A 75-year-old combine and a field of oats fuel Aspen effort to revive growing grain
Roaring Fork Valley farmer Cooper Means took a step back last week to move forward.
Means used a newly acquired 75-year-old Allis Chalmers combine to harvest about 4 acres of oats on land he leases in Old Snowmass. It’s part of a demonstration project that Means hopes to use to show that small-scale grain farming is again viable in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“It’s kind of like stepping back in time,” Means said on a recent hot afternoon while taking a break from mowing down the oat plants. “Grain was produced on a really large scale in the Roaring Fork Valley.”
The combine, technically an All Crop Harvester, is pulled by a tractor. The combine cuts the oats and goes through an elaborate process to separate out seeds from husks. The seeds are stored in a bin on the combine, then unloaded into special containers.
“The oats are really nothing special. I was doing a trial run for everything,” said Means, who leases land from the Pitkin County Open Space at Trails program through his company Shining Mountains Farm. Means also is agriculture director at the nonprofit Farm Collaborative at Cozy Point Ranch.
The oats will produce 6,000 to 8,000 pounds of chicken feed for the Farm Collaborative. That reduces expenses and streamlines the supply chain. Another 3,000 pounds will be reserved for human consumption. A Paonia bakery wants to experiment with the crop.
Mostly, the oats are a means to Means’ ends. The seeds were cheap, so he could afford to experiment with the crop. Now that he knows that the ancient combine can handle the work, he plans to convert the field to winter wheat, which is more versatile for human consumption.
By showing that grain can grow in the valley and by acquiring a combine for shared use, Means hopes that more farmers will plant grain. There are countless properties in Pitkin County that are growing hay simply to get an agriculture exemption on their land for a tax break. Means hopes to persuade at least a portion of those landowners to consider a more vital agriculture operation by growing grains for human use.
“I see a lot of opportunity in how people use that land,” he said.
The quest was made possible through the Farm Collaborative’s purchase of the combine for $6,500. It was purchased for the tool library program. Farm Collaborative buys equipment that would be prohibitive for an individual farmer to invest in for just a short amount of use. The equipment can be checked out by members of a collective, like checking out a book from a library.
Means said a cheaper old combine could have been found, although not in the same condition as the one purchased. A collector had refurbished it to operating condition. It got delivered last month from Marlette, Michigan.
Means had to use experience and a bit of guesswork to figure out how to operate it.
“There’s some YouTube videos, nothing great,” he said.
And even though the machine was in good running order, it hadn’t actually been in a field for a while, so Means had to perform emergency triage.
“I probably broke down 12 times last week during harvest,” he said.
He had to change a tire one day and bend some sheet metal for a specific purpose another, but nothing came up that couldn’t be fixed.
“I really appreciate the simplicity of it,” he said.