The early September freeze ended the growing season, and for Matt Walker, that meant picking all of his fruits and vegetables before the cold snap arrived.
“If those two freezes wouldn’t have come back to back, we’d still be going right now, because we’ve got great weather,” he said.
But that’s the nature of Wyoming weather. You never know what’s going to happen next.
Walker is the owner of Equality State Farms, and he’s worked with public officials over the past year to get permission to farm vegetables on otherwise unused public land, as well as private parcels.
Although the growing season is over, Walker will not be sitting around this winter doing nothing.
Instead, Walker will be busy in the coming months. He’s building greenhouses so he can keep growing vegetables. He’s in the middle of starting a food processing facility and he also has a subscription service in the works.
He’s already looking forward to next spring. With one season already under his belt, he won’t have to do as much research on the fly, he said.
“I’ll have much more time next year, and I’ll go into this winter planning for the setup for the spring,” he said. “Instead of getting there the first day, wondering, ‘what do I put where?’ I’ll come out of the box ready to rock.”
His goal is to promote sustainability and healthy eating while energizing the local economy.
This spring, Walker and his neighbor, Casey Pinkerton, started Equality State Farms in Gillette in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He planted fruits and vegetables in empty lots around town, the largest one being next to Gillette College. He also planted a pumpkin patch off Lakeway Road.
Walker started a twice-weekly farmers market that attracted a lot of repeat customers. He estimated he sold between 4,000 and 5,000 pounds at the farmers markets, and he’s sold 400 pounds to the Campbell County School District.
Walker has big ideas, but he also understands the importance of being grounded to reality, of not biting off more than he can chew. For example, he had 15 acres that he didn’t plant anything in this year, just because he didn’t know how the urban farm concept would go.
Those acres are plowed and ready to go for next year. With all the farms combined, he’ll have 30 total acres.
“Whatever you can work, put that much in,” he said. “When you figure it out, double it up.”
Additions he wants to make next year include putting in apple, plum and pear orchards, which “do really well here, believe it or not,” he said.
He’s going to plant the trees next year, but it’ll be at least 12 months before they bear fruit.
Right now, Walker’s biggest project is starting up a processing facility in southern Gillette in the old Winland Dairy building. He already has mapped out in his head where everything is going to go, from where the fruits and vegetables will be washed off to where they’ll be stored to where they’ll be turned into products such as spaghetti sauce.
It’s a mostly empty building right now, but Walker hopes that in a little more than three months, it’ll be the headquarters for Equality State Farms.
He had wanted to use the old Skyline Grille, but because it was a former restaurant, it didn’t really fit his needs, so he began looking for other buildings. The old Winland Dairy, in south Gillette near Southern Drive and Highway 59, caught his eye because it was big and empty, and when he learned it used to be a dairy, he thought it might be the perfect fit.
Walker said he only needed 20 minutes of walking through the building to map it out.
“I started putting the pieces of the puzzle together right away,” he said. “It’s insane, because obviously nothing’s perfect, but you couldn’t have found a better building in Gillette. This is the one.”
He began working on the layout and the flow of the building with an engineer last week. Once that’s complete, he can move ahead with permitting and licensing through the city of Gillette and the fire department. After that, he has to get the Department of Agriculture on board.
He estimated it’ll be about 90 to 100 days before he can open up the production facility. To start, he’ll employ between 20 and 25 workers, who will work in three eight-hour shifts.
Farm to table
Walker also has greenhouses being built that will be ready to go by the end of October. He plans to continue to grow during the winter to supply the school district and a food subscription service, which he hopes to launch soon.
An app and website are currently in development. The idea is people can go online or on the app and choose what produce and canned goods they want from Equality State Farms for that week, and the food will be delivered to their home.
“We’re trying to get you to look at the way you eat and feed your family seven days at a time,” he said.
It’s up to them whether they want to order the same food each week or try something new. Walker said he wants people to be less reliant on big corporations like Walmart or Smith’s.
“They’re fine, they do a job, but also, you’ve got nothing else,” he said. “If their supply chain gets disrupted, you’re a long way from the headquarters. You’re going to be one of the last ones getting your stuff.”
