Aspen Times Weekly: Ramping Up at Rock Bottom |

Aspen Times Weekly: Ramping Up at Rock Bottom

by scott condon

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Rock Bottom Ranch offers farmyard tours Monday through Saturday at 11 a.m. Self-guided tours can be taken between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays.

Visit what-to-do for more information.

A lot of folks in the Aspen area have gone whole hog for the locavore food movement and are rightfully proud of the Roaring Fork Valley’s agricultural heritage.

But that support and pride can’t hide the fact that there isn’t extensive knowledge or skill in local food production, said Jason Smith, director of Rock Bottom Ranch.

The midvalley farm and ranch owned by Aspen Center for Environmental Studies is on a mission to show how agriculture can be sustainable and replicable. To be truly successful, Rock Bottom wants to inspire more people to dive into fruit and vegetable production and animal husbandry. They want the Roaring Fork Valley to be more self-sustainable in feeding itself.

Smith and his staff are leading by example at the 113-acre ranch nestled between the Roaring Fork River and the base of the Crown, public lands at the foot of Mount Sopris. It’s situated along the Rio Grande Trail, between Basalt and Carbondale.

“this is getting back to the roots of cooking.” – matthew white, chef in residence

Smith took the helm of Rock Bottom on Jan. 1, 2013, with a background both as a chef at Aspen’s Little Nell Hotel and a farmer in North Carolina. He was brought on by ACES’ Executive Director Chris Lane to help Rock Bottom reach its full potential. That meant going big.

“For me, the first couple of years were about getting established and getting the infrastructure in place,” Smith said.

8,000 Dozen Eggs

Now that infrastructure is in place, Rock Bottom is ramping up the food production. The ranch has gone from 150 laying hens a couple of years ago to 525 this year. Egg production will soar from 4,000 dozen in 2015 to between 7,000 and 8,000 dozen this year.

“Compared to 2014, we’ve tripled production,” Smith said.

The number of broiler chickens also was increased so that the amount of meat will soar from 800 pounds last year to an estimated 2,100 pounds from 600 birds this year.

They try to maintain about 50 pigs, though the numbers vary because the six sows have liters of varying sizes. Rock Bottom will sell between 8,000 and 9,000 pounds of bacon, chops and other pork products.

The ranch has entered the beef business in partnership with Cap K Ranch up the Fryingpan Valley. They have six cow-calf pairs, a few heifers

and a bull.

Three seasons of veggies

Vegetable production also is skyrocketing. Rock Bottom has vast gardens but also relies on two traditional greenhouses and a state-of-the-art seed-starting house. There were 100 frost-free days in 2015 at Rock Bottom, which is along the cool river bottom at about 6,400 feet in elevation. With a little ingenuity and a lot of hard work, Smith and the agricultural staff of four workers can stretch the growing season from February into November.

“We’re pretty comfortable with a three-season harvest,” he said.

One greenhouse is currently packed with rows of heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers and basil.

A second, mobile greenhouse called Rolling Thunder provides versatility with a frame perched on wheels that follow a track. Two people can move it in about 10 minutes. It covers cool weather plants to help them get started in late winter, then in April it’s shifted to start tomatoes and other crops. It’s moved again during the heat of summer and fitted with shade cloth to stretch the productive season of cool-weather plans, then moved yet again in fall to extend the harvest from tomatoes.

A final piece of infrastructure

Smith’s latest and, based on the excitement in his voice, greatest addition to the Rock Bottom infrastructure is a seed-starting house. In a nutshell, the structure is a highly insulated blockhouse with glazed, triple-wall polycarbonate, south-facing windows to take full advantage of the sun. The entire structure is slightly oriented to the east to capture morning rays.

The structure features a ground-to-air heat transfer system that uses tubing underground and fans to suck heat out of the house and store it underground on warm days, and circulate the heated air when needed on cool nights. Phase Change Material, a revolutionary insulator, will be added to a north interior wall and also will transfer heat as needed.

As a result, the seed starter house will maintain a temperature of 40 or more year-round without supplemental heat.

The structure has the ability to hold more than 15,000 seedlings at a time. Given the short number of days without frost, it’s critical to get vegetables going from seedlings rather than seeds to get a decent harvest period, Smith said.

What‘s next?

So, now that the infrastructure has largely been established, what’s next? Education, offered in various forms.

On the small scale, Rock Bottom is trying to influence and inspire potentially future farmers and established chefs.

Smith launched a Chef in Residence program this year to give chefs a glimpse of what’s happening with their food, long before it arrives at the kitchen (see related story, previous page).

Every summer, Rock Bottom hires four young adults for its agricultural staff.

Alyssa Barsant is back for a second summer this year and says she’s considering a future in farming.

Hannah Itzler is pretty certain she won’t be a farmer, but she said the experience this summer has been invaluable. She said she’s gained an appreciation for how hard farmers work.

“Weeding and seeding is a full-time job,” Itzler said.

Kevin Newland, a Roaring Fork Valley native, and Chris Dominick are the other members of this summer’s crew.

On the larger scale, thousands of adults and kids are circulating through Rock Bottom and learning about sustainable agriculture. Smith, Chef in Residence Matthew White and helpers will prepare five ACES Farm-to-Table Events at Rock Bottom Ranch for 115 people over the course of the summer. Rock Bottom also provides food and catering for ACES’ Picnic on the Preserve, which attracts about 300 people, and An Evening on the Lake, a major fundraiser for ACES that attracts 200 people.

All told, there were 749 Farm to Table meals served by Rock Bottom in 2015.

While the emphasis is on eating and drinking, it also gets the customers thinking about where their food comes from.

ACES’ Executive Director Chris Lane always has been passionate about educating kids about the food supply. He often laments how kids don’t realize that food comes from somewhere prior to the grocery store. He wants Rock Bottom to educate Roaring Fork Valley kids about the food supply.

Rock Bottom certainly gets the opportunity through kids’ summer camps, classrooms visits and class field trips during the school year. Last year, Rock Bottom had 12,416 education contacts, both kids and adults.

In the future, expect Rock Bottom to get involved to an even greater degree than normal on eliminating food waste.

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