Sustainable Settings: From Ranch To Table

Laural Miller

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 LeVan

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.