Vagneur: Organic was just how it was done |

Vagneur: Organic was just how it was done

Organic. When did this “food philosophy” become so popular, and is it any better than conventionality? For all the press and chatter, you’d think the concept was something new. It isn’t.

Bobbie Berthod, Democratic Party stalwart and activist, first brought “organic” to the fore in Aspen when she ran for Pitkin County commissioner sometime in the 1970s. She billed herself, among other things, as an organic gardener. “What the hell is organic gardening?” came the public chorus back at her, and Bobbie, direct if nothing else (with humorous tongue in cheek), informed the electorate that she used “cow and horse s—” as fertilizer, which didn’t exactly diffuse the inquiry.

Back in the day, we were organic farmers because there wasn’t much choice — that’s how it was done. Chemicals hadn’t been developed and marketed as a cure-all for farming ills such as insects and disease, at least not in this area. Crop rotation was instrumental in returning fertility and life to soil, and we had a regular schedule of replacement. Manure spreaders, full of that which collected in the corrals during the winter, were unloaded in those fields determined most deserving of the propitious blessing.

My mother kept a very large garden close to our house, plowed every spring by my father with a pair of immense draft horses. In addition to vegetables, she planted flowers and herbs designed to keep harmful insects away, which worked amazingly well. A tall fence surrounded the grounds, keeping deer and other creatures out. In our basement, we had a room with a dirt floor and no windows, designed to breathe rather than for ease of walking, where we hung meat and vegetables for use in the winter months. The walls were lined with canned fruit and vegetables, such as preserves and jam, green beans, peas, beets, corn, zucchini and cucumbers, all from our garden, and in one corner, a large area of sand where we kept the carrots. Next to them were the potatoes, growing sprouts in the darkness, but delicious nonetheless once cooked. A small brood of free-range chickens roamed an area near the house.

Even though we were cattle ranchers, our meat was mostly lean venison and elk, provided by an understanding with the game wardens that by virtue of the fact deer and elk ate freely of our stacks of hay, meant for domestic cattle, we were entitled to harvest wild game for meat. It wasn’t until later that the state began to provide ranchers with fencing to keep elk and deer out of the haystacks. We started buying hunting licenses.

Pesticides (later learned to be a huge health hazard) were a big invention when I was a kid (guaranteed safe by the manufacturers and the government), and although we didn’t use them on our crops, one year we did spray the roadsides with something because the county didn’t have a weed-control program. Hemlock was our main target, and despite our best efforts, it still thrives along the Woody Creek Road to this day.

People like to argue in the gondola bucket about methods of raising beef — ours was grass-fed then, as it is today. If one thing has contributed to the rise of high blood pressure and early heart disease in humans more than anything else, it is the practice of feeding corn to cattle in feedlots. Corn is not a natural food for bovines, but when there isn’t much else to eat, it become a favorite. We blame beef for being at the source of some health problems when, in fact, we should be looking at what the cattle eat instead, in my humble opinion.

Don Stapleton and I have laid claim to introducing organic cuisine to the Aspen citizenry back in the early 1970s, as well. Roommates in the old Stapleton log cabin along Owl Creek Road, we began the tradition of the Owl Creek Annual Pig F—, a hit of the summer social season. We served only prime, barbecued hog, raised organically by Clyde Vagneur on his McLain Flats ranch. True to tradition and rules of organic preparation, we dipped the carcass in preciously watched, almost-boiling water, shaving the skin immediately after with extra-sharp butcher knives. Many of the side dishes were prepared using vegetables from our — you guessed it — organic garden. Only Coors and Budweiser can attest to the method of raising the hops and malt used in our favorite beverage.

After a string of successful Annual Pig F—s (three or four), Don married Janie Idol and the world became more cultured. She and Don hosted the Annual Owl Creek Social, a totally different affair with a very civilized tone, but we still got ripped, organic or not. Fine dress and a band were added to the festivities and life went on pretty much as before.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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