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Local farmers eager to boost efforts to feed the Roaring Fork Valley

Trips to the grocery store have become a necessary evil in the days of the coronavirus pandemic. People who otherwise avoid contact with others make an exception to get their milk, bread, meat and produce.

Jerome Osentowski sees the situation as a chance to beef up security and sustainability of the local food supply. He has tirelessly promoted the concepts for the last 35 years from his land on the sunny south slopes of Basalt Mountain. He is convinced that the pandemic will make people more eager to shop for food directly from farmers, giving them peace of mind from minimizing contact with shoppers and knowing where their food is coming from.

“We need to imagine a new world and start designing it,” Osentowski said. “Let’s get serious about living off the land. We should be getting a lot more land prepped for planting.”

The post-pandemic world might have to include a different way for farmers to interact with their customers, at least until a vaccine for the new coronavirus is ready. Numerous local farmers have relied on sales of produce to high-end restaurants and directly to consumers at farmers’ markets. But who knows how long prohibitions on large gatherings will keep restaurants closed and keep the kibosh on markets?

Rock Bottom Ranch in the midvalley sells an estimated 60% of produce it grows and meat from the chickens, cows, pigs and sheep it raises at the Aspen and Carbondale markets.

“Farmers are nimble by nature,” said ranch director Jason Smith. “We’re always adjusting on a daily or even hourly basis.”

They cannot assume that the Aspen Saturday Market will operate the same this year, so they are exploring new avenues. They are starting to offer food through a community-supported agriculture, or CSA, program. Customers pay an up-front fee, then get food provided at regular intervals.

Smith said occasionally empty shelves at local grocery stores aren’t due to a supply problem during the health scare. Grocers are hindered by a distribution issue. Local farmers and ranchers can relieve some of that problem by ramping up the local supply and going direct with consumers.

“There’s this beauty in a local, regional food system,” he said.

Alyssa Barsanti, agriculture manager for Rock Bottom Ranch, said there are already signs that Roaring Fork residents are interested in tapping into local sources to a greater level this year. The ranch’s sale of eggs took off in March through Skip’s Farm to Market in Basalt and Silo in Carbondale. Normally it is a slow month for sales.

Like every other farmer, the Rock Bottom crew has shifted into high gear this spring. They have 23 new lambs. They put 700 laying hens out to pasture and they are busy transplanting seedlings of peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers.

They have two-thirds of an acre dedicated to crop production, but the figure is deceiving. By using mobile hoop houses, a special kind of greenhouse, they can intensely farm the small space and achieve high production levels.

Less than 5 miles from Rock Bottom Ranch in the midvalley, Harper Kaufman is preparing for a flurry of activity at her Two Roots Farm. She rents property from the Pitkin County Open Space program adjacent to the Emma schoolhouse.

Kaufman said she will stick to 3 acres in production this year, but she will reap more produce by planting fewer cover crops and flowers.

Farmers’ markets were a big chunk of her business in the past. Because of the uncertainty, she’s shifting more focus on a CSA. She sold 100 shares in her program last year. She already has 130 shares sold with capacity for more.

Kaufman said she is eager to build stronger connections with customers through the CSAs than is possible through the markets.

“It actually brings people onto the farm,” she said. Consumers learn about growing food and the people that grow it.

“Everybody is kind of on the ride with us,” Kaufman said.

Casey Piscura touches a flower growing in one of the greenhouses at Wild Mountain Seeds in Carbondale on Thursday, April 2, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
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Casey Piscura and Kirsten Keenan of Wild Mountain Seeds lease land on the Sunfire Ranch, 6 miles south of Carbondale at the foot of Mount Sopris. Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, they planned to increase production and, in the bigger picture, share their efforts to make small-scale farming at high-altitude climate more productive.

“We’ve been focused on food resiliency anyway,” Piscura said.

They are entering their seventh growing season at the ranch, which is owned by brothers Jason and Alex Sewell and part of their family since 1893.

Like his peers, Piscura is certain there will be a disruption to farmers’ markets, at least in the short term. Other areas are talking about a new model where a pre-packaged box of produce is available for pick-up curbside. That’s an opportunity to get consumers interested in produce they might otherwise skip, he said.

