Inside Farm Collaborative, the nonprofit reviving small farming in Aspen
Cooper Means has given up describing himself as a farmer.
The Aspen native and agriculture director at the nonprofit Farm Collaborative said it creates confusion since there are so few small farming operations remaining today in the U.S.
“I tell them I’m a food producer,” Means said. “When I say I’m a farmer, people generally think I am a rancher and raise cattle or I grow pot.”
The Upper Roaring Fork Valley is better known for gatherings of the rich and famous than of chickens and sheep, and it is more notable for planting ski lift towers than heritage fruit trees.
The Farm Collaborative is trying to expand the image by becoming a model of sustainable agriculture. Means said he likes the innovation the staff is urged to undertake and the sharing of experiences, successful or not.
“What excites me is always trying something new,” he said.
One day he might be welding for the first time in a year. The next he might be driving a combine for the first time ever to harvest an oat crop.
“There’s something about farming that you always want to try something new,” Means said. “You’re never bored. Farmers are inventors.”
At the request of The Aspen Times, he highlighted three noteworthy initiatives within the Farm Collaborative’s broad efforts.
1. Preserving heritage fruit trees.
Our society is too often oriented toward quick fixes and immediate benefits, Farm Collaborative Executive Director Eden Vardy believes. He was impressed on a visit to Israel to discover families planting olive trees even thought they won’t produce for 50 years.
“It’s really looking toward the next generation,” Means said. “The heritage fruit tree project goes along with that idea that we need to be investing in our future.”
The Farm Collaborative staff has planted rootstock from about 200 trees, mostly apple trees. The rootstock is from orchardists who have developed varieties that can handle the high altitude climate and upper valley’s soil conditions. After establishing the rootstock, the Farm Collaborative grafted on scion wood from fruit trees that homesteaders planted decades ago. The homesteaders developed some of the hardiest, top-producing trees. The Farm Collaborative wants to keep them alive and in production.
While the grafted trees won’t produce fruit for some time, they will live well over 100 years, Means said.
The staff grafted scion wood onto 200 trees last year. That effort will have to be repeated this year.
“We had a lot of trouble with rodents over the winter,” Means said. The critters gnawed the bark and the trees must be re-grafted. “That’s farming,” he said with a shrug.
The soil is dialed in at the orchard, the irrigation system is installed and now fencing is erected to keep out the varmints.
2. Letting chickens and sheep do their thing.
In a pasture right off of Highway 82, visible to thousands of daily commuters, the Farm Collaborative is using its expanding population of sheep and chickens in rotational grazing to benefit the soil. The West has a long history of overgrazing by sheep and cattle and degradation of natural resources, Means said. Rotational grazing is modeled more on natural systems.
“A group of grazers will always stick together and they will always be moving because of predator pressure,” Means said. “Obviously we don’t want to stick a couple of wolves in our pasture to keep the sheep moving. So we’re playing the role of the predator by fencing in and keeping those sheep tight.”
Small mobile pens are used to keep the sheep grouped together. The fencing is moved every five to seven days after the grass is grazed close to the ground. The grass stores energy in roots that is used to produce new grass once the grazing stops.
Once the sheep are relocated, chickens in a mobile coop move in. They pick apart the sheep droppings, which serve as a natural fertilizer, and eat the insects, which helps keep the sheep healthy. The chickens produce eggs that the Farm Collaborative is able to sell.
3. Sowing their oats.
Means was uncertain that food distribution systems would hold up during the coronavirus crisis so he spent $12,000 on feed this spring. The Farm Collaborative imports organic chicken feed from Montana for its growing flock. If the nonprofit couldn’t get feed, its chickens wouldn’t produce eggs.
Means wants to eliminate that dependency on an outside source. In the latest of a multi-year experiment, he planted 4.5 acres of oats for both human and animal consumption. The oats were planted on the Lazy Glen property leased from Pitkin County Open Space and Trails for agricultural uses.
Means has visions of reviving small-scale grain production that was once predominant in the Roaring Fork Valley. The Farm Collaborative is purchasing a grain combine manufactured in 1956 to handle the harvest. The machine will be part of a tool library that can be used by local farmers to “check out” machinery for shared use that would be too expensive for one operator to purchase.
Means has high hopes for grain production. There are numerous gentleman ranchers in the valley that grow hay as a way to get a favorable tax rate for agricultural use of the land. Instead of growing hay, Means would like to see that land growing grain.
“There used to be a lot of grain produced in this valley, so we know it works,” he said.
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