JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
They don’t do it for the acclaim. They don’t do it for the sweet life. And they darn sure don’t do it for the money.
Meet some of La Plata County’s small-scale organic farmers. If there’s a more backbreaking, grueling, fraught way to make a living in southwestern Colorado, you’d be hard-pressed to find it.
California it ain’t.
Winds come through in May, hard enough to tear down a hoop house. It freezes in August, cold enough to ruin precious and pricey tomatoes. Hail falls, well, whenever Mother Nature sees fit. And water? Don’t even ask.
But here we are standing in Joe and Jennifer Wheeling’s garden at James Ranch on a mild April morning as workers put up gridded white netting to support the pea crop. Cows and chickens graze with a view of the red cliffs of Missionary Ridge behind them.
“Taste this!” Joe demands, handing me a stalk of fresh asparagus he just snapped from a field the color of chalky mud.
It’s a perfect specimen – stiff stalk, tight head, creamy green – but it’s um… raw. I hesitate. His hand remains extended, asparagus pointed accusingly at me. I do as he says and take a nibble. It’s crunchy and earthy and slightly minerally.
So this is sustainable farming in La Plata County. You can eat straight from the ground and not fear for pesticide poisoning.
I like it.
So do many residents, who flock to local community farms such as the Gardens at James Ranch, Homegrown Biodynamics, Banga’s Farm and Mountain Roots Produce to buy shares in their Community Supported Agriculture programs. You sign up in early spring, pay for your share and wait.
Come late June you’re rewarded each week with boxes of spinach and salad mix, carrots and beets. July brings summer squash, onions, kale and beans. August is the mother lode in these parts, swamping home cooks and restaurants alike in glistening tomatoes, crisp cucumbers, colorful peppers, both sweet and hot, beautiful broccoli, anise-scented fennel, pungent garlic. In September come root vegetables, from potatoes to turnips, rutabaga to radishes.
Then, suddenly, the bounty sto ps. A few pumpkins and winter squash arrive in October, but it’s all over but the shouting until late next spring.
Meanwhile, you have to wonder, are home cooks staggered under the plentitude? Do they avert their eyes from crisping bins stuffed to the top with arugula and squash? Do they wish, just for a moment, to put a burger on the grill, pile a few chips on the plate and call it a meal?
Well, yes. Sometimes.
“I love beets, but by the end of the season I was like ‘ple-e-ase, I can’t eat beets anymore,’” said Chelsea Krueger, a real estate agent with a new baby, who split a share from Chimney Rock Farms last year with another couple.
But mostly, she loved getting vegetables and herbs that were grown within miles of her house with no known toxins.
“The hugest benefit is it’s organic and it’s supporting local agriculture. And you get quite a lot,” she said.
La Plata County’s small, organic farmers work like Trojans so we can have consistent, delicious, non-chemical produce to eat from May (Durango Farmers Market will open May 12) to October.
The growing season is short – really short, 90 to 100 days max. It’s cold here, in case you hadn’t noticed, compared to the climates of major agricultural growing regions such as California, Florida and Arizona. The soil is loamy and acidic, dry and crusty and brown. You have to water every inch of it to get anything to grow. If it’s a light snow year, as it was this year, you’re in danger of running out of water while crops are still in the ground.
That’s to say nothing of the workload. For six months, farmers work from before dawn to after dark, first planting and weeding, then harvesting. Weekend is an unknown term, a distant fantasy reserved for ski season. It’s physical labor, with lots of bending, reaching and lifting. And make a mistake and you pay for it not for a day, but for a season.
As for pay, each of the farmers said they earn the approximate equivalent of a starting teacher’s salary per each acre and a half of land. You hate to say it, but as a career choice, it sounds like no fun.
Who would embrace such a life? They’re potters and English majors, interior designers and geologists. None of the farmers I interviewed ever intended to become farmers.
But they love it and wouldn’t trade it for the lives they could have had.
Dave Banga, once an artist, now farms a couple acres near Mancos. He discovered his profession when he volunteered at an urban farm in downtown Chicago. If he could grow vegetables in the middle of a polluted city, he figured he could grow them anywhere. He set out to find his garden spot, landing in Durango seven years ago.
He likes doing most of the labor himself, working in the sun every day to grow beets, greens, zucchini and the like on his one-and-a-third acre farm. But having grown up in Florida, he was taken aback by how hard the work is. He lost the first greenhouse he built to high winds. A hailstorm damaged his early crops. And in Mancos, water is always an issue.
But it’s worth it to live a life without a boss, a mortgage or a fettered conscience, Banga said. Growing food without pesticides or hormones and selling it to folks in the community where he lives is reward enough.
Mike Nolan, who owns and runs Mountain Roots Produce near Hesperus, concurs. He gave up on his English degree from the University of California-Davis after helping a friend farm outside of Santa Cruz.
“I think we do it because we love it and it’s good work,” he said.
He’s trying to develop a different model for farming in the region, planting later, harvesting later and storing crops, especially root vegetables, to cook during the cold months.
Even working with what he considers to be a more livable, less stressful method of farming, Nolan concedes he won’t get a full day off until Thanksgiving, and he regularly misses life events of his friends and family because he can’t take trips during growing season.
“I’d like to get married and have children and save for college and not consistently be in so much debt,” he said wistfully.
Nolan, Banga and the Wheelings all sell their fresh wares to the city’s professional chefs, many of whom are dedicated to supporting small, local farms. Restaurants such as Cyprus Cafe, Cosmo Bar & Dining, Seasons Rotisserie & Grill, Ore House, Linda’s Local Food Café, and Zia Taqueria built their reputations on offering dishes made with local, organic produce and meat.
This isn’t just a popular moment, they say, it’s a full-fledged movement to eat healthy and support the regional economy to boot.
“I bring my values into it, and that has led to the reward,” said Alison Dance, owner of Cyprus Cafe. “If I buy organic and fresh for myself, why wouldn’t I do that for my restaurant?”
It isn’t easy, restaurateurs say. Farmers don’t deliver on a restaurant’s schedule, they deliver when the produce is harvested and they have time to come to town. The supply isn’t consistent, sometimes you get 40 pounds of arugula in a week and sometimes you get 10. And it’s expensive compared to farmers markets in other cities such as Boston, Portland, Ore., and Atlanta. The cheapest, farm-grown tomatoes around here cost $3 a pound, a shocking price to anyone unaccustomed to living at 7,000 feet.
So why bother?
“If you take a slice of tomato out to a customer and they’ve had so many bad tomatoes and here’s this fresh, juicy, real-deal tomato and they’re just blown away,” says chef Chris Crowl of Cosmo Bar and Dining, stopping to take a quick breath, “they can see how much yummier this is than that.”
The yumminess factor – you gotta love it. That ought to be the new standard we use to measure what we put in our mouths, and local, organic farmers are making that possible.