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Vagneur: The valley’s gardening roots run deep

Tony Vagneur

Sometimes, I feel a bit like Rip Van Winkle when somebody or something tells me the world has changed. But, in this case — after several informative and complimentary Aspen Times front-page articles on local small farms — some of the “old-timers” in the valley wondered, as did I, how they’d missed the recent invention of farming in the Roaring Fork Valley.

History is only as old as our collective memory in most cases, so it’s no wonder people are enamored with the idea of buying fresh produce locally. Why? Because hardly anyone grows a garden around here anymore. The West End used to be full of gardens — not only for fresh vegetables, but also for beautiful flowers. There are still a few wonderful flower gardens, but do you think you could walk through the West End and find a carrot or onion to pluck out of the ground anywhere and eat as you continued your journey? Impossible. Lot line-to-lot line houses don’t leave much room for vegetable gardens.  

Traveling gangs of pre-adolescents, two or four to a group, traveling from one friend’s house to another would often hear the squeak of the screen door just before the admonition, “You kids get outta that garden.” It seems like we never worried about lunch; we picked it up out of neighborhood backyards.



Most of the “vacant” land between Aspen and Glenwood Springs was a combination of ranch and farm — livestock and garden-type vegetables and grain. It’s all labor intensive. What ranch/farm kid doesn’t remember tilling the land in the spring, plowing, discing, harrowing and planting the grain that would become a cash crop in the fall and winter? Or, the same for potatoes, plus each spud had to be cut so only one eye remained on the seed. Cutting potatoes was a tedious process, which usually involved all in the family of working age, including the women. How many acres of potatoes have you weeded, by hand? Selling garden vegetables, orchard fruit, hay, chickens, and eggs to people in Aspen kept my great-grandfather and his family in business.

Digressing a bit, may I say I remember well the day Jim Glidden, son of Fred and older brother of Dan Glidden, drowned in a Princeton swimming pool. I had gotten off the school bus, informed of his death, and without further discussion, sent out to the land in the east, plowing up a hayfield in the crop rotation, working until dark. I still remember how upsetting that event was to my 13-year-old mind, being out there alone, and it happened on Dan’s birthday. How tragic for him.




Truck farms of today, you might call them, not having anything to do with trucks, but rather because of the French word, “troquer,” meaning “barter or exchange.” Which leads to “subsistence farming,” a term implying the hard work it takes to make a modest income from such work. Of course, it doesn’t take into account the ideological bent or “labor of love” inherent in such operations. Like many small farmers or ranchers anywhere, it takes two or more jobs to survive as a “small farmer.”

My friend — and fellow Aspen Mountain ski patrol alumni, Ed Colby — has made himself quite a reputation as a small farmer and bee keeper, headquartered out of his place in New Castle. He owns his own small farm, has been operating with his “little darlings” for over 25 years, and has a published book, “A Beekeepers Life: Tales from the Bottom Board.” He and his sidekick Marilyn also deal in other small farm endeavors.

If you think raising vegetables locally is a new idea, think back to the days when the local high schools would recess classes during the potato harvest, so the students could go to work on the local ranches, picking potatoes, and helping get in the local harvest. Each day, my dad would pick up a load of helpers in town, early in the morning, and deliver them back home sometime after dark. No easy way to make some extra money.

Diversification is the key to success, and soon we might see, in addition to the few goats and sheep we have, free-range chickens, rabbits, and, hold your breath, one of the best cash crops around, pigs.

Naturally, we need to leave room for those with ranching blood and look forward to when beef cattle take their place along with the rest of the “farm-to-table” fare — locally-raised, organic, grass-fed beef, almost impossible to buy except from some local ranchers. Cattle are a reliable, cash-generating annual crop.

My neighbor, Two Roots Farm owner Harper Kaufman and I race each other in the mornings to see who gets to work first. 

Anyway, I got to get back to work. The calves need weaning, the chickens are clucking and ruffling their feathers at a stray coyote in the ‘hood, and the vegetables and herbs are gonna freeze if I don’t get them taken care of right away.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.