Piscura and Keenan have six greenhouses on the property. The main door on one of them was propped open and seedlings of multiple plants were basking in the heat while it was cool but sunny outside Friday morning.

“We’re planning the growing as if nothing is different this year,” Piscura said. They said demand for locally grown foods is already surging this spring.

In addition to growing food, Piscura and Keenan have worked to adapt plants to the cooler climate. In addition to their food-producing business, they have a nonprofit operation that breeds and sells seeds for small-scale farming. They also provide seedlings of their hearty varieties at plant sales.

“When they get a plant from us, they’re getting the best of the best of the best,” he said.

Their passion for the business shines through.

“We say the best fertilizer is the farmer’s footsteps,” Piscura said. “You’ve got to watch the crops. You’ve got to pay attention.”

Keenan said the health crisis will likely get people even more interested than they have been in knowing about their food sources and even growing their own.

“It’s a good chance for us to unite around ‘next time,’” Piscura said. However, the goal should be making local food security the norm rather than something that gets cranked up during tough times, he added.

But Piscura said ramping up farms isn’t a simple proposition. Advancing beyond 3 or 4 acres requires automation and exposes small farmers to competition with larger, more industrial operations.

Jerome Osentowski, 78, harvests kumquats from a tree in his greenhouse at the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute in Basalt on Wednesday, April 1, 2020. Osentowski is also growing papayas, pomegranates, oranges, and sprouts within this particular greenhouse. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
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Up on Basalt Mountain, Osentowski has three greenhouses with a dizzying array of exotic and more commonplace edible plants. The land outside the greenhouses supports an abundance of fruit trees, berry bushes, grape vines and planted greens and veggies. He currently has three people helping cultivate and nurture the crops.

“If anybody is ready for this thing, I guess we are,” Osentowski said in reference to the statewide stay-at-home order. But the valley’s modern-day pioneer of the local food movement isn’t about holing up and fending for himself. He is setting up a CSA system for his neighbors on Basalt Mountain. Osentowski’s Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute will produce and package greens and vegetables for a handful of people for regular pick-up.

In the bigger picture, he is excited about how the present circumstances present opportunities for the crop of young farmers that has sprouted in the valley over the last few years.

Osentowski makes a convincing argument that the local, state and federal economic stimulus packages should include funds for young farmers so they can ramp up their operations, employ more workers and feed more people.

Rock Bottom Ranch’s Barsanti is president of the Roaring Fork Farmers and Ranchers Group, a collective where farmers share ideas and resources. The officers are meeting remotely via Zoom next week to discuss the drastically different circumstances this year. Barsanti said farmers are up the task of providing more food.

“To have sort of a shifted spotlight on us is cool,” she said. “We’re glad to be farmers and have a impact on our community in a positive way.”


One major landlord in Willits defers April rent for nearly 20 business tenants

The Great Recession of 2008 hit the then-nascent Willits Town Center project hard — construction of Whole Foods Market stalled and left a hole in the ground, more sites were vacant than developed, and a handful of restaurants and retail shops struggled to survive.

A dozen years later, a recession fueled by the coronavirus crisis has hit the country even harder than in 2008. Despite the hardship and uncertainty of when the virus crisis will abate, Willits has a different feel this time around.

Whole Foods is among the busiest businesses in the valley. Four Dogs Wine and Spirits and Basalt Bike and Ski are among business deemed vital that continue to serve the public. Several restaurants are providing take-out orders.

But several businesses deemed non-essential under Colorado’s stay-at-home order have gone dark for an unknown time. That’s created hardships for several mom-and-pop operators.

One of the two primary landlords at Willits deferred April rents to help the stressed businesses. Platform Ventures LLC, on behalf of its subsidiary Willits Town Center LLC, notified nearly 20 tenants on March 19 that it would allow businesses to pay April rent over the next 12 months, interest free.

“Our goal is to ease the burden that COVID-19’s impact is making on your business,” the letter said. “We will continue to monitor the center’s operations and encourage you to communicate with us regarding the status and wellbeing of your business.”

Tim Belinski, a local representative of the landlord, said Platform Ventures approached its tenants as a whole rather than negotiating individually.

