Fremont County spends $14.5 million annually on protein – meat and eggs – alone. And in 2022, the price of food increased 10%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Behind all the changes in U.S. food markets, the shock of supply-chain issues that emptied shelves at the height of the Covid pandemic, and climbing inflation, the local food movement is building right here in Fremont County and across Wyoming. Jump started by the Wyoming Food Freedom Act in 2015 and spurred by expanding online and in-person farmers’ market opportunities, consumers and producers are connecting more and more, and those connections add up to a wave of economic activity centered on local food production and consumption.
A Central Wyoming College (CWC) study measured the sales growth among online and in-person farmers’ markets in Fremont, Hot Springs, and Teton counties between 2021 and 2022. Six of the 11 in-person markets collected sales data over that period – Jackson Hole, Lander Valley, Riverton Wednesday, Slow Food in the Tetons, Thermopolis, and Wind River; together, they show a combined 14% increase in sales, with $1.22 million collected in 2022. Online local food sales through EatWyoming.com and Slow Food in the Tetons online jumped 46%, with an 86% increase in sales through EatWyoming.com. And, Riverton’s new year-round farmers’ market storefront, Fremont Local Market, collected $54,254 in sales in the fourth quarter of 2022.
All those sales combined, even with five of the 11 in-person markets without sales data, show more than $1.5 million in local food sales in the tri-county region. According to the U.S. Agricultural Marketing Service and Colorado State University’s economic impact of local food sales calculator, that $1.5 million in sales stimulates an additional $2.5 million in economic activity in Wyoming through local input purchases and paying local labor.
Ag economics is CWC President Dr. Brad Tyndall’s specialty, and stimulating agricultural business and the local food economy is a big goal of the college. CWC’s Rustler Complex, which includes meat processing and packaging operations along with hands-on learning for all things agriculture, is set for a grand opening this August. A mobile food lab that was just delivered to campus will help CWC expand its culinary and hospitality programming to beyond Jackson. The Alpine Science Institute is the state’s only incubator farm. And the school is constantly at work applying for grants, hosting seminars and events, and serving as a central point for boosting new ag businesses across the region.
“The college has been pushing very hard on local ag,” explained Tyndall. “And what this means is you’re basically filling out our main streets, creating a lot more jobs.”
Tyndall keeps a running list of all the local businesses that use local agricultural products, and he said every time he shares it, he finds out a new one to add. “I can’t even keep up with the list anymore, where you can buy local food, local foods at local restaurants,” he explained. “Fremont County is number one in the state, a leader in the nation for the local food movement.” He cited the USDA’s statistics that show the county at the top when it comes to chicken, eggs, honey and fruit. “This is working .. The numbers indicate that more and more people are figuring it out.”
Melissa Hemken, CWC community food system specialist, along with some volunteers, helped conduct the farmers’ market studies. In addition to collecting sales data, the team also surveyed shoppers themselves, discovering the types of products they bought at markets, how far they traveled. They learned what kinds of products specific markets lacked – like Jackson being short on dairy products – and helped share opportunities with local producers.
She pointed to the Lander market’s 9% growth between ’21-22, and the Riverton Wednesday market’s expansion by a full quarter, as local successes. “The Riverton Wednesday market, that was awesome,” she said of sales growth. “That’s a volunteer-run market and they’re doing a fantastic job with vendors.”
Hemken pointed to the Food Freedom Act as a pivotal driver in the local food movement. “It really encourages people to think about growing food, and raising livestock for food,” she said. “It creates an accessible entry point for farm and ranch businesses, too … It’s just all kind of coming together.”
“I think the data implies that this is snowballing in the right direction,” Tyndall shared. “And we all are embracing the concept of supporting our neighbors.”
A few years ago, Tyndall ran into a community member who told him he hadn’t bought any beef except local beef for years. “And I thought, ‘That should be me.’” He’s since been intentional about how he stocks his fridge and freezer – buying meat in bulk, thinking ahead for those Thanksgiving turkeys. “So many people want to know how to eat locally more, but they don’t really know how to start,” he shared. Now, with jam-packed local markets, the Fremont County Market, and even online delivery service of local products, the path to local foods is becoming more and more clear.
“I would suggest first go check out the farmers’ markets,” Hemken advised people looking to add local goodies to their shelves. You get to visit with neighbors, “but you also get to meet your farmers and ranchers, talk to them about how they raise the food.”
Both Hemken and Tyndall said a big part of the local foods movement is really about community – keeping more money in the pockets of farmers and ranchers, and about invigorating the local economy. “We’re all kind of a family, a 40,000-member family, in Fremont County,” Tyndall explained.