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A farmer, a baker, a kombucha maker: The colorful characters behind Riverton’s local food movement

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Fremont Local Market employee Donna Byrd chats with a customer at the store on April 25, 2024. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)
Katie Klingsporn with WyoFile, via the Wyoming News Exchange


How a cowboy poet, home gardener, ancient grain miller and others helped make food connections in central Wyoming.

RIVERTON—When Steve Doyle and his family moved from New Orleans to an old farm property on the outskirts of this central Wyoming town in 2007, he was surprised to discover he couldn’t find local food.

“I mean, we come to this small ag town and realize there’s no milk, there’s no bread, there’s no eggs,” he said. “I just didn’t get it.”

So his family started selling eggs.

“Well, that was the beginning of a lot of problems we had with the state,” he said.

Turns out, red tape and other factors had created a situation where local food was hard to sell and hard to come by, he said, even in a community ringed by agricultural lands.

Over the years, Doyle connected with others who wanted to clear away food barriers in this blue-collar town at the confluence of the Big and Little Wind rivers. A group coalesced, created a nonprofit, started a farmers market they ran for 10 years, worked with lawmakers on groundbreaking food freedom legislation and watched their labor bear fruit as a local food marketplace took root. In 2022, the organization opened a brick-and-mortar local food co-op in a downtown space where a flea market once hawked trinkets.

On a weekday morning this spring, a steady trickle of customers flowed through the shop, picking out pastries, buying bagged mushroom powder and perusing frozen meats. Here in Fremont Local Market, nearly 100 local artisans sell everything from pickles to homeopathic cough syrup, arugula, eggs and candles.

Some of the core food group, who sat around a sun-splashed table talking about their journey, said they are pleased with the progress. It hasn’t been easy, or lucrative. But maybe more than anything else, their story is evidence of how a divergent cast of characters — from a backyard gardener to a former cattle broker, ancient grain baker and military veteran — can put personal and political differences aside in the name of a common cause. Riverton, a conservative town that’s home to the region’s only Walmart, isn’t the most obvious candidate for a thriving local food scene.

Different as the group’s members are, they’ve got one key thing in common.

“I mean, we all eat. We all love food,” said Sherry Shelley, a Riverton gardener with waist-length silver hair who has been involved from the early days.

Here are their stories.


The poet

When I asked Jack Schmidt how his interest in food began, he patted his belly and chuckled, blue eyes twinkling in humor.

The full story is more involved. Schmidt grew up on a farm near Kansas City. His father worked as a cattle buyer for a meat packer and later as an independent broker, and Schmidt helped his mother run the farm, where they grew half an acre of vegetables, rotated field crops and turned animals on the land.

Schmidt, who has white hair and a sonorous voice, followed in his father’s footsteps and became a cattle broker. Things were a lot different back then, he said, before the internet and when small farms were far more common. He enjoyed the personal connections and the work.

But when large feedlots proliferated, “our job just disappeared … so I went to work for the big guys.” He never felt good about the way the cattle were treated, however.

When he retired in Riverton, he got a job as the dutch-oven cook for a Dubois outfitter. That’s when he started performing cowboy poetry, another fireside activity. His voice is well-suited for recitation, and he’s always been able to remember poetry.

He also married a local librarian, who ended up working at Central Wyoming College. He met his fellow foodies through that connection.

“Sherry Shelley had a local food symposium up there,” he said. “And that’s kind of where we all met … We could see a movement was coming, but you know, how do you help it?”

With bumps and starts, they formed the nonprofit Fremont Local Food and launched the weekly market. For his part, Schmidt contributed knowledge gleaned from the meat and restaurant industry.

The biggest challenge has been overcoming bureaucratic overreach, he said. The Food Freedom Act, which his group advocated for, was a major achievement.

First enacted by the Wyoming Legislature in 2015 and amended since, the act eliminated a host of regulations on local, homemade food sales provided products are sold “to an informed end consumer.” That means as long as customers understand the product isn’t certified, licensed or regulated, the sale of small-scale items is above board. Producers can sell virtually anything meat-free under its stipulations, from jellies to prepared meals, pastries and raw milk. There are also provisions for certain live animals, as well as poultry, rabbit and fish, and stipulations that allow third-party retailers, like the Fremont Local Market, to sell producers’ wares.

“It was a long time coming,” Schmidt said.

The farmers

Nearly three dozen week-old lambs wobbled and bleated in the April sunshine at Doyle Family Farm. Spring was offering a preview of summer, and you could almost feel the grass growing under the warmth.

