Growing movement in Carbondale promotes local agriculture
Aspen Times Weekly
February 16, 2008
Goin’ to the country and living off the land — it’s a quintessentially American dream.
For many, there’s something intoxicating about the concept of a simpler life where we plunge our hands in the dirt, sow the seeds, nurture the plants, then reap a bounty of fresh fruits and veggies.
Growing our own food is a lost art, although some folks in Carbondale are trying hard to revive it. The fact that the Roaring Fork Valley barely produces any of its own food is ironic, considering that farming and ranching sustained the Roaring Fork Valley for the quiet decades between the town’s mining heyday and the skiing and tourism era.
Billy Grange is a third-generation rancher on the outskirts of Basalt. His grandfather bought the property and paid it off in a few short years by growing and selling potatoes. Grange recalled that as a boy growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, the school used to cancel classes for a week or so each fall so the kids could pick potatoes.
The Granges had a huge garden. They canned vegetables to get them through the winter. They butchered their own beef, pigs and occasionally sheep. Cows supplied their dairy products. They took their wheat down to a mill along the Roaring Fork River in Glenwood Springs and had it ground into flour. They even made their own soap.
The only staples that Grange recalls the family purchasing were sugar and coffee, which they acquired at Basalt Supply, where Mason and Morse Real Estate is now located on Midland Avenue.
“Then it was a farming community and now it isn’t,” Grange said.
How to feed Carbondale
The only “harvesting” that most people do now is at the produce section of City Market or Clark’s. Most of the farms and ranches have been gobbled for rural subdivisions and mansions.
But not all the land has been converted. For some residents, this provides a flicker of hope that the Roaring Fork Valley can be more self-sustaining when it comes to feeding itself.
Sustainable Settings founder Brook LeVan holds a live and a processed chicken at his farm south of Carbondale. In order to get local fowl to the dinner table, LeVan explains, the bird must be sent to a processing plant in Fort Collins, and then sent back to Carbondale, a wasteful, energy-intensive process. (Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly)
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Malcolm McMichael is part of a dedicated core of folks in Carbondale who promote the idea of “localization” in the economy overall, but specifically with the food supply. Growing food locally has the potential to provide some jobs. More important, it builds a stronger community, McMichael said.
He became intrigued last year in wondering what it would take to make Carbondale self-sustaining for a year. He put his training as an accountant to work and, with Carbondale farmer and educator Brook LeVan, studied how much food would be required, how much land would be needed to grow the crops and raise the livestock, and how much land is still available.
That diet would require sacrifices. “We’re not going to consume 200 pounds of sugar per year like we do right now,” McMichael said.
Ranching: A disappearing legacy
Producing that much food would require 6,500 acres of irrigated land and another 84,000 acres of summer range for cattle.
The summer range for grazing is no problem. But perhaps the most disturbing part of the research by McMichael and LeVan is how much of the valley’s once fertile bottomland has been converted to other uses. Carbondale is surrounded by some of the last genuine working ranches in the valley. Even so, there are only about 4,306 irrigated acres remaining and another 1,725 acres of agricultural lands with the potential to produce crops.
They estimated that feeding 10,000 people in and around Carbondale for one year would require 13.3 million pounds of food and 2.5 million eggs. That includes:
• 2,000 dressed steer; 230 dairy cows; 222,000 broilers; and 8,300 laying hens.
• 2.7 million pounds of apples; 2.1 million pounds of potatoes; 2.1 million pounds of onions, zucchinis and spinach; and 1.4 million pounds of wheat.
An accountant by training, Malcom McMichael III has recently studied what it would take for Carbondale to produce all of its own food. He doesn’t expect it to actually happen, but he does hope to encourage more local food-growing. (Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly)
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“We’re close to self-sustainability being stretched to the point where it won’t work,” McMichael said.
It points to a broader trend in Pitkin County. In 1959 there were about 115,000 acres of agricultural land in Pitkin County, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That plummeted to about 24,000 acres in 2002.
“That legacy is almost extinct,” McMichael said.
Hedge against ‘supply shock’
McMichael said the study was intended to get people thinking about the concept of local food production. He is under no illusion that Carbondale or any other town in the valley will become fully self-sustaining. He and other members of the Carbondale Economic Localization group do hope, however, that the study spurs interest in increasing local food production.
Localization proponents are often looked at as “survivalists or doomsayers,” McMichael said. He views them as realists. Along with building community, boosting the amount of food produced locally can guard against what he calls “supply shock.”