“It was a proactive reach-out,” he said. “Those businesses are going to be challenged and we want them to come through this.”

Platform Ventures was formerly known as Mariner Real Estate Management. The Kansas City-area business bought Willits Town Center out of bankruptcy from Joseph Freed and Association during the Great Recession and jumpstarted the stalled project. Now it’s helping many of the businesses that it signed on.

The tenants include businesses located in the buildings where Kitchen Collage and Capitol Creek Brewery are located. It doesn’t include the building where Whole Foods, Bristlecone Sports, Basalt Bike and Ski or Starbucks are located. A company headed by Stanley Kroenke and his firm, The Kroenke Group, bought those buildings in March 2016 for $30.46 million and they are managed separately.

Joel Mischke, owner of Basalt Bike and Ski, said he asked the Kroenke Group for deferral of April rent. Although the request was denied, Mischke credited the landlord for responding to him quickly.

Unlike Willits, downtown Basalt has numerous, small landlords. A check with a handful of businesses and landlords, none of whom wanted to be quoted by name, indicated landlords’ policies with rent deferral are handled on a case-by-case basis.

Platform Ventures, which deferred the April rent at Willits, said in its letter to tenants that it hoped the deferred rent plus aid for businesses from the federal and state governments would help them get through the crisis.

“Your business, along with the others at Willits Town Center, showed its resilience through the Lake Christine Fire of 2018 and we anticipate the center will rebound because we are a fundamentally strong local shopping center,” the letter said.

There also are signs of life with new development at Willits. Aspen Skiing Co. is working on a 43-unit affordable housing project. Affordable housing is among the construction projects exempt from the statewide stay-at-home order.

Construction also is wrapping up on a high-end residential project that a group headed by Belinski is undertaking across Valley Road from Mezzaluna restaurant. Belinski said construction will soon start on an adjacent building of mixed residential and commercial uses.

In addition, The Arts Center At Willits hopes to begin construction of a performing arts center this year adjacent to Skico’s housing project.

Once life returns to something resembling normal, a handful of businesses established in the valley aim to open sites in Willits. They include Jean-Robert’s Gym, Zane’s Tavern and Isberian Rug Co.


Keeping our space

To better convey the seriousness of the isolation need, let’s change the admonishment of social distancing to survival distancing. We may be all in this together, but let’s say the hell apart (with or without masks).

Mallory Harling

Glenwood Springs

Infante a great opportunity for Basalt

We have an enviable situation in Basalt in that we have three good candidates for mayor, but I’m urging all Basaltines to vote for William Infante. As a writer for the Roaring Fork Weekly Journal for the past year I’ve closely followed the Basalt government, and I can attest that Infante has basically redefined the position of town councilman. Unlike some other council members, he’s not trying to serve two masters whose interests may be in conflict, and he doesn’t just show up Tuesdays for the meetings. He lives the position 24 hours a day to an extent that no other council member comes close to.

More than that, though, he’s shown a direct responsiveness to his constituents that has been otherwise lacking from the Basalt government. In response to one RFWJ column, Infante organized meetings to encourage more people to run for Town Council, and when I’ve talked with him about issues, he doesn’t just nod and recite some platitude; he starts working the phones, calling Eagle or Pitkin county officials, the Forest Service, Sen. Michael Bennet’s office, the Northwest Council of Governments, or whoever might be part of a solution.

As a longtime employee of the State Department and Foreign Service, Infante knows what good governance entails and will insist on it being done in Basalt (where, let’s face it, good governance has not always been a strong point — witness the $2 million TABOR fiasco and the rescinding of the mostly unfollowed “One Percent for the Arts” ordinance). He also feels as strongly as I do that our town is not truly represented while the trailer parks and neighborhoods like Blue Lake, Sopris Village and Holland Hills are excluded from the town limits.

We’ve heard a lot of grumbling about our town government the past few years, and now we have a chance to make a definitive change and inject some much-needed new blood. I feel this is a great opportunity to set Basalt on a stronger course for the future, and as much as I like Bill Kane and Rob Leavitt, too, I think we’d be doing ourselves a disservice if we elect anyone but Infante.