U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Steve Doyle and his wife, DeAnn, purchased this 120-acre property north of town in 2007 when he retired. The idea was to conventionally farm the property, which was homesteaded in 1922. But that, Doyle said, turned out to be a good way to go broke. The soil was too zapped of nutrients to support life. Huge investments and loans would be necessary to make it feasible, and red tape was a nightmare.

“We can’t do this,” he recalled saying.

Doyle went back to square one, read as much as he could and landed on regenerative farming. The technique focuses on building healthy soil as a foundation for healthy products.

Walking the perimeter of a field with his daughter, Morgan, he pointed to the grassy land, which they have loaded with organic matter through years of effort. A rooster occasionally broke the afternoon stillness with a hearty bugle.

Starting around 2012, the Doyles converted their fields to pasture and employed intensive grazing and other practices to enrich the soil. Today, the farm specializes in allowing animals to dine on its grass, all while sequestering carbon and using less water. Their vet bills have gone down, Doyle said, and their meat is outstanding.

Historic buildings, a meat locker and straw-bale structures sit on the property. It’s a diversified operation. The Doyle Family Farm grows a kitchen garden and sells eggs. They lease land to Morgan, who — when she’s not managing Fremont Local Market — raises and sells chickens, lamb and beef through Red Roof Meat Company. They invite patrons out for fowl processing days, sell at farmers markets and even rent out a small cabin as an Airbnb.

Along with implementing new systems at their own operation, Doyle and his family have been heavily involved in other systems changes — namely the Food Freedom Act. Doyle experienced the prior restrictions firsthand, he said, including cease-and-desist letters and other wrist-slapping from the state for not lining up with regulations. He drove to Cheyenne several times to lobby for the act, and still remembers his astonishment when it passed.

“I can tell you driving home I just felt like we had just pulled off the heist of the century,” he said.

With the Food Freedom Act, he said, Wyoming has gone from “draconian” food regulations to becoming a national leader in empowering producers and consumers. He gazes out at the lambs, which months from now will be processed into meat for sale at the shop.

“You can buy eggs now,” he said. “You can buy bread, you can buy local meat, you can buy it all now.”


The baker

Spring snow whipped the streets of Riverton on a late March morning. In the kitchen of his home in a residential neighborhood, Alma Law weighed balls of dough in 500-gram increments. His counters were cluttered with a scale, small dutch ovens, slips of parchment paper and a large plastic bucket in which his 600-year-old sourdough starter does the hard work. Under Law’s curly red beard, flour was dusted across his green shirt.

“So a week ago, I baked Einkhorn bread,” he said, referring to an ancient variety of wheat. “I took this bucket all the way down to the last little sourdough nub, and refilled it with water, salt and flour, and put it back in the fridge.”

After sitting in the fridge for at least 24 hours and coming up to temperature on the counter for another 12, voilá. The bucket contains sourdough of a variety devotees tout as superior in taste and health benefits.

Law’s grandmother always had a crock of sourdough starter in her fridge, but it disappeared when she passed away. He obtained his current starter 17 years ago, after a family in Anaconda, Montana, fed a huge crowd sourdough pancakes on July 4.

He went to talk to them after the meal. “Their sourdough starter was from pre-Columbian Spain, a Basque shepherd smuggled into the U.S. however long ago and it’s been in the husband’s family the whole time,” he said. Law paused to score the rested dough balls with a sharp knife before transferring them into the dutch ovens for a high-heat convection bake of about 35 minutes.

The Montana family gave him a pinch off their starter, and he and the ancient microbes have been feeding one another ever since. He can leave it in the fridge for six months without activating it, he said. “It’s strong.”

He started feeding it Einkhorn wheat after a local woman asked if he had considered using it. “I was like, what-horn?” he said. But he looked into it, and, intrigued by the supposed qualities of this “most ancient of wheat grains,” found that a farmer in Ralston grows it. He obtained some, started feeding it to his starter, experimented with recipes and became a convert.

Law stepped outside to conduct the second part of his task. He poured bowlfuls of wheat berries — which he sources from Loveland or Shoshoni — into a small mill. The machine hummed as it spit out milled wheat.

Baking and teaching were Law’s entry into the local food scene. The former seventh-grade teacher and father of two put a lot of focus on community improvement. With his students, he hatched a plan to raise money for the Riverton charity Eagle’s Hope by selling baked goods at the farmers market. Schmidt helped connect him to the market and he met Shelley; she paid the students’ booth fees.

