From The Land

Sustainable Settings: From Ranch To Table

Laural Miller

Edible Aspen, Winter 2008


Rose Le Van is frying bacon for BLTs on her Amish wood-cook
stove. What would be an unremarkable lunch, however, is made
special by virtue of a few key facts: The bacon is from Le Van’s own
pigs, the tomatoes grown on a friend’s farm in the “banana belt” of
Paonia, the bread baked at family-owned Grana Bakery in
Carbondale. The kitchen is located outdoors, adjacent to a 120-
year-old apple orchard on Thompson Creek Ranch, the 244-acre
Carbondale property she shares with her husband, Brook, and two
sons. There’s a kitchen in the 1893 farmhouse, but when the weather
is nice, Rose cooks outside, where she can make preserves without
overheating the house, keep an eye on things, and admire the view of
nearby Mount Sopris. The lunch recipients are interns who reside and
work on the ranch, or live locally.

The Le Vans are the founders and directors of Sustainable
Settings Whole Systems Learning Center, which is the function of
the ranch. Their goal, explains Brook, is to “encourage the shift
toward a durable future by educating all ages to the possible alternatives.”
This is accomplished through a series of experiential learning
programs offered at the ranch, in which students “design, build and
operate a sustainable human settlement that produces food, energy,
attractive and efficient shelter, while regenerating health in our
waters, soils, and air.”

More simply, the Le Vans want people to know where their
food comes from, and to explore low-impact ways to live on an
increasingly overburdened planet. Sustainable Settings just celebrated
its tenth anniversary, no small feat for what is effectively a momand-
pop operation. Granted, Mom and Pop have garnered national
accolades and funding for their work, have a staff and employ leading
experts in sustainability issues to teach some of the courses at the
ranch. They also have rather distinguished resumes: University professor,
permaculture designer, Fulbright Scholarship recipient,
baker, art director, founder of educational outreach programs.
In 2008, Sustainable Settings will add cheesemaking to its
list of attributes: plans for a state-of-the-art, green-built, solar-powered,
100 percent grassfed dairy are under way. The ranch sells its
Beyond Organic produce, eggs and meat at their ranch store, local
farmers’ markets, and as of this year, through their Community
Supported Agriculture (CSA) produce subscription program. The
CSA, says Brook, was just “to test the waters,” but it was so successful
that it will continue into the 2008 season. The ranch currently
produces all manner of exquisite edibles: culinary and medicinal
herbs, root vegetables, greens, tomatoes, heirloom potatoes, honey                                                            and grassfed beef and lamb, pork, yak (for meat), chickens, ducks,
turkeys and geese.

As for the Beyond Organic moniker, Brook explains, “After the
USDA co-opted the word for their certification program, they loosened
the standards for larger producers, changing its meaning.
Organic does not mean sustainably produced, or local.”
Sustainable Settings courses, some of which are available for university
credit, include farmstays, cooking classes, land stewardship,
agro ecology, eco-entrepreneurship, permaculture, and green design.
Bonfires, farm dinners featuring local chefs such as SIX89’s Mark
Fischer and The Little Nell’s Ryan Hardy, and education-based harvest
festivals provide a festive atmosphere in which neighboring farmers
and city slickers alike can get in touch with the local food scene,
socialize and exchange ideas.

For anyone doubting the fun factor, let alone educational impact a
day on the ranch has to offer, Brook is the Messiah of the Roaring
Fork Valley foodshed. A genial yet impassioned Teddy bear of a man,
his partial mission is to turn everyone onto the joys and benefits of
eating local. If that goal has an ulterior motive—to promote and further
the local sustainable food supply, he’ll be the first to admit it.
“Education is the philosophy behind what we do on the ranch,” he
explains. “We’re walking around deaf, dumb and blind, out of tune
(with where our food comes from). Taste is the biggest conversion
tool there is. If I give someone a dozen of our eggs, they’re converted.
When you taste something like that, your body is saying, ‘yes!’
People take vitamins because their diet is lacking, but why do that?
Eat. Good. Food.”

