DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald photos
DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald photos
A handful of 20-year-olds and a guy who’s been around some are engaging agriculture at the Heartwood community farm the way it used to be done.
Cameron Duhaime, the supervising intern who is scheduled to become farm manager next year, calls the approach “beyond organic.”
“We do a lot of alternative and experimental agriculture,” Duhaime told a pair of visitors last week. “As for ‘organic,’ the U.S. Department of Agriculture has taken over the term and diluted it with regulations.”
The farm, now in its fourth year, is a component of the 360-acre Heartwood complex north of U.S. Highway 160 between Bayfield and Gem Village. La Plata County commissioners approved the complex in 1998.
Heartwood Cohousing is a cooperative-living community of 10 single-family houses and seven duplexes clustered to maximize open space.
The agricultural operation has 60 acres divided equally between irrigated land and pasture for llamas, horses and cows.
The farm is as pre-industrial as possible, Duhaime said. The tilling, planting, weeding and harvesting of vegetables are done by hand. The only concession to mechanization is the use of a tractor to prepare the ground to plant potatoes, corn, squash and beans and to harvest hay.
“It would simply require too much time and labor to do that by hand,” Duhaime said. “Maybe someday.”
Irrigation water comes from the Thompson Epperson Ditch of the Pine River.
Virtually all vegetables get a head start in a snug seedling house. If cooling is required, the work is done by solar- and wind-powered fans.
Seedlings are transplanted to open-field beds or a high-tunnel – a hoop covered with plastic sheeting.
The open-field beds have been created over time by adding humus and mineral-based soil amendments to turn compacted clay into fertile ground.
Horse manure collected on the farm and from neighboring ranchers is used as fertilizer. Interns also tend beehives and chickens.
The farm supplies produce for Heartwood Cohousing residents and sells directly to natural-food stores and consumers through a Community Supported Agriculture program in which customers pay $500 up front and for 24 weeks receive a box of whatever produce is in season.
On a tree-shaded, gentle slope above where cultivation occurs, the interns have a common kitchen where they share duties, a composting toilet, a solar-powered shower and individual sleeping cells.
Twice a week they break bread with cohousing residents in the common room at the center.
Cohousing resident Sandy Thomson, who is on the farm governing council, recruits interns. The age group adds an interesting dimension to the community, she said.
“They’re young, enthusiastic and idealistic,” Thomson said. “They’re interested in sustainability.”
Duhaime, 22, a graduate of Durango High School, tried college but didn’t find what he wanted. He’s been at Heartwood since April 2010, the last two summers as farm manager apprentice.
The other interns, who’ll be busy until harvests end in late fall, also tend to step to a different drummer.
Ally Sitterly, 23, from San Pedro, Calif., has a certificate from a culinary school.
Durangoan Kelly Anne Graves, 23, was a Fulbright Scholar in Sri Lanka and has a degree in cognitive neuroscience.
Allison Muench, 18, a Californian, plans to major in electrical engineering or physics.
Taibi Giarratano, 22, who met Duhaime in college, has no post-harvest plans.
Luke Lubchenco, 20, is a sociology major in his senior year at Fort Lewis College. He gets academic credit for spending two days a week at Heartwood.
James Kirk, 51, known as Jade, has a degree in English literature from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and top-notch carpentry skills. He’ll be foot-loose when the growing season ends.
Another Durangoan, Lucy Richards, 23, will return for her senior year at Stanford University, where she is majoring in symbolic systems.
Zita Xavier, a five-year resident of Heartwood whose vision resulted in the farm, said its success can be credited to the quality of the participants.
“I saw that we had land and water, so I said, ‘Let’s grow food,’” Xavier said. “But we’re fortunate to have (farm manager) Bevan Williams, who has 50 years of experience, and sterling interns whose presence enriches us.”
Williams, 68, who began growing crops when he was 12, has developed his own seed lines and built food systems in Montana, Utah and Nevada before he arrived Southwest Colorado in 2007.
“We call our system ‘beyond organic’ because organic isn’t good enough,” Williams said. “Agribusiness can be certified as organic in three years even though they sprayed chemicals for 50 years.”
Williams has groomed Duhaime to take over when he looks for new adventures in high-elevation growing.
Duhaime said beyond-organic agriculture has improved soil health, and local agriculture reduces the cost of transporting food.
The huge amount of labor required to produce food without machinery is a major challenge, but it’s revitalizing, Duhaime said.
“Beyond organic agriculture seeks not only to heal our planet but to heal us as well,” Duhaime said.