Skier turned Paonia farmer aims to grow all she needs
December 24, 2010
PAONIA, Colo. – The farmer pushed aside a layer of hay, grabbed a fistful of green, and yanked an overwintering carrot from the ground. She wiped away some dirt and took a bite.
A few moments later, after stepping past the fresh elk legs her sheepdogs dragged from the woods, she retrieved a pair of warm eggs from a nearby coop. In the greenhouse she fussed over the herbs, gestured toward the lemon, lime and orange trees, and gushed about the 53 varieties of tomatoes she grew this year, her first season of farming.
On the way back into the house she pointed at Mount Lamborn, an 11,396-foot spike of white dominating the southern horizon.
“I would love to ski that line, right there,” she said, squinting, dragging her finger down.
The line? A cliff, basically
Alison Gannett, 45, spent her adult life leaping from mountaintops around the world and skiing sometimes, more like falling from the peaks to wherever things flattened out. She was a world champion big mountain freeskier.
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She still does the cliff thing and she’s also a professional mountain biker but her life changed dramatically in April. That’s when she sold nearly everything she owned with her fiance, Jason Trimm, 37, and moved from Crested Butte to the 75-acre Holy Terror Farm (named after the river on the property that sometimes rages) near Paonia, a small town on the Western Slope.
The new life is no less extreme than the old one. In some ways, it’s much more daunting.
If the planet grows much warmer, snow and skiing could vanish. This upsets Gannett. So she is offering up her life as a guinea pig. She bought the farm to find out just how lightly she could live on the earth.
By slowly, and persistently, eroding her dependence on fossil-fuels, and showing others how to do the same, she thinks the rate of climate change could diminish, if not reverse course.
So goodbye, supermarket – she hasn’t been to one since she moved to Paonia, getting most of her food from her own land or directly from nearby farmers. She’s raising pigs, cows and chickens; growing her own grains, as well as a multitude of vegetables and legumes; maintaining 43 bee hives; tending to an array of fruit trees and vines she grew 300 pounds of grapes alone, for juice, eating and raisins.
She’s planting almond trees for the nuts’ oils, and heating the house with oak from her land. Fuel? She is hunting for a wood-fired still, so she can make ethanol. For dairy products, Gannett is getting milk cows next year, one of many to-do tasks outlined on a whiteboard in her rustic kitchen.
In addition to the farm, she works for a variety of environmentally engaged companies as a professional skier – the companies are her main source of income – and owns a business teaching women how to mountain bike, ski and surf.
Then there are the nonprofits she started: one dealing with helping Gunnison County calculate and reduce its carbon footprint, another focused on cost-effective solutions to climate change and the third, an online farmers market.
Throughout, she travels constantly, giving speeches. To get around, she takes flights but usually rents bicycles when she lands and pedals from commitment to commitment, sleeping in an inflatable tent. During one recent string of six engagements, she traveled 1,800 miles, alone, in the saddle.
“It’s an adventure,” said Gannett, who is petite, muscular and obviously very energetic. “I’ve learned in skiing here’s a line that is impossible to ski. How do I ski it? It’s the same with farming. You are presented with a problem and have to figure out how to solve it. The first time I canned tomatoes, I canned like five jars and it seemed epic. This year, my second year of trying, I probably canned 400 cans of food.”
Neither Gannett nor Trimm knew much about agriculture before moving to Paonia. She lived in Crested Butte for 21 years; Trimm, for 15 years. Both stayed in the tiny town for its access to mountain sports.
“All of that has come to an abrupt end,” said Trimm, a laconic, wiry guy, in the farmhouse kitchen on a recent evening, munching on cornbread and lamb stew made mostly from vegetables grown on the farm.
He was covered in soot – chimney cleaning commanded a big chunk of his day.
“When it starts snowing and everybody is skiing, and in the summer when everybody is mountain biking, we won’t be a part of it. I’m always worn out. It’s hard to go get on a bike.”
