ACES goes whole hog with sustainable agriculture at midvalley ranch | AspenTimes.com

ACES goes whole hog with sustainable agriculture at midvalley ranch

Rock Bottom Ranch has received a green light to pursue its refined mission of aggressively increasing sustainable agriculture production while enhancing its wildlife sanctuary along the banks of the Roaring Fork River.

The Eagle County commissioners recently approved a special-use permit that allows the ranch to expand its educational facilities and add employee housing — key components integrated in a plan to ramp up production of livestock and grow more crops.

Rock Bottom Ranch looks like a picturesque, mid-20th-century farm where greenhouses, hog pens, sheep pastures and chicken coops blend into cottonwood stands lining the Roaring Fork River and wetlands. The nonprofit Aspen Center for Environmental Studies purchased the property on the Eagle-Garfield county line 15 years ago. ACES CEO Chris Lane has made it a priority during his 2½ years at the helm to increase Rock Bottom's role as an education model for sustainable, replicable agricultural production.

"We were pretty dead two or three years ago," Lane said. "Now, we're going whole hog."

He wasn't kidding. Under the leadership of Jason Smith as director and head farmer since January 2013, Rock Bottom Ranch has increased its livestock inventory to 45 pigs, roughly 150 laying hens, 400 meat chickens, 70 to 80 sheep in cooperation with local meat producer Crystal River Meats and a smattering of turkeys, ducks and rabbits.

The ranch also boasts a 1,152-square-foot stationary hoop house that was installed in May to grow a variety of vegetables as well as a 1,248-square-foot mobile greenhouse dubbed Rolling Thunder, which relies on plowed ground rather than raised beds to grow everything from tomatoes to lettuce.

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Lane, Smith and their staff are on a mission to show the Roaring Fork Valley and interested outside parties that sustainable agriculture is viable and preferable in this era of industrial agriculture. They also want to show that it is compatible with nature and wildlife. It's a big step for ACES, which has traditionally focused on conservation.

"Yeah, we farm. We make food. There is a big environmental story to tell there," Lane said.

Industrial agriculture dominance made at least a generation — and maybe more — of Americans ignorant about its food sources.

"I don't know much more than kids do about ag," Lane said.

Now there's a growing interest and concern throughout the country about the source of food.

Rock Bottom Ranch's focus appealed to some supporters. An anonymous donor funded Rock Bottom Ranch's proposal to triple its egg production. It will take six months to ramp up because the inventory of laying hens must be established.

Lane quips that the ranch's eggs are a "gateway food." Once people try them, it gets them interested in livestock raised without hormones or antibiotics and crops raised without herbicides or pesticides.

The agriculture operation takes up about 40 of the ranch's 113 acres. Sheep are moved every 24 to 36 hours to new pasture grounds. The hungry animals eagerly cooperate when agriculture managers Harper Kaufman and Christian La Bar move the electric fences and expose fresh grass.

The pigs are regularly moved before they transform the ground into a wallow. Mobile chicken coops are regularly transferred so the fowl can fertilize new ground.

Lane said Smith "really brought Rock Bottom Ranch to life" when he signed on in January 2013. Smith has a background that includes experience both as a chef in the restaurant at the Little Nell Hotel in Aspen and as a rancher. He or a member of his staff lead a farm tour every day at 11 a.m. at the ranch.

Sharing information about the ranch operations is a pillar of Rock Bottom's role. It has five full-time educators and one part-timer working the field and classrooms of local schools. On any given weekday, children visit the ranch to learn about food production. An estimated 3,000 children visit during the school year.

The land-use approval from Eagle County allows Rock Bottom Ranch to expand its Spartan educational facility by about 500 square feet. The permit also allows the addition of four small employee dwellings to the two existing units for educators and farmworkers. The housing will be clustered and won't interfere with the 100-acre conservation easement on the property.

"We're talking really small units here. We don't have a lot of money," Lane said.

While the housing is critical, it's the efforts to enhance the wildlife habitat and provide education about the habitat and agricultural operations that excites Lane and his staff.

About 1,000 linear feet of an irrigation ditch will be transformed from a typical U-shape to a flatter, more natural stream. Thousands of native plants will be installed around it. That will be more attractive to birds and other wildlife and will help create a wetland area that will bring wildlife to the doorstep of the agricultural operation — something ranchers have fought in the Roaring Fork Valley since the 1880s.

Rock Bottom Ranch's chickens have occasionally fallen victim to owls, and weasels wiped out some ducks awhile back. Raccoons and skunks also make an occasional kill, and a bear feasted on turkeys and chickens a couple of years ago. Lane said a loss of 5 percent of the fowl is budgeted.

"It is interesting being an environmentalist and now seeing the ranchers' side of things," Lane said.

But Smith and his crew have learned tricks for protecting their charges through boarding up openings and using electrified fencing. For the most part, the operation hasn't suffered extensive wildlife kills.

To showcase what Rock Bottom Ranch is doing, it will use a grant from Great Outdoors Colorado to create a trail and six "Eco-Ed" classrooms that showcase everything from solar collectors to pastures and fields to the natural setting. The trail will be constructed in a way that invites cyclists and pedestrians from the nearby Rio Grande Trail.

"We're trying to make the case that they be compatible," Lane said of wildlife and agriculture. "You can manage the people, let the wildlife come forward."

scondon@aspentimes.com

ROCK BOTTOM RANCH HARVEST FEST

Rock Bottom Ranch will host its 13th annual Harvest Party Saturday from noon to 5 p.m.

The party features plenty of activities for kids and adults. There will be live music by Beatles tribute band Doctor Robert, lunch, a beer and wine bar, farm tours, pumpkin carving, apple pressing, face painting and ranch games.

The advance price is $15 for adults and $5 for kids 10 years of age and younger. Tickets go up $5 the day of the event and they may sell out, so advance purchases are advised.

The event is car-free. Visitors are urged to talk or ride a bike to the ranch, located between Basalt and Carbondale on the Rio Grande Trail. Complimentary shuttles will be operating from the main Basalt Park-and-Ride, Crown Mountain parking lot and Basalt Elementary School.

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