Educational ranch working on application for $1M barn | AspenTimes.com

Educational ranch working on application for $1M barn

Sustainable Settings has seen the future, and it features an udder — several udders, to be exact.

The nonprofit organization — which practices and teaches sustainable agriculture — is preparing an application for a dairy barn that will have a footprint of about 4,600 square feet and cost an estimated $1 million. Sustainable Settings is located on a historic ranch 5 miles south of Carbondale, within Pitkin County, on Highway 133.

Once approved, Sustainable Settings will expand its dairy herd from the existing 12 milking cows to at least 20.

The cows are currently milked in a retrofitted old pig barn, situated on the opposite side of the 244-acre ranch's cluster of buildings from the pastures. Late in the morning, the cows saunter through the center of the ranch to head to the milking shed. It's less than ideal but workable.

“The dairy is the main economic engine for the ranch.”
Brook LeVan, co-founder

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Sustainable Settings sells shares of its herd at $150 per share to members. The public embraced the offer. In Colorado, livestock owners are entitled to the products of their animals, so shareholders receive raw milk and cream.

Sustainable Settings co-founder and Executive Director Brook LeVan sees the potential to vastly expand what's called the Raw Dairy Initiative.

"The dairy is the main economic engine for the ranch," he said. "It's going to be what keeps us economically viable."

LeVan and Sustainable Setting's consulting planners are already in pre-application talks with Pitkin County Community Development. LeVan said the proposal seems well-received. He hopes to submit an application in December for county review.

"We would love to break ground in spring or summer," he said.

The optimism about the future at Sustainable Settings is a far cry from what LeVan and the board of directors felt in 2008. Pitkin County insisted that the ranch add bathrooms, washing rooms and a septic system capable of handling waste from the hundreds of students and workshop attendees. While Sustainable Settings acknowledged that the requirement was reasonable, officials were frustrated about going through a costly, complicated review system.

LeVan bristled at the time that a county regulatory process — that was designed to make sure wealthy property owners couldn't cheat the system — was also ensnaring nonprofit organizations promoting sustainable agriculture. Going through the review for the wastewater system would suck all the money available and leave it without funds to actually build the facility, he said in 2008.

Sustainable Settings' board of directors held an emergency meeting in March 2008 and decided to put the ranch up for sale and relocate. The recession scuttled the plan. The ranch was initially on the market for $12.8 million. The asking price was lowered to $9.5 million before it was taken off the market in 2009.

"The world changed in '08 for a lot of people," LeVan said.

In some ways, it changed for the better. After Sustainable Settings decided to stay put, Pitkin County's review process had been reduced to just six weeks. The crippling of the development industry made the review quicker and less expensive.

Sustainable Settings received approvals for the bathroom and finally has the funds for the project.

"We went through periods where we had the means to build, and we went through periods where we didn't," LeVan said.

SGM Inc. provided pro bono engineering on a leach field and related system that will handle wastewater from the historic ranch house where Brook and Rose LeVan live as well as for the new bathroom and washing facility. Construction is underway, and the facility will be ready next year.

LeVan is confident that the cooperative relationship fused by Sustainable Settings and Pitkin County will carry over to review of the dairy barn — something that probably hasn't been proposed since the Aspen area found success as a ski resort.

Sustainable Settings started milking two cows by hand in 2008. As the herd expanded, they switched to a vacuum milking apparatus in 2009. Unlike industrial operations, the cows are milked once rather than twice or more per day. They are even treated to classical music during milking.

Sustainable Settings has a mix of Guernsey, Jersey and Dutch Belts cattle under the supervision of herdsman Zopher Sabo. The herd grazes in pastures at the ranch and never munches feed with genetically modified organisms.

LeVan said donations are still needed for the dairy barn, especially for renewable-energy components. It will include a commercial-grade kitchen for the ranch's farm-to-table dinners.

For more on the organization and its various programs, go to http://www.sustainable settings.org.

scondon@aspentimes.com