Delta County, where growth IS the industry |

Delta County, where growth IS the industry

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Weekly
Steve HuntleyThe North Fork of Delta County is an emerging wine region, featuring more than a dozen vintners.

As farmers’ markets have sprouted up all over Colorado, one town that has been excluded from the weekly gathering of growers and eaters is Paonia. Over the past few years, various efforts have been made to establish a market in the small Delta County town, but each time it has fizzled out for lack of demand. It’s not that the Paonians are unaware of the glories of fresh produce, or of the “locavore” (eating locally grown foods) movement that is taking hold of the country, but probably the opposite: Who needs a farmers’ market in a region where virtually everyone is a grower of some sort, where the best greens, potatoes, grapes and strawberries are as likely to be found in one’s own back yard as they are on a collapsible table a few blocks away?Paonia and the areas that surround it in the North Fork Valley of Delta County are increasingly becoming known as a center of food-and-wine culture. The effect is particularly evident on the Roaring Fork side of McClure Pass, where restaurants from Aspen to Carbondale are not only taking more and more deliveries of fresh, seasonal ingredients from Delta farmers and ranchers, but also boasting in their menus about the source of those products. The Aspen Saturday Market – which opens Saturday, June 20, and has become sufficiently popular to inspire similar markets in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and, this year, Basalt – is stocked with goods from the Paonia area.But the North Fork – so named for the North Fork of the Gunnison River – is not only a supplier. Increasingly, it is a destination on the culinary map. Foodies are attracted by the quantity and quality of the produce; those who take special pleasure in peaches will pit Paonia’s against anyone’s, Georgia included. The area’s reputation as a center of organic culture goes a long way toward drawing the most devoted food lovers. Delta’s growing status as a wine-producing region is icing on the cake, as it were. The pull is strong enough that some foodies aren’t traveling through; they’re staying put.Sid Lewis, a hairdresser who had lived for years in Steamboat Springs, took a cycling trip a few years ago to Provence, the area in Southeastern France legendary for its home-grown cuisine. Lewis fell in love with the idea of being surrounded by the foods he eats. Six years ago, he moved to Paonia.”This area here is so reminiscent of the areas over there,” said Lewis, who has served on Paonia’s town council for the past year. “A young, budding version, of course.”This past February, Lewis was joined in Paonia by another former Steamboat resident, John Cowell, who relocated with his wife to join the latest extension of the locavore movement.”We were tired of buying food at the grocery store, then coming here and seeing how much meat and food is produced right here,” said Cowell, a computer support technician. “We like the scene here, how fresh the food is.”I met Lewis and Cowell at a dinner at Fresh & Wyld Farmhouse Inn, a Paonia B&B operated by former Aspen chef Dava Parr. The Friday night dinner at Fresh & Wyld was attended by numerous people in the small-scale food industry: farmers, vintners, cheese-makers, the leaders of the Western Slope Chapter of the Slow Food Movement. The conversation – over a meal created almost entirely of local ingredients – centered around food and farming.Perhaps the most intriguing contingent were the people who, when asked if they were farmers, struggled with their answer. It turns out a lot of Paonians are on the fence between gardeners – hobbyists who grow some of their own food – and farmers – for whom growing is a full-time occupation.One couple said, no, they’re not farmers – although they grow their own fruits and veggies, and took on some cows so they could make their own cheese, and boasted about making the best pickles in the land. And the wife admitted to devoting most of her waking hours to gardening. It finally dawned on her that she could legitimately call herself a farmer when she told me that she had her own personal farmer – someone she regularly called up for advice on growing.”Like people have a doctor or a dentist, we have a farmer,” she said. “He’s a friend, and an amazing grower. We called him our farmer.”That zealous approach to growing can be contagious. “It’s almost sacrilege if you don’t have a garden,” said Cowell. “We figured we’d better throw some tomato plants in the ground. Things sure do grow here.”As is typical in the area, the dinner at Fresh & Wyld ended early. One couple excused themselves to take care of their baby chicks. Another couple had to go home to milk a goat that gets ornery when not milked on time.A