Food Matters: Sustainable Settings preps for summer vitality
In the dusty root cellar of an 1893 farmhouse south of Carbondale near Mount Sopris, Brook LeVan is showing me a cow horn stuffed with manure. The horn has been buried in a raised bed here in the subterranean storage room just tall enough for us to stand up in. To get here, the farmer, rancher, and owner of Sustainable Settings led me down a set of steep stairs through a hatch in the floor of his kitchen. One wall is made of wide stones — the home’s original dry-stacked foundation.
“We stir the manure with intention,” LeVan explains. “Then we fill the horns, put a clay cap over them, bury them (outside) in September. They’re in the ground through winter celestials, or movement of the cosmos. This (represents) fertility, quantity. One handful, stirred in three to four gallons of water, (fertilizes) an acre of crops.”
“Horn manure” is a homeopathic land therapy in biodynamic farming, which tunes in to the natural rhythms of life on Earth to maximize fertility in the soil. LeVan likens it to an herbal apothecary for human treatment; other horns are filled with mixtures of medicinal herbs such as chamomile, yarrow, and valerian. After curing underground for a season, the resulting mixtures are used in soil to help sustain communities of bacteria, fungi, and earthworms, improve soil structure and water retention, and assist root development.
The windowed pumphouse stores the crystal preparations. “We crush different kinds of silica, amethyst, quartz … and fill the horns,” LeVan shares. “They get buried in early June and go through the summer celestials. Those are more about light: father, sky, quality. In the winter, it’s dark; mother is quantity. Yin, yang, mother, father. When these two main polarities in the system are in balance, everybody’s happy.”
Out of balance, not so much. “I have burned a whole greenhouse full of basil because I (used) too much (of the crystal mixture),” LeVan shares. “I sold pesto negro that year.” (On May 1, Sustainable Settings will hold a six-hour “Biodynamic 101” workshop to teach participants how to prepare these mixtures and harness their subtle energies effectively.)
Brook and Rose LeVan founded Sustainable Settings about 24 years ago as a nonprofit organization to “to create a shared vision of a sustainable and desirable society.” Today it sits on 244 acres off Highway 133 in Carbondale, where the couple has implemented other, more mainstream regenerative techniques, such as cover cropping and crop rotation, animal integration, and composting. As biodynamic pioneers, the LeVans maintain that their main role here is as “soil builders.”
“Your soil will hold water if it’s healthy,” LeVan says. “Our objective is to build health in the system. If we do that, there is abundance.”
The farm reaps a diverse array of vegetables, greens, fruits, herbs, and medicinal plants for a robust CSA program (which is already sold-out; learn more in this issue’s cover story, p. 8). The solar-powered dairy barn houses about 40 cattle, part of a CSA herdshare that supplies raw milk to 120 families (with 25 on the waiting list) each week. (Cream, butter, kefir, yogurt, and ricotta are often available à la carte in the Ranch Store; see “Got Milk?,” opposite page). The annual Sustainable Settings Harvest Festival every September draws chefs, fellow food producers, and CSA members to celebrate the circle of life among seasonal bounty.
Winter at Sustainable Settings is a time to review and plan for the summer growing season. The LeVans spent the past few months designing rotations of crops and ordering seeds for new crops, to add diversity. They’re preparing soils in the greenhouses, building compost, and sowing seeds for certain edibles: onions, celery, radicchio, escarole, tatsoi. Some of these plants, or “starts,” require two to three weeks to germinate in the greenhouse and grow tall enough to withstand the stress of transplanting out in the field.
“You don’t plant lettuce once, you plant it every two weeks,” LeVan explains. “Every week you sow something, so you harvest throughout the season. Otherwise you’re done by June or July.”
In February and March, LeVan pruned the apple and apricot trees that grow on the property. “We’re trying peach, which is not typical here. You go over that hill 60 miles, it’s peach heaven,” says LeVan, gesturing south, toward McClure Pass. “We are planting for the climate shift now. It’s gonna be warmer, we know that.”
There’s also cleaning and maintenance: one tractor, an ATV, chainsaw, and a couple of weed whips just returned from service appointments. Soon, a new crop of summer interns will arrive.
“We are a working ranch, but we’re a learning center too,” LeVan says. This year Sustainable Settings will welcome five interns, two returning for a second season and some who have never farmed. One newcomer is over 50 years old. LeVan describes the program as “grad school”: alluring to permaculture students as well as folks who have been out in the world and suspect that there’s more to food production than conventional systems. Over the years, the LeVans have experimented across the wide world of organic permaculture, without using chemicals or synthetics.
“For us, coming out of the arts, as artists, the studio was always a laboratory. The ranch is a laboratory, too,” LeVan maintains. “That experimentation has made us a stewardship quiver, like a bow and arrow. I spent $1,000 a year for soil testing. After seven years of data from the USDA/NRCS, our research is bearing fruit.”
A few years ago, chef Dan Barber invited the family to visit his farm-to-table restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns on the Hudson River north of New York City, “based on the flavor of our milk,” LeVan says. (When Brook and Rose’s son, Cooper, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, staged in Barber’s kitchen, he challenged his mentor and staff to a blind taste test. Sustainable won every vote except one.) Last year, Blue Hill received two Michelin stars.
Roaring Fork Valley chefs, including Barclay Dodge of Bosq in Aspen and Mark Fischer of The Pullman in Glenwood Springs, are huge fans, visiting the fields at Sustainable Settings to handpick greens, edible flowers, and even weeds rich with terroir.
“Everything we do needs to be done with love and affection,” LeVan says, loosely quoting American novelist, farmer, and environmental activist Wendell Berry. “Sustainable Settings is a whole system, a whole-farm organism. We’re ‘relationship farming’ more than anything else.”
Back inside the farmhouse, a batch of Valencia orange marmalade in glass jars sits on the dining room table. LeVan blessed the jars by thanking the various members of the system that contributed to its creation. “Flavor starts with intention,” he says, offering a tip for those of us at home, without a farm. “You can raise the resonance of a meal by having those around the table give thanks to all the life — the plants, animals, cosmos, earth — that made up what’s on their plate. Name it and be grateful.”
Amanda Rae is the editor of “The Aspen Cookbook,” a community fundraiser for restaurant workers: AspenCookbook.com. email@example.com
The cattle herd that grazes freely on pasture at Sustainable Settings produces milk for dairy CSA members who purchase a share. While it is illegal to sell or buy raw milk outright in Colorado, producers lobbied years ago for the right of herd owners to enjoy product from their property.
“All milk is not created equal,” LeVan says. “Our milk is $22/gallon. People say that’s expensive. And I say, I bet you like beer…then they go, Oh. They do the math: ‘I’m paying $40/gallon for beer?!’ Is my milk expensive? It’s perception.”
Hidden from view is the amount of effort required to produce said milk. LeVan rattles off a list of considerations guided by breeding and calving charts, the transitions of milking and drying up the cows to maintain a certain amount of milk for CSA share members.
Raw dairy CSA shares are sold out for 2021, but customers will find organic eggs, meat, herbs, and spring produce at the Sustainable Settings Ranch Store, open Tuesday through Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. and by appointment.
Tue-Sat noon-5 p.m.
Or by appointment
Biodynamics 101 workshop
May 1 at 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
6107 Hwy. 133, Carbondale
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While the rest of the festival’s performance program was announced in the spring, the opening concert by the Festival Orchestra had remained blank.