In a small storage room in Durango, Louise Barden opens a large plastic tub to reveal a pinwheel array of red, yellow, and green bell peppers, which have been dehydrated and stored since last summer. Louise’s wife and business partner, Jane, opens another container, and the unmistakable smell of broccoli mingles with the savory pepper scent in the air. The storage room is filled with similar buckets and tubs, each housing a selection of dried vegetables: delicata squash, carrots, green chiles, and more.

This storage room belongs to Farm to Summit, a vegetarian meal startup. Louise and Jane launched the business at the Durango Farmers Market last summer, and quickly grew a local following in the outdoor community because of their innovative take on dehydrated meals, which are ready to eat with the addition of hot water.

For multiday backcountry trips, adventurers often rely on dehydrated or freeze-dried meals, as fresh fruits and vegetables are heavy, take up valuable backpack space, and can require refrigeration. The inspiration for Farm to Summit came after Louise—a botanist with the U.S. Forest Service—spent two weeks in the Yellowstone backcountry, listening to her coworkers moan about their food. “I was listening to these grown men complain nonstop about their dehydrated meals,” Louise says.

Louise and Jane hope to offer adventurers healthier and tastier meals—like a white bean potato stew adapted from a recipe Jane grew up with, and a Thai red curry with a decadent peanut sauce—by sourcing upcycled produce from local producers such as Fields to Plate Produce and Beet Street and Sol Vista farms in an effort to reduce food waste and produce better-tasting dehydrated meals. “We wanted to create meals that don’t rely on a bunch of salt and preservatives,” Louise says. “Simple ingredients, a lot of flavors, and spices.”

Farm to Summit
Farm to Summit’s meals are made for the great outdoors. Photo by Carrie Phillips

The Bardens have each eaten plenty of pre-packaged meals in the backcountry, so they were familiar with the other products on the market when starting Farm to Summit. They knew they’d have to do something to make their business stand out. Jane, who grew up on a farm in Michigan, was adamant that they source their ingredients locally, not only for the flavor, but to support Colorado farmers. “It made sense on a personal level,” Jane says.

But using local food wasn’t enough. The Bardens wanted to make a bigger impact by upcycling produce that would otherwise go to waste. Fruits and vegetables often have imperfections, like bruises or irregular shapes, that make them undesirable at the grocery store, even though they’re still perfectly edible. Repurposing these ingredients into ready-to-eat meals finds alternative uses for foods that would otherwise go uneaten.

According to the USDA, 30 to 40 percent of the nation’s food supply is thrown away. Loss occurs at every stage in the journey from farm to table—in the field, during transportation, at the grocery store, and eventually at home. At the farm level, the price for a particular crop may drop below the cost of bringing it to market, meaning it’s more expensive to sell the food than to throw it away. During transportation, food is exposed to a myriad of risks, from insects to mold to faulty refrigeration. And it’s not just a problem in the United States. By some estimates, global food waste contributes to eight percent of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. “So much of food goes to waste,” Jane says. “Thrown away because it’s not perfect enough.”

Louise (left) and Jane Barden. Photo by Louise Barden

Although Durango is known more for outdoor recreation than agriculture, Louise says the area is a confluence of the farming and adventure communities. That’s why the two women tapped their local connections and discovered that farmers often had large quantities of ripe produce available with no buyers to be found—whether that’s because of imperfections or low demand. Dehydration, they realized, could not only prevent it from spoiling, but provide a steady stream of ingredients for their backcountry meals.

The Bardens take whatever is seasonal and available, even at a moment’s notice. Once last summer, a farmer from Fields to Plate called in a panic: He had 400 pounds of broccoli that needed to be harvested. The tips were beginning to yellow, which made the broccoli unsellable at grocery stores. Farm to Summit snatched up the crop and incorporated it into a green curry recipe that has now become a bestseller.

Today, Louise and Jane are in the process of moving their headquarters into a prime location on Durango’s Main Avenue that will serve as a kitchen, warehouse, and retail space. A number of outdoor gear shops in the area have begun carrying their products as well. “The support of the community is everything to us,” Louise says. “Durango is definitely putting the stamp of ‘hell yeah’ behind our business.”

The Bardens plan to open their new location in early May, providing customers with a behind-the-scenes view of their production process. The space will also allow them to increase production and expand distribution. They plan to have several retailers in the Denver area lined up for the summer season.

Naturally, Louise and Jane hope that using upcycled produce will help Farm to Summit stand out on the shelf, but that’s not their primary motivation. “For me, it’s the conservation standpoint,” Louise says. “The more produce we can use from our local and regional folks, the less resources we have to use to truck food across the country.”