distributed its largesse in eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska since early last century.
Yet change is afoot and, paradoxically, agriculture is leading the way. Statistics show a subtle trend away from the bigger-is-better status quo. From 2002 to 2007, the number of farms and ranches in Goshen County grew by 23 percent, but the acreage-per-farm actually shrank by eleven percent, a trend mirrored in other Wyoming counties. Most significantly, the market value of products sold, mostly cattle, increased while the acreage decreased.
It’s more than just strong cattle prices, however. Late this past summer (August 24, 25, 26) Torrington provided the site of a conference dedicated to non-commodity agriculture.
The conference was titled: Living and Working on the Land. The sponsors, UW Extension Service, the Wyoming Business Council, Wyoming Women in Agriculture, the Audubon Society and the USDA Risk Management Agency, were expecting between 35-50 people.
Yet 123 participants showed up.
Goshen County may seem like an odd location to offer suggestions on how to challenge the corporate food world. In the top commodity county in Wyoming (Goshen leads the state both cattle and corn production), the conference dealt with issues facing local, small, and alternative producers.
“Torrington is the probably the last place people would think of to hold such a conference. But people need to see the other side of agriculture,” said Jeffrey Edwards, a UW extension agent who works out of Goshen County and specializes in profitable and sustainable agricultural systems.
“One of my main goals is to expose more people in the industry to something other than monoculture crops,” said Edwards.
The conference’s opening speaker, Joel Salatin, lost no time in delivering that exposure. Salatin, the superstar of the “localvore” (“eat local”) and anti-corporate food movement, owns the 540-acre Polyface farm in Swoope, Virginia. He has gained national attention for his ability to make farming pay handsomely using intensive grazing techniques. Salatin uses no chemical fertilizer, injects no hormones in his cattle, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and rabbits. He does not grain his cattle.
When Salatin detailed the problems with modern commodity agriculture, he might as well have been describing the operations around Torrington.
One of the leading financial headaches for all farmers, he says, is “single use capital-intensive equipment and infrastructure.”
Combines, swathers, potato harvesters, milking barns, and silos (he calls them “poverty tubes”) all constitute liabilities in Salatin’s view. So does monoculture. “Cattle, by themselves, are a tremendous land-based burden to the next generation.”
The money required to buy single-use equipment and maintain monoculture agriculture cuts down on cash flow and net income, according to Salatin. Long hours and low pay offer little incentive to the next generation.
More than raising wholesome food, Salatin is focused on a mission he calls “germinating young farmers.”
The problem in modern agriculture, declares Salatin, “is creating holistic, complementary systems to create salaries for the next generation. The average age of the American farmer is 60 years old. Farmers hit retirement age and then give it to the kids. That’s too late. The time to pick up that youthful enthusiasm is when they are 16-18 years old. We need to build enough income into farms to hire ourselves and our children and next generation.”
Salatin has his work cut out for him not only in Goshen County, but all of Wyoming. Roughly 70 percent of Wyoming’s agricultural income comes from a single source: cattle. The majority (82 percent) of farmers and ranchers, listed as sole proprietors, are men. They average 57 years old.
The conference demonstrated that there are some eastern Wyoming “eat local” food producers, however – and they present quite a different face that might become part of the future of Wyoming agriculture.
TMV’s Zimmerer is a good example. The Zimmerer family has been tilling the ground in Huntly since 1926, raising corn, beets, beans, alfalfa, cattle and operating a feedlot using water from the Goshen Irrigation District. Yet Patrick Zimmerer, age 31, has made himself into owner and operator of something quite distinct from commodity production. His grapes don’t use any federally supported water, either.
At the Living and Working on the Land conference, women and family teams gave many of the presentations. Some were involved in marketing, including Marla Petersen of the Laramie-based, Big Hollow Food Cooperative; some were involved in small, intensive horticulture, like Kerrie Badertscher, a consultant who once grew 6.5 million flowers per year on her farm in Hygiene, Colorado (elevation 5,095); and some were more mainstream, such as Cindy Goertz of Wheatland, whose family operates Wyoming Pure and Natural Beef.
Furthermore, largely absent was a dreamy-eyed idealism, as in, “this may be a good idea that will save the earth. Someone, um, should try it sometime.”
Instead, mainstream marketing strategies and crop yield advice, the bread and butter of any agricultural conference, was the norm. Presenters spoke of “naturally-raised food,” as opposed to organic produce.
Mike and Cindy Ridenour, for example, who own Meadow Maid Foods in Yoder, embrace a philosophy that blends financial pragmatism with a dedication to community and environment. Any business decision they make, said Mike Ridenour, “must be good for us, good for our customers, good for our environment, and it must be profitable.”