Law eventually joined the Fremont Local Food board. Today, he sells loaves of Einkhorn, plus another variety and kombucha, to Fremont

The more people in town who grow and buy food, he said, the more resilient the scene becomes. That lesson was solidified by COVID, which underscored out “how obvious it was that we’re the last stop, we’re the last priority on the trucking routes.”

In his multi-state circle of baking friends, he added, there’s incredulity about what’s happening in Riverton.

They’re like, “‘You home-mill Einkhorn, an ancient grain which is like grown regeneratively, and you’re selling it at a market in the middle of nowhere, Wyoming?’” he said.

He opened his oven and removed the dutch oven lids for the final bake. The crusts had begun to turn golden and the smell permeated the kitchen. “It lights up your home,” he said.

The manager

Morgan Doyle, who has long red hair and a gentle voice, is the youngest member of the local food group at 27. “I got drug along,” she said in the store one day, pointing at Doyle. “I’m his kid.”

Though she grew up on the family farm alongside her older sister, Morgan was too involved in high school sports to give agriculture much thought. After she graduated, she enlisted in the Marines and served five years. When she finished that, her parents were struggling with the farm, she said, and she began to sense they might give up without help.

“So I moved home,” she said. Morgan started getting into markets, learned how to butcher and found a niche selling meat. She had ideas about selling directly to consumers and helped the local food operation grow.

“We’ve got a really supportive community here,” she said. “Right off the start, we had an amazing group of customers.”

Morgan also has excellent organizational skills, discipline and common sense, Shelley said. And when the local food board hired her to manage the downtown store, it was “the smartest thing we’ve ever done.”

As manager, Morgan seeks out and works with producers to stock the shelves with all manner of local products. She oversees employees and does a lot of education on where the products come from and the regulations for selling them.


The gardener

Of the crew, Shelley has lived in central Wyoming the longest. She grew up in Riverton, where her parents had a huge vegetable garden, and developed a passion for working the earth. The skilled green thumb has always kept a flower and vegetable garden, and she penned a gardening column for the Riverton Ranger for years.

She’s also big on civic engagement. Shelley has run for office, served on the county library board, managed the community garden and helped organize local food conferences.

From strengthening community connections to nutrition and keeping money circulating locally, there are ample reasons to support local food, she said. Actually building the infrastructure to grow it is much harder.

One of the things she credits for Riverton’s scene is a spirit of unifying around what matters — despite the host of differences between those involved.

“A fundamental driving force that we all shared from the very get-go was, ‘let’s get food going,’” she said. “We had a lot of different ideas about how to do that.”

It hasn’t always been easy. “There were times when I thought we were going to blow ourselves completely apart,” she said. What kept them together was mutual respect and the mission. “In the end, we always came back to that fundamental driving desire to make food grown locally available to consumers locally.”

The group’s lesson can be applied to many aspects of modern society, she said.

“I’ve said many times, ‘I wish we could clone our group because I think the world would be a much better place if people could learn to listen and care about people as humans instead of getting so dug into ideologies,’” Shelley said.

Doyle echoed that. “The beauty of the local food movement is that it doesn’t matter” where you sit on the political spectrum, he said. The issues of health, green space, local economy … “these things frankly aren’t political.”

The future

Fremont Local Foods partnered with Central Wyoming College to secure a grant to get the store off the ground. Now that it’s been running for more than a year, it’s up to the staff and board to determine how to make it sustainable.

It’s not a simple task. Local products are often more labor intensive, and more expensive. The store has to compete with prices at Smith’s and Walmart. Seasonality means that it won’t stock the same inventory year round.

There have been moments of doubt. Last fall, for example, the numbers looked bad enough that the board started talking about end strategies, Law said. Then someone had the idea to put together holiday gift baskets filled with local products. It was a hit that pulled numbers back into the black.

“From last January to this January, we’ve almost doubled in sales over the average for the day,” Morgan Doyle said. “It’s coming around” as more people appreciate small and local.

And it’s not just Riverton. The last Steve Doyle heard, 13 local food co-ops were operating around the state, a number that’s been growing. It’s proof the Food Freedom Act was as consequential as he imagined, he said.

Still, the board expects it will have to continue innovating and evolving. Schmidt considers a goal for Riverton’s food scene to provide 25% of the community’s total food consumption from local sources. “But we’re probably doing 2%,” Schmidt said.

“This is wonderful,” he said, gesturing around the main-street shop filled with local jams, asparagus and eggs. “But what’s the next step?”

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

This story was posted on May 21, 2024.

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