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Paonia food co-op fills a growing need

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Photo by Tamie Meck The husband-and-wife team of Mary George and John Mattox recently opened a state-certified food processing center in Paonia. Named after Edesia, the Roman goddess of feasting and banquets, the facility is available for commercial proce

The summer of 2016 was a banner year for North Fork fruit growers. And while that's a good thing, finding buyers for tons and tons of fresh food before it goes bad can be a challenge. This summer a Rogers Mesa grower ended up with 1,600 pounds of fresh peaches and no buyer. Not wanting them to go to waste, they turned to Mary George and John Mattox.

"It's frustrating to see good food go to waste," said George. But in agricultural areas it's not uncommon, especially in a bumper-crop year, for growers to throw away food.

In response to a growing need for food processing facilities, George and Mattox opened a commercial kitchen and food co-op last June in a 6,000-square-foot warehouse on Clark Avenue. The facility allowed them to refrigerate the Rogers Mesa peaches, giving the grower time to find an outlet. Many of the peaches went to the Delta County School District.

They believe their timing in opening the facility is good. The real estate market is being fueled by people coming to the valley for the relatively low property values and lifestyle. They also see a lot of opportunities for agricultural-based businesses. The space offers access to food prep space, commercial ovens, a dehydrator, a wood-fired pizza oven and a small freeze-dryer. While freeze-dried food isn't as good as fresh, said George, the process maintains about 95 percent of original nutrition in food.

George, who ran Backcountry Bistro in Paonia for about three years, has worked in the food industry for more than two decades. She and her sister opened the Blue Moon Cafe in Silverthorne about 20 years ago and ran it for three years before opening a co-op kitchen where they made breads and bagels. Using a wood-fired pizza oven they opened a small pizzeria. Business was great, said George.

She and Mattox are now in the process of moving the equipment to Paonia.

The business of making specialty and value-added products -- raw agricultural products modified, processed or enhanced to provide a higher market value and/or longer shelf life -- is growing, said George. Under the Colorado Cottage Foods Act, individuals can sell limited types and amounts of value-added, or specialty items made in their home kitchens directly to consumers. But in order to make the jump to selling products wholesale or to restaurants, a state-certified kitchen is required, and that can be costly. Because of the growing value-added food market, food incubators that provide a place to test and produce products are becoming more common.

They have already been approached with several ideas, including baby food company and a bakery. Citizen Raw, a local start-up owned by Leah Petzmezas, is already using the facility for manufacturing raw foods into crackers, dips and other items.

"There's always someone saying that if they had a place to process the food, they could start a business," said George. Petzezas is a perfect example of someone caught between working out of home and selling on a wholesale level.

Word has gotten out about the facility, and the demand is quickly growing. Earlier this year they applied for a grant through the USDA Local Food Promotion Program, which supports development and expansion of local and regional food business enterprises. That allows businesses to increase access to local foods and for local growers to develop new market opportunities.

The grant would have covered three years of start-up costs and purchase of equipment specific to processing value-added foods, including walk-in refrigerator space and a large dehydrator and freeze-dryer. They didn't get the grant. Feedback from the USDA indicated that Paonia was maybe a little too remote and indicated that they were taking on a bigger project than they were prepared to handle, said George. "I don't think they really understood the depth of our community resources."

Funding, she said, went to larger food hubs, including an organization in San Francisco and the Boulder Valley School District. "They were pretty large, well-organized entities."

George said they will take feedback into consideration and re-apply next year. While they wait for the next grant cycle, they are researching other funding sources.

And while it's disappointing, they are moving forward.

They are now seeking caterers, cooks, and others interested in the facility or who are looking to serve farm-to-table dinners or open a restaurant. George said there is already a need in the area for catering services, and weddings have even been moved to other towns where catering is available. They hope by next summer to have a pop-up restaurant and to bring in guest chefs to test recipes.

Interested parties can contact George at 393-2914. "Feel free to stop by and see us anytime," said George. "There's always somebody doing something in there."

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