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 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.
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.”