Young farmers tackle problems to take root in Roaring Fork Valley
SOMETIME IT DOESN’T WORK
Making a successful go of it in small-scale farming and ranching isn’t easy, as Wendy Mitchell of Avalanche Cheese Co. discovered.
Mitchell announced this week her company will make the last batches of cheese at the end of the milking season in December. She raises goats on a dairy farm in Paonia and operates a creamery in Basalt. Avalanche Cheese Co. was founded in 2008.
The company produced products that put it on the artisanal cheese map, she said, and their sausage has won a medal at a national gourmet food competition.
But a variety of challenges have convinced her to close the business. It was tough to be profitable while upholding their principles. Mitchell explained her decision to close in detail in a guest column.
Mitchell said Friday she remains cautiously optimistic about small farming operations in the Roaring Fork Valley. She said maybe it was her inexperience that doomed Avalanche Cheese Co.
“The one thing that I’m hopeful for is that I don’t know what I’m doing,” she said. That means other small farmers might be better prepared for the challenges.
“On the other hand, it’s sort of depressing,” she said. A lot of people profess to want to eat foods prepared the way her company made them.
Mitchell said land costs weren’t an obstacle for her operation. Her sale of a restaurant in Houston supplied the capital she needed to buy the farm in Paonia and establish the business. However, she applauded the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program for leasing land for small farming operations. It shows the area places value on access to local food grown sustainably.
“I think that is a fantastic idea,” she said of use of open space land for agriculture.
Christian La Bar surveys rows of baby lettuce, beets, carrots, onions and garlic on land he leases on Missouri Heights and recounts the good fortune experienced this growing season.
He and Harper Kaufman, his partner in life and business, avoided a damaging hailstorm like the one that shredded their crops last July 3.
“It was a total nightmare. Our squash plants were ripped to shreds,” he said.
They dodged a damaging early frost. It’s the first time in at least four years that cold weather didn’t hit the middle Roaring Fork Valley before Sept. 15, he said.
Their biggest challenge was rationing water. They have limited rights to a historic ditch that serves the property. They had to quit watering their potato and beet crops late this summer and hope for rain. It didn’t fall so their yield was probably stunted a bit, La Bar said.
But he’s got no complaints. They work in one of the greatest settings on the planet. It’s a gorgeous, sun-drenched piece of ground surrounded by open pastures. Across the valley the brush on the Crown is turning orange, brown and burnt Sienna. Mount Sopris looms in full majesty.
La Bar and Kaufman achieved their goal of turning a profit in just their second year working 0.83 of an acre on the land owned by Mike and Allison Spayd.
“We wanted to make a living pretty much right off the bat,” La Bar said.
The Saturday Market in Aspen has been a godsend for their Two Roots Farm. They have built a loyal following by offering greens and veggies different from what established farmers from the North Fork Valley in Paonia delivered. Aspen-area shoppers responded.
They also sell direct to restaurants and provide produce for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) allotments, where customers pay in advance and receive bounty on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.
“People are excited to see new farmers, young farmers close to home,” La Bar said.
There’s been a mini-explosion of young entrepreneurs getting into agriculture in the Roaring Fork Valley. A documentary on their trials and travails, “How We Grow,” is being made by valley residents Tomas Zuccareno and Haley Thompson.
La Bar and Kaufman, both 26, worked as the agriculture managers at Aspen Center for Environmental Studies’ Rock Bottom Ranch, learning from ranch manager Jason Smith before heading out on their own.
Other aspiring farmers have taken advantage of the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program’s interest in promoting sustainable agriculture and food self-sufficiency.
Cooper Means, 25, pitched a winning proposal for agricultural use of 10 acres of the 40-acre Lazy Glen Open Space parcel, acquired in 2015. Means’ Shining Mountains Farm LLC received a 10-year lease that started this year. He doesn’t have to pay for use of the land, but pays $600 per month for a small apartment attached to a barn on the site.
“Mostly I’m paying with stewardship of the land,” he said.
Means is focused on protein production — raising chickens and lambs on pastures. He’s also using two rooms in the barn to grow mushrooms. The demand for the mushrooms has exceeded his ability to supply them.
