Pulling one over on Old Man Winter at midvalley’s Rock Bottom Ranch | AspenTimes.com

Pulling one over on Old Man Winter at midvalley’s Rock Bottom Ranch

The farmers at Rock Bottom Ranch have pulled one over on Old Man Winter.

Winter usually gets the best of growers in the Roaring Fork Valley, even when they use greenhouses, because natural light dips below 10 hours per day. It's called the Persephone period after the queen of the underworld in Greek mythology.

When Hades abducted Persephone, her mother became furious and made the crops wither and the earth barren. In the Roaring Fork Valley, the Persephone period is between about Nov. 15 and Jan. 25.

But Rock Bottom Ranch director Jason Smith and agriculture manager Alyssa Barsanti have found ways to boost winter production of vegetables, greens and even eggs.

“The whole trick to winter harvest is we get the plants almost to a mature level by Thanksgiving.”

— Jason Smith

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They got the idea this year of using a hoop house, a specific type of greenhouse, for a kind of spa for laying hens. It is a hoop coop.

They selected 120 of their 600 chickens and put them inside the structure, which is simply polyethylene draped over a strong metal frame. The laying hens have a significantly warmer environment than the 480 still roosting in and around regular coops.

"For us, animal happiness is pretty important," Smith said.

Even more important is the indoor laying hens save energy because they aren't battling the elements. They can use that energy laying eggs. It's already paid off six weeks into the experiment with the hoop coop.

"Egg production went through the roof," Smith said.

On Wednesday, for example, the 120 indoor hens produced 40 eggs while their 480 outdoor counterparts produced only 30.

Enhanced production is equally impressive in two nearby hoop houses devoted to veggies and greens. Smith said he is wary of manipulating conditions too severely, so Rock Bottom doesn't use supplemental light or heat. With the hoop houses, they don't need to.

The structures keep temperatures warm enough to keep the plants alive and producing into winter.

"The whole trick to winter harvest is we get the plants almost to a mature level by Thanksgiving," Smith said.

Growth really slows at that point because of the Persephone effect. But the slow growth is steady enough that they can reap a decent harvest through the end of January, when the days get longer and growth "takes off" again. The hoop houses basically serve as a huge refrigerator during the heart of winter.

A third, larger hoop house is under construction and will be ready for production in March. That will increase the number of 48-foot long growing beds from eight in the two existing hoop houses to 15.

"We're growing 12 months of the year," Smith said.

For a small operation, that can make a world of difference in profitability.

Rock Bottom Ranch, located along the Roaring Fork River in the midvalley, is owned and operated by Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. The 113-acre property is a showcase for wildland preservation as well as sustainable agriculture.

ACES' goal when Smith was hired in January 2013 was to cultivate a replicable and sustainable agricultural operation within five years. ACES officials believe they are reaching that goal. Executive director Chris Lane said it is essential that Rock Bottom has an agricultural operation that producers can visit, learn from and adapt to their operations.

Smith said some of the young farmers in the Roaring Fork Valley's budding agricultural scene were seasonal workers at the ranch. He doesn't see Rock Bottom Ranch as competing with other producers in the valley. Instead he is eager to share what he learns, for example, about hoop-house technology.

Rock Bottom also offers public farm tours Wednesdays and Fridays and regularly hosts schoolchildren. Smith said they had 20,000 visitors to this site last year.

"In addition to food production, we want to help consumers make better choices with their eating that includes eating less meat — because meat is carbon intensive — and we want to help growers produce food using lower carbon intensive methods," Lane said.

As for the sustainability goal, it's complicated. The agriculture program at Rock Bottom has to pay for itself, Lane said. ACES isn't sinking big funds into it with no hope of financial returns.

A hoop house that costs $10,000 to construct, for example, can be offset with a year of produce sales, he said. Further, Rock Bottom Ranch will hire four seasonal workers this May because the expense will be covered by the income from the agricultural operation.

But in the big picture, the agricultural operation is integrated with ACES' science program, so it's difficult to isolate costs, Lane said.

But Lane and Smith said Rock Bottom Ranch isn't a pie in the sky operation. The techniques used there are affordable and achievable for small farmers.

One of the hoop houses at Rock Bottom is dubbed Rolling Thunder because the frame rests on wheels that can be rolled on tracks. Currently, carrots, kale and chard are among the plants growing in the raised beds of Rolling Thunder. Smith equates the thick polyethylene cover on the hoop house as a blanket. A sheer layer of breathable fabric that covers the plants is like a sheet, he said.

The interior of Rolling Thunder stays three to five degrees warmer than outside.

"It's been below zero and the plants are fine," he said. "They're a lot heartier than we give them credit for."

Harvests are put on hold during the coldest snaps, but that rarely lasts long. Temperatures soar in the hoop house when the sun is out.

Rock Bottom is harvesting about five pounds of kale per bed per week right now. In eight weeks, when temperatures climb, the production will soar to 25 to 30 pounds per bed per week.

The current production rate for kale and other veggies and greens, while low, is enough to supply customers such as Meat and Cheese in Aspen and Free Range Kitchen in Basalt. The higher production is needed to satisfy regular customers and farmers' markets.

Come April, the 26-by-48-foot Rolling Thunder will be moved one full length to the east. The old beds, which will then be exposed to the outdoors, will be dug up and planted with carrots, broccoli and kale. They can all survive cool spring temperatures. The protective hoops house will incumbent more delicate seedlings of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. Use of the hoop house lets them plant sooner.

"We're getting a jump-start on the season," Smith said.

Beside Rolling Thunder is a stationary hoop house that is more heavily insulated. A layer of air is trapped between two layers of polyethylene. It's hot in there even on an overcast day when the sun occasionally peeks out.

"There's almost 20,000 carrots in this house," Smith said.

Planting was staggered so they can be harvested at different times.

Another hoop house, the biggest and most sophisticated, is under construction. The structure, 30-by-48 feet, will be planted in March with peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers. Like Rolling Thunder it can be moved to add to its versatility. Unlike its neighboring structure, it is moved on skids rather than wheels in tracks. The end walls are polycarbonate to increase efficiency.

The final tool to get a jump on spring is a seed-starting structure. Rock Bottom Ranch had only 89 frost-free days last year in the cool river bottom. Therefore, it's important to get plant seedlings started indoors.

The seed-starting building has a "funny angled roof" on the south side that is perpendicular to the angle of the sun on Feb. 11. That optimizes growing. The insulated foundation is covered with 113 tons of crushed stone. A climate battery expels hot air when the temperature climbs and draws it out of the rock and into the air when it is cool. The coldest the building has ever gotten is 41 degrees, even when it is below zero outside, Smith said.

Over the next couple of weeks, 100,000 seedlings for summer crops will be squeezed into the building. By fall, those plants will be producing the bounty at farmers' markets and food stands.

scondon@aspentimes.com