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Local Food Grows Wyoming Economy

Written by Tom Dixon

The local food movement is burgeoning in Wyoming.

Consumers’ desire to know the origin and care of their food has created opportunities for small farmers in the Cowboy State to expand their businesses.

Traditionally, farmers’ markets scattered statewide have been the best way for buyers to know produce was grown locally. The system has swelled to more than 50 weekly events. Today, few towns lack a weekly summer market nearby, and some areas have several options.

The Wyoming Business Council, the state’s economic development agency, has aided that growth through a reimbursable grant designed to help local food advocates advertise and promote their farmers’ markets.

Wyoming farmers’ markets generate more than $506,730 in annual sales.

Meanwhile, farmers are finding new ways to reach consumers directly through community-supported agriculture. In the community-supported model, consumers buy subscriptions to farms, and farmers deliver weekly boxes of produce to them. Companies like WyoFresh are connecting wide swaths of farmers with buyers throughout central and southeastern Wyoming through online sales.

Other farms, like Evergreen Farm in western Wyoming and Meadow Maid Foods in southeastern Wyoming, target area restaurants and local grocery stores on their own.

“People are more conscious of healthy eating habits than ever before,” said Lisa Johnson, agribusiness director at the Business Council. “Eating local is part of that. Consumers know where and how food was raised, and they develop a relationship with the farmer.”

The Business Council has also supported a number of projects that boost demand for produce from area farmers.

A young Powell entrepreneur, Forrest Smith, built a high school project into an agricultural manufacturer called Gluten Free Oats. The company ships internationally to places like Australia, the United Kingdom and South America, in addition to wholesalers in the United States.”

The Business Council provided $1.6 million in grants to the city of Powell to help build a mill and warehouse for Gluten Free Oats. An estimated $1.6 million will be returned to the community for future economic development.

Gluten Free Oats’ recent expansion has created increased demand for gluten-free oats raised by area farmers.

“Companies like Gluten Free Oats introduce Wyoming food and products to the rest of the world,” said Leah Bruscino, Business Council director of field operations and northwest regional director. “That’s new money coming into our state’s economy. Those exports also represent a new revenue stream for local businesses.”

On the other side of the state, Wyoming Malting Company just started construction on a 20,000 square-foot manufacturing and warehousing facility in Pine Bluffs. The Business Council contributed a $3.4 million grant and loan package to Laramie County for the project. In exchange, Wyoming Malting will create nine jobs. The facility will have the capacity to produce 600,000 pounds of malt a year from area grain farmers. That product can then be sold to the dozens of brewers and distillers in Wyoming or the hundreds of craft alcohol makers in Colorado.

A portion of the malt will also be used to make the company’s own craft whiskey. Waste products can be sold as feed to local farms.

“This is one of those examples of a project taking advantage of multiple strengths in Wyoming’s economy. It’s agriculture, it’s manufacturing, it’s adding value to local products,” said Heather Tupper, Business Council southeast regional director. “Wyoming Malting touches on many different industries, and it’s going to boost businesses in many different regions of the state.”

“Most of Wyoming is known for its vast expanses, but there are still some places that find themselves landlocked. Jackson Hole is one of those locations, but entrepreneurs there still saw an opportunity to meet demand for locally grown produce,” she continued.

Vertical Harvest is a three-story hydroponic greenhouse occupying 4,500 square feet built on the side of a parking garage in the middle of town. The Business Council supported the project with a $1.5 million grant to the town of Jackson.

Founders Nona Yehia and Penny McBride said the recently opened operation will produce 20 varieties of fresh food year-round in one of the harshest climates and highest elevations in Wyoming. The company already employs 20 workers. 

A first-floor market will sell produce, local crafts and art. Most of the produce is already spoken for by local restaurants like Snake River Grill and Café Genevieve, along with grocery stores like Aspens Market and Jackson Whole Grocer and Café.

“Agriculture has always been a vital part of Wyoming’s economy,” Johnson said. “The new emphasis on eating local food is just an extension of that. It brings money to our farmers, our restaurants and our towns.”