The notion of feeding the Roaring Fork Valley from the bounty of local farms is a utopian ideal. However, a group of experienced and aspiring farmers have moved that ideal one step closer to possibility.
Since Pitkin County Open Space and Trails has recently acquired prime agricultural lands in the midvalley – the Glassier Ranch and the Red Ridge Ranch in the Emma area – and the potential exists for growing local food for local residents.
A gathering of 25 young, energized farmers met at Basalt Library on Thursday, Jan. 23, and signaled the beginning of a valleywide farming guild that would utilize public open space lands to provide high-quality, organic, secure food sources.
“More local food resiliency is what we need,” said meeting organizer and farming exemplar Michael Thompson, a Basalt architect of state-of-the-art greenhouses. Thompson convened these young growers to create a bond based on land stewardship and the production of sustainable food.
Scaling up food production
Jerome Osentowski, an innovative food grower and founder of Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute on Basalt Mountain, said the availability of public lands offers a new opportunity to scale local agronomy to new heights.
“A lot of us have been struggling with growing local food, and sometimes burning out,” said Osentowski referring to the Herculean efforts of farming and the harsh economic realities on the business side. “We need to look for larger sums of money to support this effort and take us beyond struggling and up to another level. There’s money out there for this.”
The 2Forks Club, an Aspen-based philanthropic organization, may represent that very opportunity. The Club, which has just formed, plans to target small farmers with loans and grants. Founded by Susan Brady and five foundational donors, the Club will invite applicants to solicit funds for their farming plans.
“The 2Forks Club will offer low- and no-interest loans for local farming,” said Brady. “We’re doing it to sustain life and have local food and create community. It’s an opportunity to get to know each other and to learn who is growing our food. It’s about growing food – and relationships.”
Young and motivated
“The timing is impeccable on this,” remarked Jason White, who leads the Carbondale Grower’s Guild, a collaboration of young, inspired farmers. “We’re all young and motivated and have a lot of experience growing food here.
“All this is a brainstorm, but we fancy ourselves as doers. Everyone says just call me on a day when you want me to work, and I’ll be there. There are a lot of people talking about this now. There’s a paradigm shift going on, and I’m stoked.”
Given the availability of public lands – complete with irrigation water – start-up local farmers could get their hands dirty with reasonable leases. White explained that if the cost of land ownership in a valley known for astronomical real estate values is taken from the economic equation, then local food production could become economically viable. Farmers could cultivate the land and actually make a living.
“We could call this an agricultural park,” suggested Osentowski of the Glassier Ranch, “and apply for funding from GOCO [Great Outdoors Colorado]. Instead of us borrowing money, we could find it elsewhere and not have to go into debt to grow food.”
Michael Thompson said that when Aspen Journalism broke the story last week on the food production potential at two midvalley ranches, he was flooded with calls. Most were from young farmers interested in the locovore movement – the local production of food crops for local communities.
One call, said Thompson, came from Martha Cochran, executive director of Aspen Valley Land Trust. “Martha told me she knows of three acres of irrigated land on the edge of Glenwood Springs that’s available for farming. This is a beautiful piece of land, right on the Roaring Fork River, and it has water.
“The Glassier Ranch,” said Thompson, “has some of the most beautiful alfalfa fields in the valley. Some of that land will be ideal for growing vegetables and other crops. Open Space and Trails has said it favors diversity in agriculture, so there’s support for what we’re talking about here. The default is that the land would be leased to existing ranchers for growing hay.”
Thompson’s goal with this formative meeting was to bring together prospective farmers in a guild or co-op where equipment, seeds and farming know-how could be shared to the greatest mutual advantage.
“A tractor could be shared and a seed library,” said Thompson. “Each farmer could create a business plan, and those plans would be reviewed by a steering committee formed by Open Space and Trails. That’s who will decide on who farms here.”
More than a community garden
Pitkin County Ope Space and Trails is holding a meeting next week – Monday, Feb. 3, from 5-7 p.m. in the community room at the Basalt Regional Library – to appoint a steering committee of 15 people who will commit to six months of regular meetings. The outcome will be a management plan for the two midvalley ranches that favors local agriculture.
Thompson cautioned prospective farmers that their projects would need to fit certain criteria of high-quality food production and esthetic beauty.
“If we have a senator visit the valley who wants to see local food production, it has to look and smell nice. If private landowners see a healthy, beautiful farming operation, they might invite us to farm their lands. This is how this could expand.”
Thompson listed half a dozen other potential garden sites in Carbondale and Basalt that could host growing operations that could become demonstration projects.
“We need to show something much higher than a scaled up community garden,” he said. “We need to significantly produce local food.”
Thompson pointed to Linda Halloran at Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale as an example of a successful food provider.
“Linda produces 35 percent of everything that’s served in the school cafeteria, so she knows what she’s doing and we can learn from her,” he said. “It will be a long time before we grow even 25 percent of what’s needed in this valley, and a long, long time before we reach 50 percent.”
Thompson described the concept of a food hub as a vital option for local growers once momentum gets going. Food hubs are springing up in rural America where farmers produce food crops that are processed in a centralized kitchen and distributed to consumers.
A food hub becomes the middle man for farmers, freeing them from marketing their goods and allowing them to focus on growing.
“We need to free up people to grow food,” said Jason White. “It’s a ton of work.”
The other part of the equation, suggested Thompson, lies with consumers.
“We need an educated consumer base here,” he said, “which we’re getting. People need to be educated that they have a choice. They can either buy a pepper at Whole Foods that comes from California, or they can spend a little more for a pepper grown here. That’s a steep hill to climb.”
“The Carbondale food co-op works, but only with a dedicated clientele who is willing to spend more,” White said. “We need to put more food into the ground. People have to know that these are the best fruits and vegetables you can get. The rest of it will fall into place.”
The next step will derive from the management plan that will be formulated by the county open space department through its soon-to-be-appointed steering committee. By midsummer, local, aspiring farmers will have the criteria necessary to propose practical business plans that may create a new future for fertile agricultural lands in the midvalley.
“We are part of an education team here,” Thompson said. “It will take some time, but it can happen. This is all fermentation that’s leading to the beer.”
Editor’s note: In future articles, the Aspen Journalism Land Desk will explore the metrics of local farming as it relates to the economy, the environment and community. For comments and suggestions, contact Land Desk Editor Paul Andersen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also see on Aspen Journalism, “Farming the valley’s open space.”