Farming on the plate at Rock Bottom Ranch

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times

BASALT – When the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies acquired a ranch outside Basalt more than a decade ago with wildlife and educational outreach in mind, agriculture was part of the vision.

Now, farming at Rock Bottom Ranch is sprouting in multiple directions under the guidance of its new director, Jason Smith. Food production at the ranch isn’t just for demonstration purposes anymore, though Rock Bottom remains a place for youngsters and adults to experience a hands-on approach to agrarian pursuits.

Cradling baby chicks is still a thrill for young visitors, and adults interested in backyard livestock can sign up for April classes on raising rabbits, keeping bees and choosing chickens for a home coop. Bleating lambs in an outdoor pasture prove irresistible to visitors of all ages who line up outside the fence to watch them frolic or cuddle up in curly, white bundles, but the lambs are more than a too-cute-for-words attraction.

They’re the start of a fledgling flock that signals Rock Bottom Ranch’s expansion into food production on a meaningful scale. So are the Large Black pigs (an aptly named breed) rooting about at the ranch. The dwindling breed’s status was listed as critical in 2008 by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, but they’re gaining ground as they gain favor among consumers interested in pasture-raised pork.

At Rock Bottom, they’re being raised for both pork and brood stock that can be sold to others who want to raise the animals.

“It’s a really flavorful, delicious meat, more comparable to beef than the pork you see in the grocery store,” Smith said.

He should know. The new man at the helm of Rock Bottom is a former chef as well as a farmer.

“As soon as I could reach the stove, I was cooking,” said Smith, whose father works in the hotel and restaurant business but doesn’t share his son’s agricultural leanings.

“My father has no idea what we’re doing,” Smith said, laughing. “He thinks this is ludicrous.”

But Smith spent some six years as a chef at The Little Nell in Aspen, where he worked under a couple of executive chefs, including one who introduced him to the farming side of food at a spread outside of Paonia. When Smith and his wife, Sarah, were ready for a change, they left Aspen and returned to their roots in North Carolina, operating a small farm while Jason took college classes in sustainable agriculture. The farm expanded from vegetable crops and cut flowers to chickens, pigs and goats.

Now, Smith is applying that experience at Rock Bottom Ranch, a 113-acre wildlife preserve and demonstration ranch on Hooks Spur Road, between the Roaring Fork River and Mount Sopris, about midway between Basalt and Carbondale. He took over as director in January. The Rio Grande Trail runs alongside the peaceful property, where red-tailed hawks soar overhead, herons nest near the river and the ranch’s poultry and farm-raised ducks raise the occasional ruckus.

ACES acquired the ranch from Charlie Cole in 1999 with an agreement to protect the property’s riparian habitat, to broaden the organization’s educational-outreach programs throughout the Roaring Fork Valley and to explore the complex interaction between agriculture and natural ecosystems along the river.

“We really want to expand the agricultural production and make that a focus,” Smith said.

Crystal River Meats, a Roaring Fork Valley producer, has kept about 300 sheep in a back pasture at Rock Bottom Ranch this winter and, in return, provided the ranch with three pregnant ewes to start its own flock. Six lambs were born this spring.

Chickens and ducks are being raised for both meat and eggs.

Rock Bottom plans to take its products to market for the first time this summer, joining the vendors at Basalt’s weekend farmers market.

“We want to become a part of this community and felt that was a good way to start,” Smith said.

Vegetables to be sold at the market will be grown in demonstration gardens ranging from an open garden to various greenhouse environments. The ranch will find out what works best for various plants and help spread the word to other backyard gardeners.

“It may take a year to figure out the climate and soil,” Smith said. “I come from North Carolina, which is much more forgiving.”

Rock Bottom also offers a community garden where participants can grow their own crops in garden boxes that go for $125 apiece per season. The price includes a $50 ACES membership, the benefits of a timed irrigation system, compost, mulch and access to gardening tools.

The ranch also hopes to invite the public to dinner this summer. Smith is planning three farm-to-table dinners in a former hay barn (a roof but no sides) that is undergoing improvements. The menu will feature products from Rock Bottom Ranch first and foremost, along with other regional contributions. Smith hopes to line up guest chefs to share duties in the kitchen with him.

“We have such great resources in the valley, with food and restaurants,” he said. “The items that we can’t find here, we hope to get as locally as possible.

“Between lamb, pork and chicken, we can come up with three dinners.”


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