Northwest Colorado Food Coalition: Ingenuity, grit of rural Americans
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
I remember being midconversation with the editor of a national newspaper when she posed a question: “Is investing in rural America worth it?”
We were introduced by a friend who stewards state-funded venture capital across rural Colorado. Much of his work now centers on opportunity zones, an initiative designed to incentivize investment into economically-depressed areas throughout the U.S.
As I write this in April, it’s snowing outside, a function of Steamboat Springs’ Zone 4 climate. U.S Department of Agriculture climate zones signify the minimum extreme temperature of a geographic area and are generally a good indication of what a farmer is able to grow in a given location. It’s not impossible to grow food in a Zone 4 climate. It’s just very, very hard.
My job over the past few years has been to design, build and operate an indoor aquaponic farm called 41North. We grow a variety of crops unique to Yampa Valley inside our climate-controlled greenhouse year-round. Using a combination of agricultural technologies, we use 95% less water than a comparable broad-acre farm, along with recirculated fish waste — produced, filtered and sterilized on-site — as fertilizer. Our greenhouse maintains a Zone 12 climate using relatively little energy.
While our technology maintains an environment capable of yielding a wide variety of plant and aquatic life, this is not a story about technology. It is a story about the people who engineer, build and operate it.
The size, location and culture unique to Northwest Colorado have always fostered its ability to thrive as an agricultural community. To this day, Yampa Valley continues to carry on a strong tradition of local, sustainable food production through organizations like Community Agriculture Alliance and initiatives like the Northwest Colorado Food Coalition.
Six months into our initial operations, I received a message from our head grower, stating she was grateful for her position and the opportunity to work on our farm.
At the outset of this journey, I would have said seeing all of our technology work synchronously to auto-magically grow plants would be the most exciting part.
Instead, the most satisfying parts have been seeing folks’ faces when we open the door into our grow area, the feedback we receive from those who purchase and consume our food and, by far, the privilege of providing even one meaningful job (hopefully, a career), to an enthusiastic young person who loves what she does.
Yes, investing in Yampa Valley has been worth it, and investing in rural America is worth it. The returns exceed the sum of their parts.
Jay Hirschfeld is the CEO and founder of 41North.
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