He wants local people to work in the processing facility and to work as delivery drivers. He hopes to create that connection between residents and the people who handle their food.
“Not only did we make that here, but we grew that here. People you know are doing these jobs,” he said.
Besides that sense of community, there also is a sense of comfort in that, he added.
“You won’t go into Walmart without your mask on, but someone handled your food 1,400 miles away and you don’t think about that,” he said.
For Walker, knowing where his food comes from is very important. The shorter the distance the food has to travel from the farm to your plate, the better.
He plans to offer tours and field trips of the facility and the farms and greenhouses, so that if anyone has any questions about how things are done, they can see for themselves.
“There’s nothing made behind closed doors, nothing shipped out of state or out of country,” he said.
Walker sold 400 pounds of produce to the Campbell County School District: 100 pounds each of bell peppers, cantaloupe, beans and tomatoes.
The cantaloupe was one crop that really took him by surprise.
“I put it in late, just to fill a row, and it was one of the best growers,” he said. “Next year there’ll be plenty.”
Things have moved quickly, Walker said. It took just four months to go from planting to selling to the school district.
Bryan Young, the nutrition services supervisor for the district, said it was a great start, and he’s excited about where the program can go from here.
“We didn’t get a whole lot from them, but the stuff we did get was really good,” he said.
The green beans and peppers went to Buffalo Ridge Elementary, and the cantaloupe and tomatoes went to CCHS.
At this point, it wouldn’t be realistic to expect Walker to supply the district with most of its food, Young said, because the schools go through a lot of food in a short amount of time. For example, the hundred pounds of cantaloupe was enough for lunch at CCHS for one day.
“The possibility of getting locally grown produce is what’s really exciting,” Young said, adding that he plans to work with Walker to educate students on how much time and effort it takes to grow one fruit or vegetable.
“We tried to get this going with some other local growers and nothing ever came to fruition. But now, to actually have stuff we can serve to the kids is exciting,” Young said.
Often, people don’t think about their food until it shows up on a plate in front of them, Young said.
“Hopefully, we can see the program grow to getting kids out to the gardens, showing kids where and how stuff is grown,” he said.
Young plans to put together educational programs and field trips where students can pick vegetables for themselves and bring recipes home and get their parents involved as well.
Besides students, Walker hopes to help out local senior citizens with the urban farm on the old Westwood property on Sixth Street. He got off to a late start with that one and didn’t get much produce from it this summer, but he’s excited for next year.
He has met with the Campbell County Senior Center and will be planning an events calendar for the seniors where they can pick, plant, weed or water the garden, and a certain amount of produce from that farm will go to the Senior Center.
Walker’s not thinking about expanding yet. He wants to see how things go next year, then work on making his business model scalable.
If it does take off, Walker envisions having small distribution centers in different parts of the state. In the next six years, he hopes to be in five or six other cities in Wyoming.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, many people were stuck at home and their fast-paced lives slowed down to a crawl. Walker hopes that as things get back to normal, that slower pace sticks around.
“We’ve got a good opportunity to slow our lives down, pump the brakes,” he said. “We shouldn’t be so eager to turn it back into the fast thing it was. Slow down, look it over, pay attention.”
If Gillette College is to become part of its own community college district, separating from the Northern Wyoming Community College District will require a lot of financial finagling.
Ownership stakes in some Gillette College assets would have to be sorted out, including the Pronghorn Center and Gillette Technical Education Center.
Also, in the event of a split overhead costs currently shared with the NWCCD would have to be paid separately, possibly costing each district millions of dollars. It would sever the connection between Gillette College and the NWCCD, which started as Sheridan College.
The Wyoming Community College Commission has 90 days to review and decide on Campbell County’s application to form a new district. The clock began ticking with the formal submission of the application Sept. 1. If approved, it would move to the state Legislature and from there, to a public vote.
If Gillette College has its own governing district, it will be challenging to work out that financial separation and how that could potentially impact the local college or the NWCCD moving forward.
