County farmer to supply locally grown beans to CU, schools

Farmer Matt Pierce in his bean field
Photo by Jefferson Dodge

In a continuing effort to keep more locally grown food from being shipped out of state, Boulder County is brokering an initiative that will send a Longmont farmer’s pinto beans to the kitchens of the University of Colorado and local school districts.

The local bean project is an example of the type of arrangement many of the county’s organic food companies and sustainability advocates have been calling for to make Boulder County more self-sufficient and food-secure.

David Bell, county agricultural resources manager, is serving as a sort of middleman between farmer Matt Pierce and the educational institutions. In addition to the broader goal of getting the county to produce a greater percentage of its own food, the county has a vested financial interest in the project: Pierce has planted the beans on county-owned open space, and the county gets a share of the profits.

Bell says that while none of the buyers has made a firm commitment yet, CU, the Boulder Valley School District and the St. Vrain Valley School District have said they would prefer to buy their pinto beans locally. And the demand for beans is high, so even if Pierce grows more beans than CU and the school districts can buy, he won’t be left holding the bag.

“If the whole thing falls apart, he can sell them into the open commodities market,” Bell says.

Having that safety net is not just important for Pierce, but for Boulder County taxpayers, he explains. After all, it’s the public’s land being planted, and it’s the public that would lose money if a crop went unsold.

Part of Bell’s role is to make sure each side gets what it needs. For example, farmers need to get paid at least as much as they would otherwise, and CU, for example, wants a $2 million insurance policy and 150 pounds of beans arriving each week, which means the county has to find a place to store the pintos and a means of delivering them.

“My goal is to not make Matt have to think about that,” Bell says.

Pierce planted his beans on June 11. Bell is still looking for a place to store them when they are harvested, but says he is relieved they are finally in the ground after strange spring weather that saw high temperatures followed by a frost, then massive precipitation that kept many farmers out of the fields an extra two weeks.

Then water rights on the 50 acres Pierce was originally going to use dried up, so he moved to a 20-acre parcel that has more available irrigation near the corner of 95th Street and Vermillion Road on the north side of Longmont.

Bell says the plot is expected to produce about 25 tons, or 50,000 pounds, of beans this season.

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“I’m always up for increasing our mega-local,” Lauren Heising, CU’s coordinator for sustainable dining, says of the bean project.

CU already has a Colorado-based bean supplier, but all other things being equal, a Boulder County provider is preferable, she says. The university consumes 5,400 pounds of dried pinto beans a year, so there is plenty of demand.

Bell says the sticking points between local growers and buyers typically include price, quantity and quality.

Can the local farmer generate enough product to meet demand, and will that product meet minimum standards?

For instance, Heising points out that most of the county’s small farms can’t produce the volume CU needs.

“How many different companies are you going to work with to meet your needs?” she asks. “We run a business too.”

As for quality, Heising says a “huge issue” is the number of rocks and splits found in pinto beans. At one point, she explains, CU stopped doing business with its Colorado supplier because the deliveries contained too many split beans.

In addition, often small local farmers expect to be able to charge what they’d get for their products at local farmers’ markets, while large organizations like the university have to buy in bulk to keep costs down. (Pierce is growing the less-expensive conventional beans instead of the pricier organic version, but Bell says he is in talks with officials from Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage about that store’s future involvement in the project once organic beans are available.)

While Heising declines to disclose what CU is currently paying for its pinto beans, Colorado’s procurement rules place restrictions on not only how much state institutions like CU can shell out for beans, but what factors it can use in selecting a vendor. And whether a supplier is local is not one of them.

“I can’t say I’m only going to buy from Boulder County,” Heising says.

But she has found ways to increase the use of local goods, like when an emergency shipment is needed within a certain timeframe, and by using the definition of “local” set by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education: a 250-mile radius. 

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Longmont-based Twin Peaks Seed & Grain has the capability of cleaning the beans to CU’s specifications, Bell says, and the operation will buy any pinto beans that the educational institutions don’t buy.

But he says that once the county breaks even and covers its costs, it will donate the rest of the beans to Community Food Share.

Bell acknowledges that playing middleman between supplier and consumer is not exactly a traditional role for a county government, and he welcomes the day when a company steps up to bridge the gap between local farmer and local buyer. The county’s goal is to simply demonstrate the bean project as a pilot program and “show that it is a functional model.”

“We’re playing a role that the private sector could play,” he says. “We’d be glad to have someone else take it over in the future.”

Another thing that remains to be seen, Bell explains, is whether those clamoring for the local infrastructure to keep the county’s food system a closed loop will still be as supportive when they experience the impacts of such operations, from traffic to “the smell of the dairy and the noise of the mill. … Is everyone going to feel the same?” As complicated as the bean project has turned out to be, at least they can be stored dry for long periods of time.

“Beans are probably as simple as we’re going to get,” Bell says.

Pierce, who is in the first year of transitioning another county parcel to organic crops, agrees.

“This is something simple,” he says, as he watches his wife drive a tractor across a county field to cut out weeds and loosen the ground. “I don’t need 20 people to help me do it.”

Pierce is using four county open space parcels as well as two other properties this season. In addition to beans, he is growing sugar beets, wheat and sedan grass, for hay bales.

He says he is pleased to be contributing to the local food movement.

“I’d like to do more local stuff,” Pierce says. “There’s just not much of a market. … There’s not much of a market to get rid of big quantities, that’s the problem.”

But he adds that he was surprised by the demand that CU and the school districts have.

“I didn’t realize how many beans they go through,” Pierce says. “I’m happy to help out. I just want to see it work.”