Spud revival in the Roaring Fork Valley
Potato-growing is under way on a scale that hasn’t been seen for more than 50 years in the upper Roaring Fork Valley.
Woody Creek Distillers owners Pat and Mary Scanlan have planted about 55,000 pounds of spuds this spring on their ranch in Little Woody Creek and on land leased at the adjacent Chaparral Ranch. Pat Scanlan said close to 30 acres total was planted during the last week of May and first week of June in various fields. That’s about the same acreage as last year.
Most of the potatoes they plant are the Rio Grande variety. “That’s the workhorse” that makes most of Woody Creek Distillers’ vodka, he said. They also grow Stobrawa potatoes, a Polish variety that has higher starch content than most other potatoes and creates special vodka.
They will harvest roughly 600,000 pounds of potatoes in the fall, clean them and ship them to the distillery in Basalt to be converted into vodka.
The Chaparral Ranch was once the property of the Vagneur Ranch Co. and one of five ranches owned and operated in the Woody Creek area by the extended Vagneur family. Tony Vagneur, of El Jebel, said the ranchers would rotate crops regularly by digging up a portion of a hay field one year and planting potatoes. After a few years of growing spuds, the field would be dedicated to oats and then back to hay.
He guessed that the vast spread that is now Chaparral Ranch probably devoted 30 to 40 acres to potatoes. “When they were trying to feed the people of Aspen, they were a big cash crop,” Vagneur said.
A huge, dilapidated potato cellar from several decades ago remains an eye-catching relic on the ranch.
When demand for meat and fresh produce petered out in Aspen during the Quiet Years, farmers and ranchers started shipping potatoes out by railroad. Vagneur recalled that ranchers would tell the railroad operators how many cars they could fill. The railroad cars would be delivered to a side rail line, and the ranchers would deliver their harvest.
Aspen High School used to close for a brief period after the first frost of the fall so kids would be available to gather potatoes, Vagneur said, recalling the early and mid-1950s when he was growing up in Woody Creek. His family would pick up a load of kids in Aspen at sunrise, bring them to Woody Creek for a day of picking spuds and then deliver them back to Aspen in the evening.
While potato-growing was a byproduct of crop rotation for many upper-valley cattle operations, downvalley ranches placed more emphasis on growing potatoes and other crops on a larger scale, Vagneur said.
The upper Roaring Fork Valley stopped producing potatoes on a commercial scale when the Rio Grande Railroad stopped providing cars and eventually stopped running trains to Aspen. Growers also faced problems with a blight that stunted growth and government efforts to limit production to boost prices, according to Vagneur.
He watched a day of the potato harvest at the Scanlans’ operation last fall and was thankful that he wasn’t picking potatoes anymore. A crew of workers followed a potato digger and collected the spuds by hand.
“That’s a lot of damn work,” Vagneur said. “He’s doing it the old-fashioned way, which is kind of good.”
The Scanlans’ crew has a four-row and a two-row planter. A planter creates uplifted rows of dirt, drops the seed potatoes to the ground and covers them. The workers feed the potatoes into bins on the planter from heavy bags stored in strategic spots around the field. Planting takes about 50 hours.
Water from one of Aspen’s oldest ditches, the Salvation Ditch, and others is tapped for irrigation. Workers will weed the fields throughout the summer and early fall. At harvest time, a potato-digger with a blade brings the potatoes to the surface, where they are picked up by hand.
Scanlan said the sun-drenched mesa tops in Woody Creek are perfect for growing potatoes. After some time spent experimenting and one full year of production, they believe they have their operation dialed in to yield about as much as they can per acre.
“We’re kicking ass right now,” Scanlan said.
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