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Going to organic… and beyond

Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly
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For some, the words “organic produce” evoke images of Boulder-dwelling, dreadlocked hippies. But the organic food industry no longer lurks in obscurity; it is growing rapidly across the country, and is especially embraced by residents in the Roaring Fork Valley. Still, organic produce can be difficult to get compared to its commercial counterpart.The Roaring Fork Valley – Aspen in particular – provides its own challenges for getting your mitts on food that was grown without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and other chemicals. The demand is high – area stores and farmers can’t keep organic produce on the shelves – and only a handful of places sell it. Plus, every locale in the valley has its own micro-climate for farmers to master. A short growing season and a late frost keep farmers on their toes, hoping not to lose those precious seedlings.

Nonetheless, Sustainable Settings in Carbondale, Ute City Farms in Woody Creek, and greenhouse guru Jerome Osentowski on Basalt Mountain have all been successful in growing and selling their organic wares in the valley. Sustainable Settings grows a wide variety of seasonal vegetables, offers organic eggs, and even raises grass-fed, organic beef, lamb and turkeys. Ute City Farms offers a variety of salad greens as well as vegetables like onions, beets, garlic and culinary herbs. You’ll find anything and everything in Osentowski’s greenhouses and surrounding gardens – salad greens, culinary herbs, berries, even exotic dates. Each grower takes cautious steps to make sure their varied produce is as close to nature as possible.Organic isn’t just a challenge for the growers – it can be a challenge for the average consumer, too. Organic is usually a bit more expensive than traditionally grown produce since it’s less common and sometimes harder to grow in bulk.”It is tough to get organic produce in this town,” said Mona Esposito, who has eaten organic food for several years. Esposito also has a plot at the all-organic Marolt community garden east of Castle Creek Road.”It’s pretty limited, and it’s expensive in the valley.”But the people who grow and eat organic food say the trouble is worth it because their food tastes fresher, crisper and more “alive” – and they feel healthier, too.

The USDA makes no claims that organic food is actually better for you, but that doesn’t stop most people who prefer it from giving a shining endorsement.”I’m very, very active,” said Susan Brady, who has eaten organic for more than 30 years. “I do think the health I have today is due to the fact I eat organic.”People like Brady say they feel better not eating food treated with chemicals, hormones or other synthetic enhancements.”For me, it’s a fundamental principle of the way I live,” said Margie Sturgis, who has eaten organic for several years and helps run the all-organic Marolt community garden. “I think we’re inundated in the world with chemicals as it is.”Sustainable Settings Director Brook LeVan said the organic industry is growing, and it’s because consumers are learning more about the food they eat.”People are ready. They’re tired of junk,” he said. “The consumer’s gotten smarter and wiser. A lot of the mainstream press has finally picked it up.”



Others simply characterize organic food as being more “alive,” thanks to its natural growth and lack of chemicals.”We’re so used to eating processed and dead food,” Osentowski said while wandering through one of his greenhouses on Basalt Mountain. Everything he grows is full of “life force” – or chi, he said. And that’s what makes it unique.”That’s what you can’t measure,” he said. “You can’t measure that chi scientifically.”Who buys it?Local sellers and growers say they generally don’t have much trouble selling what organic produce there is.

“As much as we can get in, we’ll sell,” said Linda Rivera, produce manager at the Aspen City Market. “It sells every day, so we don’t waste much at all.”Larry Hedges, produce manager at Clark’s Market, said organic is a hit in his department, too.”There is a lot of clientele that only wants to buy organic,” he said.Sue Carrolan, who runs Ute City Farms, along with LeVan and Osentowski also said they don’t have trouble selling their wares – especially because it’s picked right before they sell it, and they don’t have to transport it far to bring it to valley consumers. Organic produce at stores is often trucked in from places like California – not grown locally.”Our stuff is pretty fresh,” Carrolan said. “We pick it and take it to the market the next day.”