Those revelatory eggs to which Brook refers are from the ranch’s
lively flock of heritage (nonindustrial and often endangered) chickens,
including Wyandottes, Araucanas and Buff Orpingtons. The
birds, which yield both meat and eggs, range free on the farm, and
also spend time in a portable coop that enables them to feed on and
fertilize the nutrient-rich pasture grasses. Their diet is supplemented
by foraged insects, organic flax and non-GMO corn, which results in
rich-tasting meat and eggs. Their manure is also used to enrich the
farm’s compost heap, which is supplemented by kitchen scraps,
weeds, ground Christmas trees, and wood chips from local industry,
then used to amend the soil. “It’s called ‘weeding and feeding,’ says
Brook. “In two years time, that compost goes back into the soil and
helps our crops grow.”

The compost heap and chickens are also the ranch’s primary teaching
tools. Says Le Van, “The chickens are the way in—it’s how we
educate people about this whole system and cycle of sustainability.
We’ll have students from pre-K on up, and they have no idea where
an egg comes from. When they harvest an egg that’s still warm and
damp, there’s an epiphany. Their only prior experience with eggs is
pulling one cold from the refrigerator. When they reach under the                                                             feathers of a hen, there’s a connection. And that’s what we’re doing
here, on a basic level; teaching what food is, where it comes from.
Then the chickens make our compost, and on it goes.”
Brook also cites his poultry as an example of what needs to happen
for Roaring Fork farmers and ranchers to produce a truly local,
sustainable product—especially important in this age of dwindling      

“We’ll have students from pre-K on up, and they have no idea where an egg comes from.
When they harvest an egg that’s still warm and damp, there’s an epiphany. Their only prior
experience with eggs is pulling one cold from the refrigerator. When they reach under the
feathers of a hen, there’s a connection.” —Brook Le

fossil fuels.
“I can’t buy my feed locally, which needs to change
at some point,” he says. “If we (local ranchers and consumers)
can build enough of a critical mass for, say,
chickens, then a specific grower in the valley can contract
to grow feed locally, instead of us importing it
from elsewhere in the country. This is the type of thing
that encourages farmers and ranchers to stay put and
grow. It builds local food security.”

With a view to supporting and celebrating the
local foodshed, Thompson Creek Ranch provides
some of the key ingredients for holiday meals. The Le
Vans sell their turkeys, ducks and geese for the holiday
table, and have even included poultry processing
as part of a farmstay program.

“Any slaughter we do here is done with respect, as
a way to say thanks to the animals for nourishing us, and giving up
their lives for ours,” says Brook. “When we include guests in the
poultry processing effort, it’s important that they’re around for a bit
beforehand to understand the whole systems approach we have, and
know that the animals are a vital part of the cycle of life of the ranch.”
Like the chickens, the turkeys are heritage breeds—Narragansetts
and Royal Palms. “We have a waiting list for holiday birds by July,”        
he says. “We raise about 60 a year, but people say they’re the best                                                                 they’ve ever eaten. Nothing goes to
waste—people make soup from the
carcasses because the flavor is so
good, and we use the feathers and
guts in compost.”

Brook encourages getting an early
start on future holiday meal planning,
and to support multiple local family
farms. “If you want to start eating this
way—even if it’s just for this one
meal—plan in advance. It’s an opportunity
to give thanks to your whole
community structure. Our society
has really taken the meaning out of
our celebrations and rituals by commercializing
them. How can we build
back that meaning? By collecting the
meal over the months; harvesting apples and potatoes in late summer,
and putting them up, preserving foods, visiting a local farm to
pick up the bird and involving family and friends in the process.” He
pauses, and his eyes light up. “When you make your dinner from all
that local, fresh or preserved food, you’re going to put a taste memory
in your family. It’s all about the little things we do, as individuals,
each day. It’s flavor and love.”

For more information on Sustainable Settings courses, or to order
your holiday bird for next year, go to

Laurel Miller is a food travel columnist for The Oakland Tribune/ANG
Newspapers and GreenLight magazine, as well as a contributor to publications
such as Gourmet, Outside, Saveur, Dining Out Guides and 5280.
She also owns The Sustainable Kitchen®, an independent contract culinary
business offering writing services, cooking classes and farm tours.