By Elliott Bochstein, RCAC Staff Writer
Arizona’s Round Valley is home to Apache County’s twin communities of Eagar and Springerville. Just 15 miles from the state’s border with New Mexico, the sister cities are the self-proclaimed “Gateway to the White Mountains.” Eagar-Springerville borders the oasis-like Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, which contains diverse ecosystems, abundant fishing streams, dozens of lakes, hundreds of mountains and part of the world’s largest contiguous Ponderosa pine forest. The Little Colorado River slashes through the valley, bringing milky, sediment-rich snowmelt and runoff to the greater Colorado River.
About 7,000 people live in the two cities. The local economy is historically based on agriculture and timber, making it susceptible to boom-bust cycles and other factors that affect commodity prices. Rising environmental concerns during the 1970s and 1980s led to declines in local timber and wood production, and with it, many of the jobs they generated. At the same time, two large coal-fired power stations were built in the county, bringing power to the Southwest and family wages plus benefits to local households. The coal plants continue to be the valley’s primary employer despite an ongoing, if uneven, shift to renewable energy sources.
While local residents are well acquainted with their community’s challenges, they’re also keenly aware of its tremendous potential and the need to diversify away from purely extractive, raw resource-based sectors. The region has long been a mecca for ranchers, fishermen and hunters; and tourists flock to the area year-round to enjoy its abundant outdoor recreation opportunities. Despite this, banks and traditional lending institutions are hesitant to invest in the area due to its historically low socioeconomic status, scarce infrastructure and rural nature.
In 2015, residents formed the Foundation for Little Colorado Revitalization (FfLCR), a nonprofit 501c3 dedicated to boosting local small businesses, creating jobs and improving rural quality of life in southern Apache County. Karalea Cox, a fifth-generation Arizona cattle rancher with a background in higher education, heads the organization as board president. After over a decade of consulting, project development and capacity building in rural communities across the country, the rural veteran was eager for a new challenge.
“It was hard for me to come home and not see things happen,” Cox explained. “So, I decided, what the heck—let’s form our own nonprofit.”
In 2019, the foundation called on Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) for help obtaining grant funds from U.S. Department of Agriculture – Rural Development (USDA-RD) to strengthen its still-fragile capacity. “We were a relatively young nonprofit, all-volunteer, with no budget or financial history,” Cox said. “RCAC walked us through those really important steps of capacity building; they helped us with policies, procedures and procurement. RCAC helped us hold ourselves together, which was important to secure funds and develop and administer larger projects.”
Using USDA-RD grant funds, the foundation established a revolving loan fund to support small and emerging businesses. Later, RCAC hosted two Recharging Our Community Economy (ROCE) workshops that attracted a broad range of community participants who held a spirited discussion about how to unlock the valley’s potential for innovative and sustainable development.
“The idea behind these workshops is to really look at the existing assets within the community and identify projects they want to take ownership over, in line with what the community feels is needed to improve their quality of life,” said RCAC Rural Development Specialist Laura Dubin, who helped facilitate the workshops. “So many project ideas came out of our discussions.”
The group identified the industries that form the cornerstone of regional development: livestock ranching, agriculture, and water supply. These industries involve a complex network of activities and businesses that collaborate to create, process, and distribute products and services, which are commonly known as value chains. “All of these things came together,” Cox said.
Since the late 19th century, ranching has been a central facet of regional culture for foreign-origin and Indigenous communities alike. Yet the traditional cattle industry brings little prosperity to local communities, and ranchers must often supplement their modest incomes through outside part-time work. As is the case across the rural West, cattle producers in southern Apache County rely on rates offered by a handful of large multinational corporations that wield a de facto monopoly over the beef market. It’s estimated that the big four meatpackers control 85 percent of the industry.
“As a cattle rancher, I’m tired of losing my tail end,” Cox said before giving examples of how the meat industry puts the squeeze on small ranches. Having done considerable work around food systems, Cox decries how the “huge conglomerates” profit from their position as intermediaries in the beef supply chain, at great cost to rural communities and ranchers who typically receive pennies on the consumer dollar.
Additionally, the industry giants often source their beef from offshore mega-ranches and feedlots that fuel environmental degradation, ecological collapse and rights abuses in places like the Brazilian Amazon and South Africa. These questionable meat products can carry a “Product of the USA” label provided they are slaughtered stateside. Small domestic producers and especially those who favor regenerative, environmentally responsible agriculture cannot cover costs, let alone eke out a profit, under such highly concentrated market conditions.
Cattle ranchers around the White Mountains and southern Apache County had to find a way to cut out the middleman and break even, especially with beef prices through the roof. “We had lots of conversations about how to boost revenues and income streams because selling to those four big packers is a dead end – our ranchers just don’t make a dime, it’s almost impossible,” Cox said.
A new vision emerged from the RCAC-facilitated workshops: the foundation would create its own meat processing facility, a social enterprise that produces high-quality, USDA-certified beef. The project would grow value-added production, shrink rural dependency and reintroduce high-quality, responsibly raised meat to food-insecure communities across Apache County and surrounding areas. Thus, Little Colorado Meats was born.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the vision’s realization, it did not derail it. RCAC returned in 2021 to resume the ROCE workshops. During this period, the foundation obtained about $2 million in low-interest loans and grants from USDA-RD’s Community Facilities (CF) Program. The CF program assists community-based nonprofits to develop essential public services and facilities, such as local food systems, in rural communities.
Next, the foundation obtained land for Little Colorado Meats and established a facility that includes three uniquely designed modular units where cattle are butchered, processed and inspected by USDA staff. “We chose structures that we could add on to quickly and easily without really a lot of construction,” Cox said. The facility also has a USDA-approved mobile Meat Harvest Unit that travels directly to ranches to process their cattle. Once the meat is inspected and graded, ranchers have two options: they can sell their meat themselves or sell harvest-ready livestock to Little Colorado Meats. The team hopes to aggregate and sell meat from local ranchers to meet the larger institutional demand for solutions to regional food insecurity challenges.
“This mobile unit allows us to get to areas that wouldn’t have another opportunity to compete outside the traditional ‘Big Four’-dominated cattle market,” Cox said. “It makes us more accessible to socially disadvantaged communities, Native American reservations and smaller producers. This will give them new market opportunities, and the revenue they receive will allow them to expand, just as we intend to.”
Little Colorado Meats launched a local sales website this summer but hopes to eventually start shipping beyond its region once it can iron out the logistics. Cox expects operations to expand significantly over the next several years.
Meanwhile, the foundation is actively seeking out more grant opportunities to maximize its loan fund’s impact. RCAC staff continue to facilitate discussions to identify and explore opportunities related to meat production, such as recycling waste and byproducts into organic soil amendments that benefit local agriculture. Cox appreciates RCAC’s willingness to share its rural knowledge and experience without reservation.
“Sometimes we rural people can be such concrete thinkers, but we’re not so good at planning or talking abstract, big ideas, and it’s easy to get bogged down in the weeds,” Cox said. “RCAC helped us step up, clear the weeds, look around, and say, ‘we can do this!’”
Also in this issue of Network News:
Case study: Rancho del Conejo Community Water Co-Op
Rancho del Conejo Community Water Co-Op, Inc. (RCCWC) serves a small colonia of approximately 900 people in the Saguaro National Park area near Tucson, Arizona. Water in the region naturally contains arsenic and the system has long struggled to collect sufficient revenue to cover its operating expenses, let alone make necessary repairs. RCCWC’s treatment plant was on the brink of failure before the system began working with Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC).