In Colorado’s North Fork Valley there is a real pride of place. When the coal mines began closing, a lot of folks that weathered downturns before talked about what to expect. Since the twin drivers of the economy had always been farming in the valley and energy development in surrounding lands, many predicted shuttered businesses, foreclosed homes, empty classrooms.
But between mine closures a lot happened—and new activity was starting to diversify the economy. As mines closed, the local rural electric cooperative brought in gigabyte-speed broadband. Some displaced miners found work for a new local business, created by another laid-off worker, installing fiber for the network. Around that time, Governor Hickenlooper designated the valley a Colorado Creative District, a unique place where art and agriculture mixed.
And the public lands were providing a return beyond mineral wealth. Rising up to ring the valley, these lands protect water sources and offer outstanding opportunities for hunting, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, and other outdoor recreation. A 2018 detailed study by the Outdoor Industry Association found that public lands in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District—which includes most of the rural Western Slope—fuels a more than $2 billion annual industry. These lands are the backdrop for those who live here, the frame to the valley’s defining sense of place.
The North Fork, which has long been known for its top quality agriculture, is now a federally designated wine region with over a dozen wineries, and home to Colorado’s highest concentration of organic farms.
Continuing the region’s heritage as an energy producer, the North Fork is also home to Solar Energy International—a leading global training institute in alternative energy design and installation—and an electric coop committed to an expansion of local power. As more local communities produce their own power, we’re expanding the use of renewables, and helping Colorado meet its goals. And it keeps more money working locally too—either in people’s pockets or circulating in the community through the member-owned power coop.
We hear about an urban - rural divide, and we see the data. As urban areas prosper, rural communities lag. Recent numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis showed, for instance, that 85% of Colorado’s economic activity was generated from just ten counties along the metropolitan Front Range according to a December 2018 Denver Post report.
To bridge that divide, rural areas need to be made relevant for a 21st century economy, and to be fully vested in—rather than just fodder for—the body politic. Transitioning rural communities don’t need a hand-out, but they do need an investment in their ability to succeed, and policy that allows them to more fully determine their own futures. Investments in clean water and a safe environment, in schools and training, and in infrastructure and opportunity. For too long, rural communities have been victim to policy crafted, and economic forces focused, far away. All Americans—especially those in rural areas where health, nutrition, and other wellness services are often lacking—deserve a certain dignity and the security of a safety net.
"Transitioning rural communities don’t need a hand-out, but they do need an investment in their ability to succeed, and policy that allows them to more fully determine their own futures."
As an organization that seeks to engage farm and food producers, and consumers that support the local food movement, the Colorado Farm & Food Alliance (COFFA) works with both rural and urban stakeholders. Our projects connect the state’s “farm to table” movement with opportunities to support sustainable rural communities, and to take climate and conservation action. While the issues and emotions that circulate around these conversations run deep, we find honest discussion—paired with food, drink, and personal stories—offer an impactful venue to connect rural and urban issues and the communities that care about them.
The North Fork is the kind of place where people never stopped raising backyard chickens and living pretty close to the land. Here our next phase can look a lot like our past—still founded in the basics of agriculture, energy, and the wild beauty of the land—but now reconfigured in a way that positions us for the future ahead.
Each place has its unique ingredients that make it what it is. Our projects work to connect people to those qualities, through what we all appreciate—good food, and drink, and enjoyable social engagements—to explore the common values that exist between communities. When we cultivate space to talk about what we share, we show that sustainable rural areas can support and be supported by vibrant cities, that we are kneaded together as interdependent economies. At COFFA, we start with the simple idea that food brings people together, and then we watch good change happen.
"When we cultivate space to talk about what we share, we show that sustainable rural areas can support and be supported by vibrant cities, that we are kneaded together as interdependent economies."
All photos by Desdemona Dallas from The Kitchen Restaurant in Denver - North Fork farmers and producers provided the drinks and ingredients, then spoke about impacts of climate change on local farms and food security to guests that included elected and agency officials, conservation leaders, and local food enthusiasts.