Alamosa Elementary K-2 kitchen manager Veronica Salazar serves up Rockey Farm fingerlings on Wednesday.
VALLEY — Eaters across the Valley celebrated National Food Day on Wednesday thanks to collaboration between local farmers, school food service directors and the San Luis Valley Local Foods Coalition (SLVLFC).
Brothers Brendon and Sheldon Rockey, Rockey Farm, and Amy Kunugi, general manager of Nature Fresh Organics, both of Center, donated fingerling potatoes and organic carrots to nine school districts participating in the movement toward a healthier, more affordable and sustainable food system in the United States. SLCLFC volunteers delivered the two tons of tubers and roots to each district’s kitchen where food service directors had to clean, cut, chop, season and cook the spuds to make the special meal possible.
“The students and staff loved the fresh valley grown produce,” said Sandra Mueller, head of Del Norte School District’s nutrition operation. “After talking to students, teachers and administrators, we will definitely be serving both items again. What a great way for our students to experience farm to school produce.”
Rocky Mountain SER Head Start nutrition coordinator Carol Keith agreed, “What a beautiful donation to our children. We will use the carrots and potatoes in our RMSER Head Starts in Alamosa, Conejos and Costilla Counties. The children will look at the produce and we will talk about how it is grown and that it comes from our local friendly farmers. The Farm to School program is featured on our information boards at the Boyd Center.”
Sanford School District nutrition director May Martinez stated, “For Farm-to-School, sometimes we get produce from Durango or somewhere else in Colorado or New Mexico. I think the kids will really appreciate that this comes locally from our neighbors in the San Luis Valley. I am definitely going to show off the produce to the kids and make a big deal about our local farmers.”
The SLVLFC made sure each student new where the food was coming from. The group created Know Your Farmer posters that were hung on the lunch line while the fresh vegetables were being served.
Sangre de Cristo fifth grade substitute Lynne Thompson sat with students during lunch and reported, “It was unanimous the potatoes were the bomb. Many liked the plain carrots, but really loved the carrot cake.”
Joni Bilderbeck, Alamosa Food Service director, has been working with Nature Fresh for several years and was excited to get the yellow gourmet fingerlings from Rockey Farms. It takes her and her crew approximately a half-ton of potatoes and carrots to feed the district’s students.
“They loved the potatoes and carrots,” she said.
Food service directors Sarah Hurtado, Centennial School District; Bernice Archuleta, Sierra Grande School District; Tami Tims and Gloria Gutierrez, Monte Vista School District; and Cindy Archuleta, Mountain Valley School District all participated in the Farm to School event.
Local farmers making it possible
Kunugi is very proud of Nature Fresh and its sister farm, Southern Colorado Farms, both of which she manages just north of Center.
“We are growing vegetables in the middle of potato country while practicing sustainable agriculture,” she said.
To Kunugi, this means maintaining the land and the health of the labor force.
“We are constantly trying to improve the land and quality of life for people working the land so it will be here for future generations,” she said.
She added that she is willing to donate organic carrots to the schools like she has been for several years because she believes children should be eating lots of nutrient-dense foods.
“I see a potential for Farm to School,” Kunugi said. “It is not that the farmer can’t supply the schools; it is the piece in the middle – distribution. Then the vegetables need to be washed and cut up. In Alamosa they still cook, but not all schools are able to.”
She said she believes fresh food is better. It is healthier, contains more of its nutrients and it tastes better, which is the key. Fruits and vegetables that land in the school trash don’t add much nutrition to the students’ health.
At Rockey Farm, they decided to give up the ‘cides (fungicide, herbicide, pesticide) in favor of creating a balanced soil health. As a result, costs and water usage have gone down and the quality of the products has gone up.
Innovation is in the Rockey family. Floyd and Vera Rockey bought land in 1938 and were known for farming and their chickens, eggs, milk and cream deliveries. Their son, Warren Rockey, earned a degree in agronomy at CSU and did a tour of Vietnam. He came home wounded to run the farm. Warren had a 100 sow hog operation and grew the land under production to four circles. His brother Verlin got a degree in physics and after working at White Sands for many years as an analytical engineer returned back to the land to help his brother farm.
Sheldon and Brendon both graduated from Center High School while running center pivots with their uncle. Their father insisted on a higher education, so Sheldon went to Colorado State University to get a degree in agricultural engineering, and Brendon followed with a degree in horticulture.
In 1993, in response to White Mountain Farm of Mosca’s desire to grow certified seed fingerlings, the Rockey family brought fingerling potatoes in from Europe. Cornell University helped them with the first batch of clean tissue culture. They grew the tissue culture plantlets in the greenhouse and then it went out into field. The Rockey outfit was the first in the United States to do this. Their specialty potato business is still a successful and they have just recently partnered with White Mountain Farm to create a new packing facility in the former Sangre de Cristo Middle/High School building..
“We see ourselves as leaders in the community and we really support the Farm to School concept.” Sheldon said. “A box of San Luis Valley specialty potatoes goes for $30 here in the Valley. Once you add freight and diesel you couldn’t touch a box of these for under $50. There is a huge advantage to using local products.”