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AGRICULTURE

Wyoming Foods Coalition growing with local virtual farmers markets

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Baby greens

Master Gardener Lynn Dampman plucks lettuce growing in the local University of Wyoming Extension Service office greenhouse in 2016. The Wyoming Foods Coalition is growing with local virtual farmers markets.

Adam Bunker didn’t know what the end product would look like when he locked himself in his room nearly a month ago to create a virtual farmers market for his father-in-law’s business. In three days, he implemented an online market — an avenue for Papa Joe’s Produce to supply Wyoming shoppers with local product in a time of social distancing.

Bunker’s bedroom vision has come to fruition by connecting consumers with meats, produce, canned goods, eggs, dairy, salsa, coffee and more from nine Wyoming producers in just its third week. The virtual farmers market’s success can be, at least in part, attributed to the budding Wyoming Foods Coalition — an 18-pronged united front of service groups coming together to support locally produced foods in the Equality State. The coalition’s birth has conveniently come at a time of social distancing and panic buying impacting the typical grocery store experience.

“I’d say that for most of us producers the main focus is keeping people connected with healthy local foods,” Bunker told the Star-Tribune. “I’d say we’re more an alternative to the grocery store than anything else.”

The 2015 Wyoming Food Freedom Act, and its subsequent amendments, paved the way for the Wyoming Foods Coalition. Emboldened by legislation that bridged the gap between local producers and consumers — allowing producers to sell directly to consumers while still adhering to federal food safety guidelines — Wyoming agriculture experts started reaching out to each other.

Dr. Gleyn Bledsoe, a University of Wyoming adviser for the foods coalition who has spent three decades in food engineering, called that a “pretty significant act” to connect Wyomingites to the food produced in their backyard.

“That really helped and it’s a very common-sense act,” Bledsoe said. “I’ve worked in food safety and development in the last 30 years and this is one of the most common-sense acts and look at regulations. It protects consumer safety but it also facilitates homegrown food to consumers.”

WyoFresh served as the pioneer service, offering delivery throughout southeastern Wyoming for farm-to-table products over the past several years. Their operations went on hiatus in December, creating a void in the market. This allowed Bunker and several others to seize an opportunity to help each other. Then came the novel coronavirus pandemic that’s cut off revenue streams by forcing restaurants to close and forcing conventional face-to-face farmers markets to alter their offerings. Some producers have come to the conclusion that decreased attendance has made these farmers markets not financially viable.

That’s left producers searching for innovative ways to connect with customers.

“What we’re looking at now with the coronavirus pandemic is that farmers markets and producers will have a very important role in recovery,” Bledsoe said. “Farmers have more crops to sell in the spring but a lot of major producers have shut down their plants. In the recovery there may be an initial crisis getting the food to where it belongs. That’s what we’re hoping to fix.”

Wyoming remains the only state without a consolidated group pushing for food policy. That’s one of the long-term goals of the coalition. Another is securing more business to make the local Wyoming food market sustainable.

LeAnn Miller has operated a fresh foods delivery service throughout Wyoming since before joining a farm-to-plate task force in 2012. She’s meeting with a local producer based in Gillette to pick up micro greens for delivery. She’s picked up butter-head lettuce in Greybull and potatoes in Riverton. Where some Wyomingites encounter obstacles between themselves and fresh produce, she’s worked at bridging that gap.

“We have pockets between local producers and consumers,” Miller explained. “This has made us realize how much more we needed local producers.”

Follow sports reporter Brady Oltmans on Twitter @BradyOltmans

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High School Sports Reporter

Brady Oltmans reports on high school and local sports. He joined the Star-Tribune in July 2016 after covering prep sports and college soccer in Nebraska. He also contributes to University of Wyoming sports coverage. He and his dog live in Casper.

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