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Is Denver the Next Boulder? Natural Foods Industry Hitting Critical Mass

MM Local showcases the farm of origin on its labels.

MM Local sources peaches from the Western Slope.

A tour of the chicken coop at High Plains Food Cooperative.

Brian Freeman of Grower's Organic.

Carrots from Grower's Organic.

The High Plains Food Cooperative.

A delivery from Grower's Organic.

Many organic and natural food companies have opted for Denver over Boulder, including MM Local, High Plains Food Cooperative and Grower's Organic. Could Denver ever rival Boulder, the "50-yard line" of the industry, as a natural foods hub?
Nicknamed the "50-yard line of the organic foods industry," Boulder has rightfully earned its title as a natural foods hub, but Denver is also commanding attention from the industry thanks to a growing number of natural-food companies based here.
Much like Boulder, natural and organic food is in keeping with Denver's health conscious lifestyle. The citywide desire to increase access to quality, locally grown food and build a more sustainable food system is helping catalyze this boom, along with Denver's logistical advantages.
Moving to the big city
One company doing just that is MM Local, partnering with local family farms to can and preserve produce at the height of ripeness -- making it possible to enjoy delicious organic Western Slope peaches, Paonia pears, pickled peppers and tomatoes at the peak of perfection, even in the dead of winter. "Our focus has been 100 percent on local produce, grown and sold within Colorado," says Co-Founder and CO-CEO Ben Mustin. 
The company recently moved from Boulder to a new facility on Brighton Boulevard in RiNo. In addition to the fact a larger facility offered the company more capacity to produce, the main reason behind the move to Denver was less expensive real estate than that in Boulder. The more central location was also a big draw for the company. "Being right at the crossroads of I-25 and I-70 puts us in a great place to really be able to interact effectively with farmers from all over the state," says Mustin.
"Because natural and organic foods have become such big business, and Denver is the bigger city, companies are beginning to realize they don't have to be in Boulder," says Growers Organic Co-Founder Brian Freeman.
While the company continues to have a loyal following in Boulder, Mustin says that the Denver natural foods community has been just as supportive as the Boulder community and that the company has received great consumer response from Denver. "There are lots of great independent retailers as well as a strong presence from Whole Foods and King Soopers," says Mustin. "I think all of that makes for a really robust, thriving natural foods market."
In an effort to support local agriculture and provide customers with the best deal on products, MM Local's Harvest Share program offers members exclusive access to bulk shares of produce that vary depending on the harvest. Advance orders allow the company to buy more quality produce from local farms, which subsequently has a greater impact on Colorado's local food economy. Members have the opportunity to meet and pick up produce together, which Mustin says is a great community builder. "A growing focus for our company is being a center for interaction with local foods." 
In fact, every jar of MM Local produce is issued with a code that makes it traceable back to the farm where it was grown. "Our hope is that people will go on our website and learn about the community behind the agriculture of Colorado," says Mustin.
Sidestepping the middleman
High Plains Food Cooperative aims to take access to locally grown foods one step further by food security through diversity, and enhancing overall rural sustainability. 
The High Plains Food Cooperative.The web-based coop is essentially an online marketplace where consumers and producer members can order or sell some 700 different items, including produce, meats, grains and dairy. Small family farmers and ranchers can sell directly to the consumer thereby eliminating the middleman.
For Chris Schmidt, President of Consumers, total food security means having access to affordable wholesome food, even when the normal food supply chains are interrupted. "Food security is when you know who produced your food and where it came from and that person is only a phone call away," says Schmidt.
The Coop also works with three organizations in the metro area that distribute food to the needy, "We have accounts set up that members can donate into and these funds are used to purchase food," says Schmidt.
Bringing organic to the masses
Brian Freeman of Grower's Organic.Grower's Organic Co-Founder Brian Freeman was born with a passion for organic living and started his company out of a desire to improve the planet and preserve the health of its soil. "For me organics is more about the planet than personal health," says Freeman.
The company, based on the north side of Denver, is currently the only 100 percent organic produce distribution company in the city, purchasing certified organic produce from more than 50 farmers in the local area. Some of Freeman's biggest customers include Whole Foods, King Soopers and numerous high-end restaurants in Denver.
For the longest time Boulder maintained much of the attention from the natural foods industry and for Freeman that was because the majority of the farms and companies who gravitated towards Boulder were organic. But given the fact that a number of successful food companies are equally if not better suited to the Denver market, the future certainly looks bright for Denver's natural foods community.
"Because natural and organic foods have become such big business, and Denver is the bigger city, companies are beginning to realize they don't have to be in Boulder," says Freeman.

Read more articles by Katie Rapone.

Katie is a British, Denver-based freelance writer with a niche for Health and Wellness. Contact her here.
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