Todd Hartley


Grateful for Polis

I think we should all bow are heads and give thanks that Gov. Jared Polis is in charge of the coronavirus response for the state of Colorado rather than incompetent Ken Buck and his Republican cohorts.

Tom O’Keefe


Leavitt not beholden to donors

If you needed another reason for selecting Rob Leavitt as your No. 1 choice for mayor of Basalt, it is that he didn’t accept donations and won’t be obligated to anyone who has made donations to his campaign (“Kane far outspends foes in Basalt mayoral race,” March 31, The Aspen Times).

Drop off your ballot, don’t mail it!

Gerry Terwilliger


Leavitt for Basalt

Rob Leavitt has lived in the valley for over 30 years, and lived in Basalt for 15, where he is raising his beautiful family. He was on our Basalt Town Council for four years and has been on the Planning and Zoning Commission for the past two years. Rob is invested in and clearly loves our town. His vision of the right development in the right location represents the tempered balance our town needs.

Please vote for Rob for mayor of Basalt on Tuesday.

Jaffe and Greg Gordon


Inhospitality in a hospitality town

Tuesday morning, I woke up to my 15th day of self-isolation. Since the sky was finally blue I decided to go for my run, the only thing keeping me sane these days, on the Rio Grand Trail.

I was off to the side of the trail pre-run stretching when a very friendly, off-leash, black boxer walked right into my hamstring stretch and dropped her toy at my feet. Slobber, smile and all.

Naturally, I went to pet the dog and say hi when her panicked owner ran up shooing me off and snapping at me that she was not letting anyone touch her dog. Fair. I can appreciate the precaution. But snapping at me while your dog is off-leash and walking up to people is not the answer.

I did suggest she leash her canine as a solution. But I may not have offered said solution in the most congenial of ways. To the Rio Grand Lady, I apologize. Your stress and fear-induced aggressiveness is no excuse for me to behave badly as well.

Times are difficult. Money is tight, fear is rampant, and we all wear our stress and uncertainty like a shroud. That being said, can we please try not to lose the absolute best thing about this town? Aspen has been a town of hospitality and friendliness for as long as I’ve lived here. Let’s not let COVID-19 shut that down too.

I will continue to run the trail between 10 and 11 a.m. daily. If anyone needs a smile, a wave, or a breathless Good Morning, I’ll be there. And to the RGT lady, might I suggest one of those “I’m Working Please Don’t Pet Me” vests for your baby. It might save you from another upsetting encounter.

Ryan Hile


Aspen Music Fest hits sour note

I have been a loyal patron of the Aspen Music Festival for over 20 years, attending dozens of events every year, the highlight of my summers.

But I am disappointed that the AMF is not suspending their season this summer in the wake of COVID-19.

The majority of the attending patrons are in the high risk group for this virus.

By bringing musicians and visitors in from around the world, AMF is jeopardizing the health of everyone in our valley.

It is naive to think we will be safer by July 16, their new proposed starting date. We are a small community that is not equip to handle the influx of this magnitude.

Just as all the ski resorts, restaurants and most businesses have had to shut down, so should the AMF for the 2020 season.

It is irresponsible to do anything less.

Barbara Findlay


Tiffany Haddad for Basalt Town Council

With this crazy time we’re living in, it’s important to understand that we need someone on Basalt Town Council Who will focus on the overall needs of the town.

If you believe that growth and development is inevitable and would like consideration of the environment, historical conservation and the importance of supporting local businesses, then vote Tiffany Haddad. If you believe that kids and teens in Basalt need other places to hang out after school besides the local 7-11, then vote Tiffany Haddad. If you believe we need a plan to help with the demand for affordable housing and if you want a council member that will take into consideration that there is no “historic downtown” versus “Willits,” then vote for Tiffany Haddad.

Those are important to her and I’m sure for you as well. I know she’d be the fresh voice that this town needs and one that will create unity among us. Now is not a time for opposition but a time to unify and make the best of what is going on in the world today. It’s a hard time right now for most of us, let’s make sure we have a strong council in place to help with recovery. Don’t forget to vote by April 7 and make sure to vote Tiffany Haddad for Basalt Town Council.

Mary Chalverus