Although local growers can pick what they sell right before it hits the farmers market, grocery stores don’t have the same luxury. Organic produce may not have the enhancements of its commercial counterpart, but it also has a much shorter lifespan.”The problem is the quality,” Hedges said. “We can’t quite get the shelf life out of it like the commercial.”He gave the example of cucumbers, which usually last a week on the shelf if grown commercially. But the organic doesn’t fare so well.”I bring in a case of organics, and the next day they start shriveling up,” Hedges said.Another problem, according to those who do eat organic, is that it’s tough to get in the valley. The handful of local growers usually can’t sell anything in the winter, and the grocery stores often face the same cold-weather problems.”In the winter, there’s really nobody,” Esposito said. “It’s pretty sad in the winter.”

She used to mail-order organic produce from California, but prefers to buy from local growers when she can.”There’s the organic side to eating, but there’s the local, too,” she said.Esposito and other organic consumers said they’d love to see an organic food provider in Aspen year-round.”It’s always been a struggle to get good food here in that way,” Brady said. “I would love to be in a group in Aspen that wanted to be self-sustaining.”Sturgis also said a specialty organic market in Aspen would be a blessing for her.

But price remains another obstacle for consumers like Sturgis. Organic foods are typically more expensive than their commercial counterparts, which can be challenging for anyone on a budget.”I’m also a person who has to work hard for a living, and I can’t just spend anything,” Sturgis said.How do they grow ‘organically’?Sustainable Settings currently grows a variety of seasonal produce, but isn’t able to grow year-round. Ute City Farms sticks mostly to greens and lettuce, such as chard, but also offers onions, beets and a few other veggies.Conventional farming lends itself to the use of pesticides, growth hormones, man-made fertilizers and other enhancers to keep up with production. Organic farmers have to devise their own ways of boosting the soil and killing weeds and pests.

“It’s more labor-intensive because we’re not spraying to get rid of the weeds,” said Sue Carrolan, who runs Ute City Farms. “We’re weeding by hand.”Osentowski will also put plastic lining over big patches of weeds to solarize them – or basically fry them with the sun’s rays. Then the weeds can be quickly pulled.And trash becomes a true treasure on organic farms, where minerals can’t be replenished with synthetic sprays.”We constantly have to make sure we compost and put back in what we’ve taken out,” Carrolan said.All those weeds that get pulled suddenly become useful, as they’ll often get composted right on top of the growing produce.The alkaline soil of the west, with a pH hovering around 8, doesn’t always lend itself to successful growth of anything besides potatoes. So LeVan got busy composting at Sustainable Settings – he gathered up truckloads of leaves in Carbondale – and the acidic compost lowered the pH to about 6.5. That’s much more planter-friendly, and allows him to grow a wider variety of crops.

LeVan has also worked to replenish the soil with essential nutrients, which Carrolan and Osentowski both said is essential to growing quality organic food. Farming depletes the nutrients in soil – it’s a natural process, because those nutrients get absorbed into your veggies. But if those nutrients aren’t in the soil, it won’t get into your food.”What we’re doing here is we’re rebuilding this asset,” LeVan said. “You’ve got to put it back. The soil is a living organism.”Late frosts can also be an obstacle for valley farmers, but there are ways around it. Plus, LeVan, Carrolan and Osentowski usually grow a variety of crops so not all is lost when night frosts strike. “One of the beauties of diversity is that you have so many things, you’ll always get something,” Osentowski said.There are still ways to combat the cold, though. Misting plants at night forms a layer of ice around plants and provides insulation against extreme cold. There are also different types of covering that can protect plants.Insect problems? There’s an organic solution for those, too. Osentowski said water or soap sprays can scare them off easily. However, he said the diverse animals and insects crawling around his gardens are usually self-controlling – predators often prey on the creatures that can damage crops.

LeVan also said there aren’t many pests buzzing around the Roaring Fork’s high elevation to begin with.”That’s one of the benefits of growing at high altitude,” he said.But the growers say the added challenge is ultimately worth what they get in return.”You’re not putting that extra chemical in your body,” Carrolan said. “And the vegetable actually has all its nutrients.”Greg Schreier’s e-mail address is gschreier@aspentimes.com


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