growing cultureIn fact, the North Fork is not quite as agriculture intensive as it once was. Micha Anderson, who grew up in the town of Delta, at the south end of the Fork, has seen much farmland turned over to development in his 36 years. But Anderson, who now splits his time between Delta County and Washington state, says the reduction in cropland has been balanced by a vast transformation in the farming values demonstrated by today’s inhabitants.”People are more conscious about how they treat the land, where their food is coming from,” said Anderson. “So it may have become less agricultural, but the ethics are better.”Anderson’s uncle had been a monoculture farmer, raising corn and beans, when he was growing up. But the monoculture farmer has become just about extinct in the North Fork. In its place have come adventurous spirits who seek not to produce row after row of identical corn stalks for sale to a huge distributor, but an array of organic crops that ensures the health of the land, and makes farming something of a sport.At Thistle Whistle, just outside the town of Hotchkiss, Mark Waltermire grows 67 varieties of peppers, and almost as many kinds of tomatoes, plus the usual array of berries and veggies. His reasoning?”Because I can,” he shrugs. “It’s an experiment.”Just the other side of Hotchkiss, at Mesa Winds Farm, Wink Davis, a former environmental attorney and renewable energy advocate, and his wife, Max Eisele, a painter and website designer, are raising beets, strawberries, okra, fennel, asparagus, apples, peaches, grapes, cherries, lettuces and much more. They also keep bees, make wine and soap, and rent out several cabins to bird-watchers who come to the area.Like most North Fork farmers, Davis and Eisele have to contend with the business model of producing organic food. But they are trying to be as adventurous with their income as they are with their crops. They supply fruit to Colorado College; they take their produce to farmers’ markets; and they have joined with three other farmers to create a Customer Supported Agriculture, better known as a CSA, with consumers “subscribing” to a farmer’s output.That innovative spirit extends to the region’s winemakers. Among those are Kevin Doyle, an award-winning vintner who runs his Woody Creek Cellars out of a cold, enormous, primitive abandoned fruit-packing building; and Lance Hanson, whose Jack Rabbit Hill is certified organic and biodynamic. Both are making wines that can be found on the lists of fine restaurants throughout Colorado; both are not only winemakers but also serve as their own distributors. (Hansen grows his own grapes as well, and has recently gotten into spirits, producing brandy, gin and vodka.)Hanson, a former Sonoma County software salesman, says he feels less constrained in his winemaking than he would if he were a big commercial vintner closer to the epicenter of the wine industry. That sentiment seem prevalent at Delta County wineries.”When we first saw this valley, saw the innovations with the wine – people weren’t locked into Wine Spectator, Robert Parker,” said Elaine Brett, who moved to the Hotchkiss area five years ago, from Washington, D.C., for the food culture. “They were just doing what they loved.”For a supposed culinary center, the North Fork is notably short on great restaurants. It goes back to the reason behind the lack of a farmers’ market: Why go to a restaurant, locals ask, when you can go in the backyard and get everything you need for a delicious meal?That may be slowly changing. Six years ago, Kelly Steinmetz, a former cook at Snowmass Village’s Il Poggio, opened the Flying Fork in downtown Paonia. The cuisine is Italian, but Steinmetz sticks largely to the ethos of local ingredients: He was drawn to his location when he realized that herbs, fruit and tomatoes were growing right there in the backyard garden. More than half of the wines he features are made within a few miles of the restaurant. Flying Fork, which also features a busy bakery, has earned mentions in Gourmet and Bon Appetit.The latest addition to the scene is Fresh & Wyld, which has provided a focal point for the movement since opening last year. The rustic-but-comfy 7-room B&B houses people who often spend a weekend touring farms and wineries. The Friday night dinners draw capacity crowds; Sunday brunch began for the season last week. Parr, the chef-owner, does cooking classes; local ladies give courses in canning, and making jerky, sausage and cheese. The property has its own garden.”Food and wine is the direction, I can’t see it going any other direction,” said Lewis, the hairdresser and Paonia councilman. “It’s coming on so strong in the six years I’ve been here. People are coming here with that strong interest, and then learning to garden and farm.”Lewis, too, has his own garden. “Which seems to be growing every year,” he

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