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Cattle graze at Laid Back Ranch in Norwood. The ranch’s owners, Sajun and Paula Folsom, participated in the meat producers’ roundtables led by the Telluride Foundation’s Local Food Initiative. (Courtesy photo)

Sajun and Paula Folsom of Laid Back Ranch in Norwood are small producers who raise hormone- and antibiotic-free cattle that are grass fed and finished. They sell their highly sought after beef to a few restaurants in Telluride, as well as a bunch in Norwood.

La Marmotte is one of those Telluride restaurants, and the French eatery’s head chef Will Nolan said he is a fan of serving local beef like the Folsoms are producing.

“Locally sourced meat is the way to go,” Nolan said. “We are currently using a limited number of local ranchers, including Laid Back Ranch. … It is not difficult to source local, but you need to do your research.”

So far, so good. A high-quality local producer has a highly discerning local restaurant buying its well-regarded local product.

And yet, replicating that relationship sufficiently — in order to create a local food economy that ensures producers can make a living and customers can (mostly) get what they want, when they want it and at a reasonable price — remains vexing.

“The biggest challenge is that they want Sysco-style convenience, meaning that they want whatever cut of steak they desire consistently at a low price,” Folsom said. “The problem is that as a small producer I am limited in what I can offer and when.”

He added, “We need to communicate with the restaurant owners to let them know what is available and when. The chefs need to be able to adapt their menu around what is seasonally available from all of the local farmers. Tomatoes don't grow at 7,000 feet year-round.”

While the Telluride Foundation’s Local Food Initiative (LFI) probably can’t make tomatoes grow at altitude in January, the LFI has led a series of meat producers’ roundtables, bringing together ranchers like the Folsoms, customers like La Marmotte and numerous other players in the local food economy to identify — and seek solutions to — other, solvable kinks in the local farm-to-table pipeline.

“A goal of the LFI was to host stakeholder roundtables in the community to better understand where there may be local food gaps, increase collaborations between the disparate organizations working in the local food system and to align LFI’s goals with those of the community,” explained Telluride Foundation Strong Neighbors Initiative Coordinator Lily Briggs. “Focusing on local meat producers was just a logical offshoot of the initiative, as cattle and sheep grazing is part of the Norwood/West End culture and economy. We wanted to bring the meat producers together to discuss how we could better promote and support local meat.”

The meat producers’ roundtables took place in March 2018 and this past January.

After the first gathering, Nucla High School agriculture teacher Malisha Reed was commissioned to assess the local meat market. She spent last summer talking to ranchers, restaurant owners and other large buyers before presenting her findings at January’s event.

According to Briggs, Reed reported “a strong demand for local meat in the community, especially at restaurants and larger institutions, like hospitals and schools, but these buyers are not necessarily ready to take on the current costs of local meat.”

She continued, “The analysis also suggested that producers have had difficulties meeting a larger demand, which may be caused by the major drought that our region experienced this past summer and fall.”

Reed’s report unearthed another challenge for ranchers in Norwood and the West End.

“The second meat producers’ roundtable brought to light the extremely challenging process that ranchers in our region go through to have their meat processed at a USDA-certified facility,” Briggs said. “The nearest USDA-certified meat processing plant is two hours away with a waitlist of three to six months. Smaller ranchers who don’t have the capacity to send all their herd at once to a larger processing plant often are only able to bring a few of their animals at a time.”

And the solution? “It was clear that there was interest from the producers and other stakeholders in the room that opening a USDA meat-processing plant in the West End would alleviate the burden that ranchers now take to have their meat processed, and bring with it the possibility of economic growth for our communities,” Briggs said.

So, in February, the Telluride Foundation and West End Economic Development Corporation applied for a Colorado Department of Local Affairs grant to fund a feasibility study to look into opening a USDA-certified meat processing plant.

Said Briggs, “If funded, the study would shed light on whether opening a processing plant is feasible in our community, how many potential jobs it would create and what would the projected economic impact would be.”

Word on that grant application is due soon. In the meantime, Briggs stressed that the roundtables are just one way the LFI is working to promote and support all local producers. She cited a range of programming, outreach and more, including scholarships for producers; a Meet Your Producer campaign that highlights regional farmers, ranchers, chefs and bakers; and Norwood’s Fresh Food Hub.

“The Fresh Food Hub is a great place for community members to find and purchase local food,” Briggs said. “Telluride and Mountain Village residents can order their local groceries online and have them delivered every Tuesday morning at Carhenge parking lot. The Fresh Food Hub’s website also includes an Our Producer page of all the local and regional producers that sell their products to the Hub.”

For more, contact Briggs at vista@telluridefoundation.org or visit telluridefoundation.org.