Frank Wallis: Food Freedom
Frank Wallis wants Wyoming to be an example to the country that food freedom works — for producers, consumers, and the economy.
Standing at E Z Rocking Ranch in Gillette, Wyoming, Frank explained how the Wyoming Food Freedom Act changed the course of his career and the community around him.
In 2015, The Wyoming legislature passed the Wyoming Food Freedom Act. In 2017, the act was updated, enabling producers to sell directly to consumers, encouraging the expansion of agricultural sales by farmers’ markets, ranches, farms, and home-based producers. The biggest landmark of the legislation was that it allowed producers to sell their goods without commercial kitchens.
“I hope the Wyoming Food Freedom Act shows not only Wyoming but the rest of the country, what can be done if you can change the regulations to allow people to start a little food business without having to put a half a million dollars into a commercial kitchen,” Frank said.
In 2015, the average cost of commercial construction was between approximately $200 and $220 per square foot, not including equipment. The cost to transform a standard kitchen to a commercial kitchen can be one of the biggest obstacles standing in the way for home producers. With the Wyoming Food Freedom Act, producers can sell most foods they make in standard home kitchens as long as it has a disclaimer on it. For Frank, that has been life-changing.
Frank was born and raised in Gillette, Wyoming, on a family ranch north of town. In his early 20s, he decided he wanted to go see the world. After living in Phoenix, Denver, Houston, and traveling to almost every continent, he moved back to Gillette 16 years ago.
“I came back here to Gillette to the family ranch to help take care of my folks,” Frank said.
Although he didn’t come back to work in agriculture, he slowly felt himself getting pulled in that direction.
“I bought a few laying hens and that was kind of the gateway into what I'm doing today,” Frank said.
Over the next few years, the operation turned into raising grass-fed beef and some poultry.
“My customers kept asking me to get some milk cows because nobody was doing fresh raw milk here in this area at that time,” Frank said.
Frank was hesitant to get into dairy. He recalled the early mornings having to milk cows before he went off to school growing up.
“I really didn't get too enthused about having cows for quite a few years,” Frank said.
Eventually, Frank was convinced to give it a try.
“I finally gave in to the milk idea,” Frank said, “Me and a group of six families went in together and we bought two brown Swiss cows.”
At that time, it was not legal to sell raw milk directly to consumers in Wyoming, so Frank and his neighbors became co-owners of the cows so they could drink the milk.
“They basically hired me to milk the cow and bring their milk to town a couple of times a week.”
Frank continued supplying milk to his neighbors and some chicken and beef to his friends for the next couple of years. Frank ran a Tuesday farmers’ market in Gillette for five years, was part of the Saturday farmers’ market, and was a member of the Landon's Farmers’ Market in Sheridan. During the first years after moving back to the ranch, Frank continued to work as an international corporate travel specialist for a company in the Netherlands. All via satellite dish hookups.
Five years ago, Frank helped start the Downtown Gillette Farmers’ Market, a cooperatively owned farmers’ market in Gillette. With the help of other local producers and friends, Frank and his team are able to provide a host of local foods to the community year-round.
“We are a very loosely formed cooperative,” Frank said. “We all contribute to the bills here, we pay a percentage of our sales to pay the light bill, rent and all of that, and we all come in and work a little bit every week.”
Through the Wyoming Food Freedom Act, the number of producers selling items at the market and the variety of items in the store has increased.
Today, Frank solely spends his time working on-farm and at the farmers’ market.
“I'm far from rich, but I'm able to support my endeavors and help this store grow and help other people grow,” Frank said. “That's what's cool to me.”
In the last two years, Frank passed on his milking business to local producer and friend, Christine Hampshire, to focus on the market and his newfound interest, fermented foods.
“Today I am really focused on fermented food production like sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir and pickles, and I run the market,” Frank said.
Along with his own products, the market also sells Christine’s raw milk, pickles, tortillas and tamales, salsas, fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, milk, bread, soaps, crafts and more. The indoor farmers’ market features products from over 25 local producers.
The Downtown Gillette Farmers’ Market is special. Everything in the store is produced by local growers and makers, and consumed by the surrounding community. The market not only uplifts producers, but it also gives consumers the freshest, hyper-local products to choose from, and an easy, accessible opportunity to support their community.
Frank said the customers who shop at the market are a good mix of everybody in town.
“Our customers are really varied,” Frank said, “From young people in their gym clothes trying to eat healthy foods, to families with little kids wanting to feed them good milk and eggs, to middle-aged people that are trying to get healthy again, to old folks in here that are trying to prolong lives by eating good food.”
Frank said the store is for everybody and he’s hopeful it will stay that way and continue to grow into a centerpiece of the community.
“We have expanded twice here by knocking down walls and things like that, but it just keeps growing and growing and we hope it keeps doing so,” Frank said.
As Frank sees it, lifting up local producers through legislation like the Wyoming Food Freedom Act, in turn, lifts up the entire local economy. Frank is hopeful other states can look to Wyoming as an example of what is possible.
Many states do not want to pass legislation like the Wyoming Food Freedom Act for fear of foodborne illness. Frank said that the number of foodborne illness and food safety issues have not been impacted by the passage of the Wyoming Food Freedom Act.
“Since the Food Freedom Act passed about two and a half years, to my knowledge, and according to one of the legislator friends of mine, there have been no attributable causes of foodborne illness to this type of food in Wyoming. And it’s amazing that it's really that safe. And it's really catching on,” Frank said.
Frank’s advice for other states interested in legislation like the Wyoming Food Freedom Act is to “just start.”
Wyoming now has roughly 50 farmers’ markets statewide, a figure that’s grown by nearly 70% since the Wyoming Food Freedom Act took effect in 2015, according to a national U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Start demanding change, start demanding freedom of food and freedom for producers,” Frank said.