A prime example of supply shock occurred during Christmas and New Year’s 2006, when blizzards closed Interstate 70 between Denver and Glenwood Springs and paralyzed freight traffic. Grocery shelves throughout the valley were stripped bare after a few days because trucks hauling goods couldn’t get through.
Rose Le Van searches for eggs in the henhouse at Sustainable Settings near Carbondale. Research shows it would take some 2.5 million eggs per year, in combination with millions of pounds of other locally produced food, to feed the town of Carbondale. (Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly)
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While running out of food in grocery stores is rare, sticker shock at the supermarket is not. Food prices soared an average of 17 percent last year across the country, according to published reports.
LeVan said the financial pinch will be felt even more sharply by consumers in coming years as soaring fuel costs increase the price of producing and distributing food. Those higher costs will be passed on to consumers.
“Those food trucks are coming into the valley every day. We’re eating out of those food trucks,” LeVan said.
Society’s dependence on fossil fuels revolutionized food production, and not always for the good. LeVan said his research shows it takes 10 to 15 calories of energy to produce 1 calorie of food today. Before the industrial revolution, 1 calorie of energy produced 6 calories of food.
LeVan believes fuel price increases will drive up food prices annually, ultimately providing the incentive for areas like the Roaring Fork Valley to start producing a significant share of their food again.
Today’s McMansions, tomorrow’s farms?
Dale Will, director of the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program, shares that outlook. “We’re going to run out of cheap transportation,” he said. “We’re going to need to have some local food production capacity.”
The open space program is revered for saving large, beautiful expanses of land throughout Pitkin County. Most people appreciate the effort for preserving views, maintaining wildlife habitat and simply preventing development.
Will said another important, often overlooked accomplishment of the program is preserving ranches and land that could potentially be used again some day to raise crops. Pitkin County teamed with Eagle County and the town of Basalt to buy conservation easements on Billy Grange’s ranch in Basalt. The deal preserves the land and allows Grange and his nephews to keep running cattle
Bulk foods at the newly opened Carbondale Community Food Co-op on Main Street. (Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly)
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Will said Pitkin County’s low-density zoning, which limits development to one home per 35 acres in many rural areas, also plays an important role in maintaining the valley’s potential to produce food.
“Fifty years from now, what we think of as a ranchette might be a potato field,” he said.
For that to happen, real estate prices must tumble. And Will believes that will happen. Low fuel supplies and high prices will eventually force drastic lifestyle changes, according to the “peak oil” concept. Those who subscribe to the peak oil theory believe world oil production will soon peak, if it hasn’t already, and that supplies will gradually dwindle, driving prices steeply upward.
Like McMichael, Will acknowledged that the idea of returning in a major way to local food production strikes many people as far-fetched. In his mind, the perfect model would have residents growing greens and some of their vegetables in their backyards, and meat and staples would be grown by farmers on the vast parcels of fertile bottomland.
People wouldn’t be entirely self-sufficient. They would still go to the grocery store. But they would produce more of their food themselves or acquire it from local farmers.
“Right now it’s kind of the hippie fringe” that’s pursuing the model, Will said. But if the distribution system broke down, “people will be sneaking into my greenhouse,” he said.
Concept getting embraced
Many people in the valley already embrace the idea of eating organic, locally grown food. The farmers market in Aspen is a huge success. Community gardens thrive in Aspen and Carbondale. Corporate giant Whole Foods Market believes the demand for organic and natural foods is high enough in the Roaring Fork Valley that it is opening a 44,000-square-foot store in Basalt.
In a clear example of “supply shock,” local grocery shelves were emptied when storms shut down Interstate 70 during the Christmas-New Year’s period in 2006. Transporting food is both expensive and, occasionally, unreliable. (Jane Bachrach)
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Nowhere in the valley is the concept of local food production flourishing more than in Carbondale. LeVan is director of Sustainable Settings, a farm and education center for sustainable agriculture about four miles south of town. Not far away, a rancher raising grass-fed cattle is getting rave reviews. And an organic and natural food co-op in Carbondale opened to the public Feb. 1.
LeVan and his staff plant 2/3 of an acre for a commercial garden on a ranch that was homesteaded in the late 1800s. Just a few hundred yards from the garden is a cabin built in 1891.
The garden produces veggies that are sold at the Aspen farmers market and to families that belong to a program called Community Supported Agriculture. Clients pay a set fee in advance, providing the farmer with capital and a guaranteed market. The clients eventually reap weekly bounty from the garden. Twelve families signed up for the program last year.
That will increase to 24 families this year because of a larger garden. Another 50 people are on the waiting list, LeVan said.
