Sustainable Settings: New farming the ‘old way’
Ryan Summerlin January 21, 2011
CARBONDALE – In the shadow of Mount Sopris south of Carbondale, an old-fashioned farm may plant the seeds for the future of community agriculture. Either that, or it will continue to provide the Roaring Fork Valley with fresh eggs and veggies from the quaintest of settings.
If Brook and Rose LeVan, founders of Sustainable Settings, have anything to say about it, the operation will find a way to fulfill both of those goals.
The unlikely pair of farmers – he’s a product of the Midwest, with a master’s degree in fine arts and a background in university-level teaching of ceramics and sculpting, while she’s a Navy brat who studied graphic design – are learning as their experiment unfolds on the old Thompson Creek Ranch in the Crystal River Valley. They are also teachers, hosting educational workshops in a range of subjects and bringing interns to the farm for a hands-on experience.
The ranch, homesteaded by the Thompson family in 1879, has been a link in the local food chain pretty much continuously since then, but the goings-on at the farm these days may more closely resemble life at the ranch a century ago than they do modern-day agriculture.
“We’re the wackos down the road,” joked Brook as he scattered hay to the milk cows and draft horses eagerly awaiting his morning rounds on a sun-drenched January morning. That, at least, is how the valley’s traditional ranchers viewed Sustainable Settings when the operation left its original digs in Woody Creek and landed at the Thompson Creek Ranch in 2003, he said.
The Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program and The Conservation Fund had purchased the 440-acre property, spanning both sides of Highway 133. The nonprofit Sustainable Settings purchased 244 acres on the west side with a lead gift of $2.1 million from part-time Aspen residents Adam Lewis and Peter B. Lewis, and another $257,000 raised in a campaign by the organization’s board of directors.
Since then, Sustainable Settings has become a model of diverse farming on a small scale, raising livestock and selling the associated products, and starting up a CSA (community-supported agriculture) membership farm, in which members pay annually for a weekly box of whatever produce is in season from mid-June to mid-October.
Its latest venture is a cow-share operation. Sustainable Settings has purchased nine dairy cows, Guernseys from around the country, for a herd that will eventually number 18 to 24 animals. The sale of unpasteurized milk in Colorado is not permitted, but the farm is readying to offer shares in its cows. Shareholders will buy one or more shares, plus pay a monthly boarding fee, and have the right to a gallon of fresh milk a week per share. The details have yet to be finalized, but a share is likely to cost $100 to $150, Brook said.
“We have hundreds of families who want the milk now,” he said.
Like everything else at Sustainable Settings, dairy farming has been a learning experience.
“I just thought, oh, well, just get a milk cow and we’ll have good milk,” Brook said.
Researching the subject, though, led Sustainable Settings to opt for an A2 dairy, in reference to the type of protein in the milk. Milk contains proteins called beta-casein, of which there are two types – A1 and A2. They break down differently as they’re digested. A2 is the original and A1 is a mutation, Brook explained. All of Sustainable Settings’ cows are DNA-tested to ensure they’re strictly A2 producers.
Science aside, someone is in the farm’s makeshift dairy barn each morning to milk Violet and Tulip, the two cows that are currently producing.
Inside the LeVans’ faded 1893 ranch house, where blue smoke curls from the chimney on winter mornings and the wood stove is bolstered by solar panels out back, jars of dairy products crowd a refrigerator shelf inside a low-slung kitchen. Rubber bands wrapped around the glass containers signal which jar contains the fresh milk versus the one that holds cream so thick it can be spread with a knife. Yet another contains kefir, a lumpy, sour, cultured milk touted for beneficial bacteria.
The LeVans offer up two types of honey from the farm’s seven hives, smeared atop a healthy dollop of cream, all piled on a toasted bagel.
“The land of milk and honey – I didn’t get it until we started doing this,” said Brook between mouthfuls.
Beneath the table, buckets collect food scraps – ingredients for hog slop.
In keeping with its name, everything about the farm is aimed at sustainability, from a chicken coop constructed out of straw bales and adobe (its construction was the focus of one of the nonprofit’s many public workshops) to plans for a hoped-for, solar-powered dairy barn with a milking parlor and commercial-grade kitchen where produce can be prepared and packaged. The fundraising for that facility is under way.
Sustainable Settings, though, is not about environmentalism, Brook stresses. “We’re humanists. We’re interested in seeing the human species live a little longer.”
To that end, the LeVans focus on farming practices that pull back from the large-scale monoculture that dominates American agriculture. The farm has about 90 acres of irrigated pasture; it is continually experimenting with what can be produced, given that limitation. It’s all about diversity and small-scale production.
“It’s kind of an old model in a way,” Brook said. “People have just gotten away from it.”
Amid the ruckus of crowing roosters, clucking hens and turkeys vying for a spot at the feeding troughs in the yard, he explains the farm’s choice of breeds in the colorful birds.
“In every layer here, from the choice of livestock to the variety of seeds, we opt for rare heritage or heirlooms because what we’re trying to do is encourage the presence of genetic diversity in human food crops,” he said.