He said he knew he wanted to be a farmer since he was a 9-year-old student at Aspen Community School and did a mentorship at Sustainable Settings, an educational farm and ranch outside of Carbondale.
“I completely fell in love with it,” he said of farming.
He’s been growing vegetables for seven years but never previously tried raising livestock or chickens. He likes the trial-and-error aspect of the work.
“Failure is part of it,” he said. “It’s nothing like a desk job. You never know what you’re going to get into every day.”
A favorable lease is critical for a budding farmer to experiment and invest the time and capital necessary to make an operation successful, Means said.
Young farmers say that land costs are prohibitive in the area.
“In the Roaring Fork Valley it would be very difficult to pay the mortgage on beets and carrots,” La Bar said.
Means is in the thick of efforts by both Pitkin County and the city of Aspen to support agriculture. He also is the agriculture director for Aspen T.R.E.E., which grows food and raises livestock on the city of Aspen’s Cozy Point Ranch.
Means thinks big. He wants to establish varieties of grain specially suited to growing in the short season and high elevation of the Roaring Fork Valley.
“That’s one of my dreams,” he said.
But grain production is capital intensive. It would require constructing a mill and using a combine — equipment too expensive for a small farmer. Means wants to work within the farming and ranching community on a tool-sharing program, where costs are shared.
That cooperative spirit is already at play on the Lazy Glen Open Space. After his bid was accepted, Means reached out to Christopher O’Connor, whose bid wasn’t selected. O’Connor envisioned establishing an apple orchard on the property to supply a commercial cidery in the valley. Means and O’Connor are teaming to revive and expand the inventory of fruit trees on the property. They have 60 varieties, including some heritage trees established by the valley’s ranching pioneers.
In addition, Means subleased 1 acre of space to Erin Cuseo, owner and operator of Erin’s Acres Farm. Cuseo, 32, was drawn to farming years ago and has worked on other operator’s farms in Washington and Colorado.
“I tried working for other farmers, but I needed my own,” she said. “I needed the freedom.”
Cuseo is kind of a godmother to the young farmers of the Roaring Fork Valley. She is admired for successfully finding a balance between work and living, La Bar said. She’s also founded a young farmers’ network. They get together once a month to swap stories, successes and failures and, of course, food.
Cuseo was leasing private land before moving to the Lazy Glen Open Space this year. She signed a lease in April and scrambled to get seeds and seedlings in the ground. She hauled 170-some flats of plants between her garage in Carbondale and the land at Lazy Glen.
She’s converted a former hayfield into her massive garden. “So the land wasn’t treated particularly well,” she said.
She’s learning where the rockiest and richest soils are located so she can adjust her planting plan next year.
“It’s just sort of trial and error over the first few years,” Cuseo said.
She plans to work with Jimmy Dulla, another veteran of the locavore movement, to replenish the soil using cover crops and composting.
One recent day she gave a tour of 100- and 140-foot rows of carrots, turnips, beets, rutabaga, mustard greens and radishes she tends. She was sniping plump green pumpkins off the vines to take indoors to ripen to orange. She figured she had 800 pounds of pie and carving pumpkins. About one-quarter of an acre was covered this year in greens. She supplies chefs, has a booth at the Basalt Sunday Market and has customers who make a weekly haul of her bounty through a CSA.
“I’m feeding 100 families per week through the CSA and markets,” Cuseo said.
Customers will send her pictures of unique ways they prepared foods from veggies and greens she supplied. Other folks will call with advice on how to use something. She finds the connections gratifying.
She sees the future of agriculture directly tied to programs such as Pitkin County Open Space. Providing land at favorable rates is a critical Launchpad, she said, but farmers with the leases need assurance from the county they can renew as long as they are taking steps such as improving the health of the land. If the lease automatically goes back into a public process at the end of a term, it will deter farmers from making investments.
“We’d prefer to build equity in something with more promise,” Cuseo said. “Otherwise, this program will be unsuccessful in supporting agriculture in this valley.”
Cuseo laughed when asked how much time she puts in per day. Whatever it takes, she replied. Some days that might be a few hours. Other days it’s eight to 12 hours.
“I wish there was more time in the day to get things done,” she said.
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