On the horizon, storm clouds roll in over the San Luis Valley, the occasional flash of lightning painting the edge of the sky. The weather provides palpable relief from the late July heat, while the promise of rain is a blessing for farmers in the notoriously arid region.
A few dozen people stand in a field of barley, beside the local farmer who grew it. The group is part of Grain School in the Field, a collaboration between University of Colorado-Colorado Springs (UCCS), the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union (RMFU) and the Colorado Grain Chain (CGC).
Grain School in the Field offers a two-day immersive education course in the intricacies of San Luis Valley’s community and food systems, highlighting the relationships between growers, producers and consumers. The idea that food should be community, not commodity, is one of the driving motivations of CGC, a nonprofit focused on restoring heirloom grain diversity and building connections between the land and the people who sustain it.
“From the beginning until now, the mission is to strengthen those connections between farmers, millers and end consumers, to really lift up Colorado’s local grain economy,” says Audrey Paugh, marketing specialist for CGC.
Later, Grain School in the Field would bring its cohort of curious individuals, educators and researchers to Mountain Mama Milling in Monte Vista. Run by Kris Gosar, the mill is a generational affair. Gosar took over from his parents, now sharing responsibilities with the next generation. The stone ground flour mill still produces thousands of pounds of fresh flour for the San Luis Valley and beyond.
“My parents believed in growing great grains and milling whole grain flour,” Gosar says. “That’s what they believed in, that’s what we started with, that’s where we’re at.”
Mountain Mama used to deliver stone-ground flours as far north as Denver, supplying mom-and-pop stores with locally grown grain back in the ’80s, but the growth of natural food grocers like Whole Foods and Vitamin Cottage saw those shops close.
Gosar’s family eventually sold the farm where he grew up, he says, and the family that bought it still grows grain for them. Other grains come in from small family farms throughout the valley, milled by Gosar and sent out to bakeries and small grocery stores in the region.
The demand for wheat skyrocketed during the pandemic, Gosar explains, a demand now exacerbated by Russia’s war with Ukraine. The need for more grain has run afoul of rising water costs and drought conditions for farmers in the valley, he adds, but they are surviving through the stress and unpredictability of crop yields.
“I’m all in. I like it when systems get shaken up,” Gosar says. “I think there’s an opportunity. We’ve gained customers and a lot of visibility from all the people baking in their home kitchens.”
Stories like Gosar’s are common, but most people are far removed from the sources of the food they consume. Organizations like CGC are working to highlight these stories, bringing a sense of literacy and propriety for consumers, growers and everyone in between.
“There’s so much Grain Chain activity flourishing in Boulder County, a huge part of our membership is in that area,” Paugh says. “Yet so many of the grains used throughout Colorado are actually sourced in the San Luis Valley.”
In Boulder County and along the Front Range, CGC has members like Troubadour Maltings in Fort Collins. Troubadour malts the grains, like an heirloom White Sonoran Wheat, used in whiskey made by Dry Land Distillers in Longmont, another CGC member. That grain is grown on Arnusch Farms in Keenesburg, a mere 40 miles away from Longmont.
“I think it’s really special to know you’re eating something that’s actually supporting our community in Colorado,” Paugh says. “The more we support it, the more accessible it can be. I think it’s very important that locally sourced foods are accessible, but to get there we need all sectors to be aware of our local capacity.”
That awareness can be evidenced in Moxie Bread Company, whose co-founder, Andy Clark, was also a founder of CGC. Clark, who baked for Whole Foods for more than a decade before starting Moxie, was teaching a baking class focused on heirloom and whole grains when he was approached about joining the CGC board of directors as the nonprofit was forming.
“Grain School are these folks passionate about local food systems, healthy foods and preserving the old ways,” Clark says. “So the [CGC] really percolated out of that.”
Moxie had already been procuring grains from family farms and milling fresh flour before CGC officially formed, Clark says; so it was easy enough for him to step into the role of board chairman.
When Clark first opened Moxie, he developed a partnership with a farm in western Kansas, connecting the farm to both the miller and baker, and vice versa. Clark and his family would visit to help with the harvest directly.
“The start of it was getting farm-fresh grain, which had been hard for me to do up to that point,” Clark says. “From there we met a variety of other farmers, encouraged some farmers in Colorado and neighboring states to consider planting heritage grains for Moxie.”
Supporting local farms is important in strengthening communities and reducing the distance food travels to reach someone’s table. With supply chain issues that grew more evident during the early days of the pandemic, Clark says he saw more people turn to their local farms and mills for produce, dairy and flour they couldn’t find in a grocery store. Restoring that local food network is key to CGC, as well as the mill and bakery at Moxie, he explains, so long as it is accessible and egalitarian.
“We’re very conscientious to not be pretentious about it. That’s not my style, that’s not Moxie’s style,” Clark says. “We’re a very community-driven place.”
To bring that into balance, echoing Paugh, Clark wants to bring more education and awareness to locally grown goods. Residents can find a strong local food system in Boulder County, from stalwarts like Black Cat Farms to small farm stands scattered throughout the county selling eggs, grains and produce. One doesn’t need to drive to the San Luis Valley to see each link of CGC in action, when so much is active on the Front Range. The organization is still in its infancy, but Paugh is hopeful about the future.
“Because we’re kind of new, this role that the Grain Chain is trying to fill in connecting all these dots, there are all these gaps within our food system,” Paugh says. “There are a lot of places for work to be done, so it’s going to keep us busy.”