Instead, most of his free time is spent reading books about farming, food preservation and so on. Their library fills a bookshelf in the kitchen.
“Just around the farm takes a lot of energy,” said Mark Waltermire, the owner of Thistle Whistle Farm in the neighboring town of Hotchkiss. “It’s a huge thing. So I do wonder how they can keep all of that together. It’s a heckuva lot. Any one thing would be plenty.”
Waltermire said Gannett’s and Trimm’s launching of the online farmers market, which connects farmers from the area with consumers, has been “a godsend.”
“When somebody steps up, like Alison, it’s great,” he said. “We are spending too much time weeding our kohlrabi.”
The path that led from single-track to seed-saving began about 15 years ago. Gannett planned to ski a famous glacier in Bolivia, but when she got there, it was largely gone.
The jolt illustrated for her the planet was warming, and it scared her. She became heavily involved in climate-change issues.
She built her “dream home,” an eco-friendly, straw-bale house in downtown Crested Butte. She designed a solar-powered SUV. She launched her nonprofits. In 2007 Outside magazine named her a “Green All Star,” along with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Leonardo DiCaprio. This year, Ski Magazine named her a High Country Hero, writing: “Gannett, a world champion freeskier, launched the Global Cooling Tour . . . and also works on former V.P. Al Gore’s Climate Project. That’s why we’re starting our list of High-Country Heroes with her.”
In the midst of all of this, she measured her “carbon footprint” a gauge of carbon (fossil fuel) use and was shocked: 16 tons. The average American footprint is 20 tons.
“I thought I was being green,” she said.
A big part of the problem: food. It demands a lot of carbon in its production, transportation and storage.
She could have shrugged, but Gannett and Trimm instead decided to “walk the walk,” as she says. The couple started looking for land around Paonia, an easier place to nurture plants than Crested Butte and its short summer.
Now, she’s down from 16 tons to 8, with more than half of her footprint coming from airplane travel.
She’s not urging people to model their lives after hers on the farm. What she’s doing, she says, is finding out what works: Which carbon-saving gambits are affordable, practical, effective and save money.
“Just do one thing. Don’t do 100,” she said. “Most people have a tough time getting started, but you need to say, ‘I’m going to try just one thing.’ And once you do that, it becomes addictive.”
She acknowledges she’s obsessive- compulsive about reducing her carbon footprint, which she calculates in her head constantly. When she and Trimm are on a flight and he takes a paper cup from the flight attendant, “it drives me crazy.”
“Every napkin, to me, represents another virgin rainforest being cut down.”
The most important first step isn’t shrinking from paper towels, she said; it’s measuring your carbon footprint, a fairly easy task. Lots of websites, like carbonfootprint.com, have footprint calculators.
Whittling away the first 30 percent of the footprint is “brainless,” she said, involving things like turning off computers at night.
Buy solar panels? Replace windows? Maybe, but first run the numbers, with the help of online carbon calculators. A ski rep who puts 100,000 miles a year on his car might want a hybrid; people who log 10,000 annually, maybe not. Instead of new windows, people can save a lot of money and use less carbon by just covering the windows with plastic in the winter.
For a car wash, which uses a lot of energy, solar panels might make sense. But for many homeowners, it could be a waste of money.
“Solar panels are expensive, and they don’t reduce your footprint because it costs a lot of (carbon) to create them,” she said. “I talk people out of windows and solar panels and electric cars.” It’s the accumulation of little things, she said, that can make the biggest difference, without breaking the bank.
On a recent cold morning, Gannett rose at 5:30 to get ready for a board meeting in Crested Butte for one of her nonprofits, the Save Our Snow Foundation.
She reached for one of her few nonlocal indulgences a can of coffee and placed a handful of beans into one of the many little things she has leveraged to whittle-away her carbon footprint, a wood-and-metal, hand-powered coffee grinder.
She turned the crank 130 times.