“It is very difficult to estimate the fiscal impact of a split just using round numbers,” said NWCCD Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Cheryl Heath during a recent Gillette College advisory board work session.
One of the financial impacts that’s easier to see is the prospect of paying for shared overhead costs separately. As a single district, the colleges share the costs of things like IT infrastructure, software licensing and some staff or faculty positions.
“As a combined district, sharing those costs is economy of scale,” Heath said.
Those shared overhead costs are estimated at about $5 million to $5.9 million annually. In the event of a split, each college would have to pay close to that number on its own, Heath said.
“If there is a split, both separate colleges would still incur similar costs,” Heath said. “The amount may be different, but we’d each need a president, we’d each need a CFO, we’d each need HR and things like that.”
While some of the rough numbers were laid out for the Gillette College Advisory Board, it’s still early in the process, and if a split were to happen there will be a much more detailed breakdown of the finances to come.
“This is like the forest and you’re going to see the trees,” NWCCD President Walter Tribley said during the work session. “When you see the trees, you’ll know where the trees come from.
“These are rough splits. It’s hard to figure it out, but if you do tease it out, we’re moving in that direction in digestible sizes.”
To further complicate matters, NWCCD owns percentages of certain fixed assets that are part of Gillette College.
For example, the district owns 22% of the Gillette Technical Education Center and 22% of the Pronghorn Center, a relatively new arena that will no longer host Gillette College basketball games since the district canceled all sports other than rodeo earlier this summer. That abrupt move to eliminate athletics at both Gillette and Sheridan colleges was the catalyst to spur the local effort to break Gillette College from the NWCCD.
How the ownership of those assets is settled if and when it becomes necessary is unknown.
“We don’t know, but we all need to know these are the webs, these are the connections,” Tribley said. “They are big dollar items and they are going to have to be dealt with.”
Untangling the web
The more detailed the financial discussion became, the more difficult the web was to untangle.
For purposes of comparison, Heath said Gillette College’s credit hours measured closely to Eastern Wyoming College in Torrington, and Campbell County’s tax base was contrasted with Western Wyoming Community College in Sweetwater County.
Gillette College generates about as many weighted credit hours as Eastern Wyoming College, which had an operating budget of $14.6 million for fiscal year 2020, Heath said. Although Sweetwater County’s assessed value is less than Campbell County’s, it is the highest in Wyoming among those with community college districts.
Enrollment statistics are determined using a weighted formula that values course levels at different values. For example, higher-level courses are weighted higher than lower-level courses.
“On average, 60% of weighted credit hours are generated in Sheridan and Johnson counties and 40% in Gillette,” Heath said.
That weighted calculation is just one of several pieces that determine the amount of state money a community college district receives.
“That’s a real, real rough estimation,” she said.
To receive state funding, the district must assess at least 4 mills of property tax. While the 4 mills are not required for the college district to exist, they are statutorily required if the district wants access to state funding.
For 2020, Campbell County’s assessed valuation is $4.24 billion, meaning 1 mill now raises $4.24 million, with 4 mills raising a little less than $17 million.
The Board of Cooperative Higher Education Services, or BOCHES, receives a half-mill of property taxes in Campbell County, and much of that goes to Gillette College.
The Campbell County Commissioners estimated the assessed value of the county to dip and stabilize around $3.6 billion over the next few years. That would drop the value of a mill to about $3.6 million and bring the value of 4 mills to about $14.4 million.
Campbell County and the city of Gillette have invested millions of dollars into Gillette College over the years.
Campbell County has invested more than $32 million in capital infrastructure, Gillette has contributed more than $22 million and the state of Wyoming, in partnership with local government, also has invested more than $22 million.
Additionally, the Gillette College Foundation has invested more than $5 million, according to the county’s application.
There will be many finer details to suss out as the prospect of Gillette College leaving the NWCCD moves forward. If and when that time comes is still undetermined.
Two public hearings in October will gather public input into the creation of a new college district. One will be in Gillette on Oct. 10 and another is scheduled for Oct. 14 in Riverton.
The college commission is expected to vote on whether to accept the Gillette College application at its Nov. 20 meeting.