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Delta County a model for up-and-coming farmers, ranchers

In 1991, when Lee Bradley started farming near Paonia in the North Fork Valley of Colorado, he was hired to manage a fruit farm owned by the coal company, Cyprus Orchard Valley Coal Corp. Mine bosses gave him a ridiculously hard goal: Make money.

Bradley decided to focus on marketing. “We shined the apples and sold them wherever we could,” he said. With the pressure on him and his wife, Kathy, they also opened a farm stand inside their leased barn close to a highway.

Dave Marston

“At first, we were only going to sell what we produced. But people had money, so we scrambled, grabbing local products from everywhere to have more for people to buy.”

A few years later, in 1996, Homestead Meats, a local, natural beef (no additives) cooperative, began, with only five families involved. Plant Manager Gary Peebles recalls that everyone agreed to “keep it small and try the idea.” Now six families strong, he said, “No one thought we’d have 40 employees or a packing plant.” Not quite all grass-fed, the beef is finished with grain, “ensuring consistency and marbling,” Peebles said.

More consumers got on board.

Now, Peebles reports, Homestead Meats just bought Callaway Packing, which doubles their production to 80 local animals processed weekly and sold throughout Western Colorado. Best of all, they are no longer subject to the commodity market, where 85% of beef is processed by four corporations.

Stories like this apparently make Delta County a model, attracting young farmers and ranchers. Thirty percent of Delta County’s farmers were considered “new and beginning” farmers in the 2017 USDA farm survey, and most are pursuing natural but not strict “USDA organic” practices.

When the documentary, “The Real Dirt on Farmer John,” played at the Telluride Film Festival in 2005, few Coloradans had heard of Community Sponsored Agriculture, which asks dedicated consumers to pay farmers upfront for weekly boxes of food.

Fast forward 17 years, and hundreds of CSAs, as they’re called serve cities and rural areas in Colorado, reports Farmshares.info, including several CSAs in the North Fork Valley.

The widespread availability of natural produce and meat wasn’t always a given. For decades, most products grown in the North Fork Valley were shipped to cities. Today, it’s resort towns like Aspen and Crested Butte that see North Fork Valley food and wine at their farmers’ markets or in their CSAs.

Bradley recalls a meeting 20 years ago of the newly formed Valley Organic Growers Association (VOGA), where he doled out some advice that gave the up-and-coming juice maven, Jeff Schwarz, a hot idea.

“Clean up your farm, get a cash register and you can sell stuff to the public right there,” Bradley recalled telling Schwarz, whose Big B’s Juices now processes 7.5 million pounds of apples annually for juice and cider, much of which he sells directly to the public at his outdoor restaurant. Schwartz scoops up every available apple locally and imports the rest from Washington.

“I think it’s all about knowing your farmer,” Bradley said. “People wander around the farm. They see how you operate and pick stuff themselves, which gains trust.” He is not certified organic, saying that the cost is too much and ties his hands when pests invade.

Meanwhile, near retirement at 70 but still farming thanks to his son, Ryan, Bradley continues to give advice to newcomers to the valley. One example is The Storm Cellar, a Winery and Vineyard, run by Jayme Henderson and Steve Steese, a sommelier-trained couple from Denver. They came to the valley knowing a lot about wine but not much about planting vines, repairing equipment or making wine from scratch

“So we kept going back to Bradley,” Henderson said, “and he kept helping us out.”

Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to lively discussion about the West.