The Ridenours raise grass-fed beef and run a subscription-based Community Sponsored Agriculture or CSA business. Customers, who stretch from northern Colorado to Torrington, pay an annual fee of $395 and receive a boxful of fresh no-GMO, non-hybrid vegetables each week, June to October, producer’s choice.
Meadow Maid has proved so successful it now has a waiting list for customers. While they still sell at farmer’s markets, the Ridenours concentrate on their CSA customers.
“It’s a guaranteed sale for us, improves cash flow, and eliminates weekly competition at a farmer’s market. And it builds community. That’s very important to us. I know all my customers. Besides, they get first tomatoes!” said Ridenour.
Meadow Maid contributed some produce to the food served at the conference. The meals served at the gathering gave tangible evidence of the leaps and bounds local producers have made in connecting with the consumer.
Your faithful correspondent, a 30-year veteran of conference and convention fare, otherwise known as the rubber chicken circuit, could barely restrain his gluttony at the buffet table.
The opening reception included homemade tortilla chips and black bean salsa, grilled lamb, homemade bruschetta with tomato and herbs and cold melon soup. For the following two days, conference attendees feasted on spicy gazpacho with cucumber cups, roasted pork loin and green chilies, roasted root vegetables, squash bread, roasted corn and tomato relish, and brussell sprouts kabobs with garlic sausage.
Cottonwood Caterers of Torrington prepared the meals; almost all ingredients came from eastern Wyoming and Nebraska panhandle producers. Some products came from corporate agriculture, such as Kelly Bean Company and Western Sugar, but most came from smaller operations such Country Pride Potatoes in LaGrange, Johnson Livestock of Yoder, Wyoming Heritage Hogs of Huntly, Harvest Home of Lingle, and the Gaukel Ground Wheat Company of Keeline.
“It was an interesting meal to cook,” said Theresa Luttrell, who owns Cottonwood Caterers. She deemed the quality of the produce “excellent” but said she had to scramble, like most cooks in Wyoming, to find the holiest of the holy: local August tomatoes. The surge in last minute registrants meant finding ways to stretch the 57 pounds of pork she had.
In serving such fare, eastern Wyoming farmers made one of the essential farm-to-fork shifts all eating cultures must make: connecting good produce to delicious meals.
Goshen County and eastern Wyoming are not alone in encouraging localvore production. Ten years ago, Wyoming was the only state in the union with no CSA. Now it has seven. In January of this year, the UW Cooperative Extension Office established Eat Wyoming: Wyoming Local Foods Project, which explores local food options in Wyoming.
Moreover, Wyoming is starting to see true diversity in agriculture, such as Raspberry deLight Farms in Shoshoni. Greg and Jan Jarvis began the berry operation in the drought year of 1999. Jan Jarvis said they ranched “at the end of a 40-mile ditch,” on the Midvale Irrigation District. When it came to cattle, “we had to feed them or sell them,” Jarvis said. They decided to sell.
The Jarvis’ planted a hardy variety of raspberry and now have 16 value-added products, mostly jams, with their biggest seller being Raspberry Chipotle Sauce, said Jarvis. They have customers world-wide.
In tough economic times, Wyoming localvore producers have the unenviable task of convincing the consumer to make different choices. Still eastern Wyoming farmers and ranchers could justifiably think of the meals served at the conference as a smashing success of a pilot project. The next question is whether they can build on that success, and wean Wyomingites from fast food and supermarket imports. It seems serving similar meals at a dozen communities around Wyoming would go a long way promoting the virtues of localvore foods.
Small farmers and ranchers can only live so long on ideology. Making money as a local producer in eastern Wyoming is a balancing act, “somewhere between organic and conventional agriculture,” said Edwards, the UW extension agent in Goshen County.
Few would disagree with that, especially TMV’s Zimmerer.
While growing grapes and producing wine has promise, he would be the last to ditch commodity foods and stake everything on his vineyards: Wyoming growers have to go for whatever works, he said. “You have to take your profits where you find them,” he said. “People once said you couldn’t grow corn in Goshen County.”
The quest for more prosperity in the county is likely to include ventures other than grapes. In May, 2010, Big Bear Oil & Gas of Pleasanton, Texas, paid $2.2 million at a federal auction for the rights to drill on 1,400 acres in Goshen County.
Zimmerer said he would be delighted partake in a commodity extraction and drill for oil in the vineyard. “We’d just plant the vines around the wellhead,” he said.
Some of these topics will be discussed at a state-sponsored conference, “AgriFuture”, starting Oct. 13 in Evanston. And meanwhile the legislature may be weighing in on issues regarding sales of home-made food from local products: a bill to exempt such sales from safety regulation got a committee endorsement in Buffalo earlier this month, despite serious objections from food safety experts. For more coverage of the August conference, see the Wyoming Livestock Roundup.