Wyoming’s Agricultural Paradox
By John Freeman
When we think of agriculture in Wyoming, we generally think of raising livestock and feed grains, and sometimes we think about timbering. We don’t think of cultivating vegetables and fruits.
Even in a time of doubts and divisiveness, we can easily agree healthful food is the key to our wellbeing. But, depending on our income and where we live, healthful food is often inaccessible.
Not always so. In the early days home gardens, orchards and diversified farms dotted our landscape. Wyoming farmers were recognized for their high-quality produce, which was shipped by train to Denver and beyond.
Reliance on small to mid-scale family farms began declining during World War I when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) instituted a policy favoring larger, industrialized farms to help feed the world while keeping food prices unusually low on the home front. Today’s produce comes mostly from California and Latin America.
Wyoming’s 2017 vegetable and fruit production made up less than two-tenths of one percent of our state’s gross agricultural product, which was less than two percent of the value of the state’s gross product. Local fresh food production is far from fulfilling consumer demand – not just from affluent food snobs, but from the general public, communities without grocery stores and our many food pantries.
In a hopeful sign, the Wyoming Food Coalition, a fledgling voluntary association of committed producers, consumers, health professionals and agricultural experts, seeks to help build a coherent system of producing, marketing and distributing nutritious food in-state.
Wyoming is the last state to establish a food coalition, though many of the coalition’s members have been working for years on pieces of the system – especially two University of Wyoming (UW) faculty members, community and public health Expert Christine Porter and UW Agricultural Economist Cole Ehmke as well as Central Wyoming College (CWC) President and Economist Brad Tyndall.
With USDA support, their students have been able to draw out local interest and connect with community members in demonstration projects, most notably on the Wind River Indian Reservation. Their approach is both idealistic and pragmatic – understanding access to fresh, healthy, affordable food is a human right and encouraging projects to overcome systemic obstacles to this inalienable right.
A founding member of the coalition, CWC has just inaugurated a beginning farmer and rancher program, which includes a complete farm business incubator at its field station south of Lander. Its purpose is to prepare full- and part-time farmers and home market gardeners for economically and environmentally sustainable year-round local food production.
A reservation project to restore traditional foods is providing transportation for tribal members to and from the CWC program. As the program develops, future producers will be able to cultivate on their own one-third acre plots at the field station.
For beginning farmers, securing enough start-up capital poses a formidable obstacle, which is why representatives of the Small Business Administration and other agencies are connected to the CWC program. Wyoming ranks near last for investments in local food systems, but this may change soon.
The new national administration has pledged a renewed effort to support farming and food systems based on sustainability – an effort initiated under President Reagan and expanded by President George W. Bush. Until more Wyomingites invest in farming, the federal government may continue as the principal source of investment capital.
But, perhaps the greatest challenge is finding landowners willing to sell or lease all or part of their properties for commercial farming. As an association of producers and consumers, the Wyoming Food Coalition may be in the best position to help with the challenge of connecting aspiring farmers and landowners.
In at least a couple of instances, younger members of ranch families are doing some commercial farming on their family properties. Little has been said about pandemic-inspired newcomers leaving cities and taxes to work remotely from Wyoming.
Would it be too much to ask them to consider allowing those aspiring farmers to lease or even sharecrop a few cultivatable acres since they themselves likely demand healthy food? The world may need more cowboys, and Wyoming definitely needs more farmers.
John F. Freeman is a longtime resident of Wyoming. Trained in history, he served as community college dean, nonprofit executive and community development volunteer in the office of a former governor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.