“Harvesting nature’s intelligence,” is the nonprofit’s motto.
“Nature is diverse. That’s how it survives,” said Brook, explaining the dangers of relying on just one breed because it produces the biggest eggs, for example. A disease can wipe out an entire food source in that environment.
Don’t get him started, though (or do), on the effects of pasteurization, the co-opting of the term “organic” by the food industry or the nature of “food” from a supermarket: “You only need to shop the perimeter – all the stuff in the middle is crap!”
Sustainable Settings touts its products as “beyond organic,” but its own practices admittedly fall short of its sustainable ethic. Though the farm raised its first grain last year, organic feed for the livestock is mostly shipped in from elsewhere. And, animals are sent out to be processed and packaged in USDA-approved facilities.
Draft horses pull a plow at Sustainable Settings, but tractors and trucks see use, too.
“Yes, we have tractors, but we’re learning how to be teamsters,” Brook said. “What can we use from the old way and what can we take from new technology to create a sustainable life?”
The goal is creating a farm operation that works economically and that can be successfully duplicated.
“It’s kind of a 19th-century model, I would say,” said neighboring rancher Marge Perry. “He’s going to have a more complete, old-fashioned farm.
“I don’t think I’d say they’re wacko,” she added.
Perry and her husband raise beef cattle at their Cold Mountain Ranch across the highway from Sustainable Settings, and Perry said she’s unaware of anyone else in the vicinity with a dairy herd these days. That wasn’t always the case.
“When I grew up, lots of people had dairy cows,” she said. “A dairy is a lot of work.”
Carbondale rancher Mark Nieslanik’s family used to operate a dairy, but dropped the operation for a number of reasons. He doesn’t doubt, though, that there’s a market for the product.
“We get calls all the time for raw milk,” he said. “I’m sure they’ll do well.”
At present, it’s just the LeVans milking the cows and handling the other daily chores, but this spring, a handful of new interns will arrive to help, learning and working for free. During the summer growing season, area residents also labor in the field, working down the cost of their CSA membership.
CSA members typically join in January and February, paying $700 a year. There were about 20 member families last year.
Carbondale resident Alana Monge is among those who joins in on harvest days, held Thursdays and Fridays during the growing season. The day includes labor and lunch; preparing some of the harvest to feed the crew is a rotating duty among participants.
“I love being at the farm, working in the dirt and communing with the earth,” she said. “It’s the communal aspect of growing the food together, harvesting it and eating it.”
Members pick up their weekly food box at the farm, though Sustainable Settings will bring boxes to Aspen’s weekly Saturday market for upvalley customers. Shipping the products is out of the question; the fuel consumption and associated pollution makes it an unsustainable practice.
“We have lots of stories about people with a lot of means who want our food shipped,” Brook said. “We will not ship.”
Rather, he estimates most of the products are sold to customers from within a 35-mile radius of the farm. The eggs are so popular, 40 dozen or so typically disappear by 9:30 a.m. at the summertime Aspen Saturday Market, fetching $9 per dozen.
“We sell out every week. We have an egg cult,” Brook said.
At the farm’s store, customers can buy eggs laid that day (for $8 per dozen), vegetables when they’re in season, and various meat products from the freezers. They deposit their money in a box if no one’s around.
The prices aren’t cheap. A dozen eggs costs more than four times what Aspen’s City Market was charging recently for an inexpensive carton of nonorganic eggs. At $19 per pound, a package of two meaty pork chops from hogs raised at Sustainable Settings costs $38.
“You can’t afford not to,” contends Brook on the topic of buying such products. He doesn’t mince words about the nutritional value (he says there often isn’t any) or the downright harmful nature of many of the foods Americans consume.
Among those who make regular stops at the farm’s store, Brook is preaching to the choir, but a sign on a freezer door serves up a reminder nonetheless. It reads: “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of the lower price is forgotten.”
When he’s not collecting fresh eggs in the hen houses or performing the myriad other tasks of a farm hand, Brook writes papers on food production (find them at sustainablesettings.org) and offers county and municipal governments advice on ag-friendly land-use regulations.
He has been a critic of Pitkin County’s rules and, most recently, butted heads with the county over a requirement that Sustainable Settings provide public restrooms. However, Brook agrees the restrooms are appropriate for a facility that hosts school groups and workshops like this spring’s scheduled sessions on tree pruning, beekeeping and brewing beer. While composting toilets have been installed at the farm, their capacity remains an issue.
The county is also working on more lenient rules for agricultural buildings and a separate code section for greenhouses – changes that could facilitate future plans at Sustainable Settings and foster local food production elsewhere in the county.
Still, not everyone is going to raise their own chickens or grow their own greens. Rather, Brook envisions community farms that serve the surrounding populace on a modest scale.
“The idea is to have a replicable model that other people can duplicate,” he said. “There could be six to eight other dairy farms in this valley and they’d all be busy.
“It’s not just veggies, meat and eggs here,” Brook continued. “It’s about strengthening and building a resilient community, a durable culture and a durable life.”