Growing veggies is hard work with limited payback. The sale of vegetables produced on one-half acre last year grossed $35,000. LeVan and his staff strive to create a successful farming operation that can serve as a model for the future on the farm’s 244 acres, 90 of which are irrigated.
“We’re not here to be a pioneer village, talk funny and eat succotash,” said LeVan.
Some produce also is available in Sustainable Settings’ store, along with some meat, eggs and honey. There is a waiting list for the 60 big turkeys that get butchered each November.
LeVan said he could sell free-range chickens as well, except the closest processing plant certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture is in Fort Collins, Colo. The 460-mile round trip to process that chicken and return it to the valley for consumption drives up the price beyond reason, LeVan lamented.
Grass-fed beef popular
Just a few miles from the Sustainable Settings farm, rancher Tai Jacober leases land in the Crystal River Valley where his cattle settle in for the winter. He buys Hereford steers from local ranchers like Bill Fales and raises them on a grass-fed diet for six months to two years, depending on their age when he bought them. He runs them into the verdant hills of the White River National Forest during summers and feeds them hay during winters. He avoids use of antibiotics and hormones and sells grass-fed beef at local food boutiques, high-end restaurants and other outlets.
Jacober, who grew up ranching in southern Colorado, also raises beef that gets purchased by big beef producers and shipped off to feedlots for fattening with grain before slaughter.
The grass-fed beef is a niche market that produces a slightly higher profit. Jacober and his clients also swear the beef tastes better.
“We do a small amount, the right way,” he said. “The biggest thing is people want to know it’s been raised here. They like to know where it comes from.”
His company, Crystal River Meats, has grown over the last five years by word-of-mouth. He butchers 25 to 30 steers per year. The demand is growing, but hurdles inherent in the U.S. production system present challenges.
Big producers, like ConAgra, can process beef for substantially less than $100 per steer just from sheer volume, Jacober said. His steers are processed at a small plant in Delta that charges $700 per animal. Cheaper processing closer to Carbondale is essential for the growth of the business.
“I could probably sell 500 to 1,000 steers if you could get the system set up,” he said.
Food co-op is launched
Jess Jacobson witnessed the pent-up demand for organic and natural foods over the first half of February. She is manager of the Carbondale Community Food Co-op that opened Feb. 1 on Main Street. The store provides fresh, organic produce, natural meats, eggs, bulk items and as many items as can be crammed in a 540-square-foot space.
“Every time someone walks into the store, they say, ‘Wow,’” Jacobson said.
Providing locally grown produce presents a challenge in the dead of a Roaring Fork Valley winter. One recent morning, Jacobson unloaded beautiful heads of cabbage shipped in from California. Localization has broad appeal to shoppers at the co-op, but they also want their bananas and avocados, she noted.
But greens will be supplied by growers in Paonia starting this weekend, and come summer, the co-op will be packed with produce and other products grown in Delta County.
Tai Jacober of Carbondale raises grass-fed cattle along the Crystal River at the Mt. Sopris Hereford Ranch. He believes he could sell hundreds more steers per year if he could slaughter and process the beef locally. (Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly)
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The store’s founders raised $65,000 in startup costs. The co-op sells member shares for $200 an individual and $250 for a family. So far, an estimated 150 memberships have been sold, entitling buyers to greater say in the management of the store and the potential for discounts.
Jacobson believes the store has proved popular because it’s more than a place to buy groceries. It’s a community gathering spot. Many Carbondalians also support the concept of greater self-sustenance.
“People in town realize that food security is a real issue,” Jacobson said.
Eventually, she hopes the co-op grows to the point where the demand inspires more people in Carbondale to start farming.
No one expects the localized food movement to be swift. There will be baby steps for years, McMichael said.
LeVan said U.S. society is so used to relying on transported food that change cannot happen fast. “It’s a system that’s pretty sick, and needs a lot of work.”
Jerome Osentowski knows that better than anyone. He has promoted locally grown food for three decades and teaches courses on his sun-drenched property on the south side of Basalt Mountain. People from around the country visit his Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute to learn how to design and use greenhouses, and learn gardening techniques. Yet, he is disappointed at how little the concepts have been embraced by residents of the Roaring Fork Valley.
Osentowski tried to convince city of Aspen officials to incorporate greenhouses into the design of the Burlingame affordable housing neighborhood. They didn’t even reply to his proposal.
He fears that the valley’s economy is too centered on tourism and that residents are too busy running the rat race to take an interest in agriculture.
“There is lots of interest, but we don’t have anybody to do the work,” Osentowski said. “We haven’t put any energy into it. We just talk.”