Winter greens

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A Saturday farmers market provides fresh produce, eggs, meat and much more through the cold months

VIC VANIK

Vic Vanik, co-owner of Four Seasons Greenhouse and Nursery between Cortez and Dolores, shows off broccoli growing indoors. Photo by Janneli F. Miller

It’s the Saturday before Thanksgiving, a chilly and icy morning – the kind of day when sleeping in, having a cup of coffee at home and sitting by the fire with a weekend newspaper might seem the perfect thing to do.

However, over at Four Seasons Greenhouse and Nursery on Road P just off Highway 145 between Cortez and Dolores, the winter farmers market is in full swing and it looks like the perfect place to be. The central greenhouse is hopping, there’s barely a place to park outside, and inside it feels like a party is in progress.

At one table, laden with shiny black packages of Fahrenheit Roasters coffee from Mancos, there’s a line of people waiting for some of the coffee – roasted to perfection, according to the customers.

Two women and hug with glee, friends finding themselves both enjoying a cup o’ joe among the poinsettias and vegetables. Nearby, Mary Beth Gentry of Eagle Tree Farm has to tell a customer that she’s out of eggs, and calls across the aisle to see if another vendor has any. “I sold them already,” she mentions, “and the market has only been open for ten minutes.”

In the next aisle Michele Martz of Songhaven Farm in Cahone lets people know that her eggs are now available at Dolores Food Market, and that her husband, Mark, has just made this week’s delivery, but she doesn’t have any here today.

Meanwhile, Mary Beth Gentry is taking orders for her free-range, naturally processed Thanksgiving turkeys – no antibiotics, no growth hormones, grass-fed, no artificial colors – oops, they’re all sold out!

Even without her eggs, Martz keeps busy with barely a minute to put her hat on straight or write out this week’s offerings between customers who are lined up to purchase butter lettuce, spinach, onions, potatoes, parsnips, and joi choi, all freshly picked and flying off the shelves, so to speak – since people grab one, two or three bags of the greens. This is Martz’s first year at the winter market, and already she is hooked.

“I love doing this market because I’m not used to getting out in the winter, so it’s fun to see people.” She has planted produce in her high tunnels for the market.

It’s the same a few tables down, where Cecelia Berto, who raises pigs, is crossing bacon off her list, since it has just sold out. “I love this market because it’s indoors and it’s warm and we can offer our customers our products all year long,” Berto says. She still has sausage, pork loin and rib chops, boneless or with the bone for sale. In the market for a roast, I ask about her offerings: “We have bottom butt or shoulder,” she replies, and when I ask which is better, she says they’re almost the same although the butt roast is more marbled, with a bit more fat making that “tasty juice.”

“And are you having roast for Thanksgiving?” I ask. Of course she says yes, but she will make “just a little bit” of turkey, she adds with a laugh.

Nowhere else in the region can customers get such a variety of fresh locally and sustainably grown meats all in one venue. Danny and Jeanie Wilkin raise bison on their property off Highway 491 two miles north of Cortez. “Come on out and visit us,” says Wilkin with a handshake and a smile. His wife explains that they started the W Lazy D Bison Company just last spring and this is their first year at market.

“This was Danny’s life-long dream, ever since he was in 4-H in high school,” she notes, and at that her daughter pipes in, “I am in 4-H too!” Jeanie Wilkin goes on to say that they bought their herd from a man in McElmo Canyon, adding to it as they can because the demand is so high.

“We’re all scheduled out for the year,” she says, with a lot of return customers, yet they are still taking special orders and gift certificates for the Christmas season.

Wilkin explains, “All our bison is organically raised, and it’s pure, since we’re members of the National Bison Association, which has a code of ethics requiring that you don’t cross-breed the species.”

Kim Lindgren of Red Canyon Farm offers lamb raised in McElmo Canyon. A familiar face at the summer farmers market in Cortez, where she sells fruit and vegetables from her farm, Lindgren’s winter specialty is lamb. She tells me that she loves the winter market.

“It’s kind of awesome to have this bright warm space,” she laughs, which is something everyone seems to be happy about on this cold gray morning. Lindgren continues, “After a long season at the summer market, this feels like a break since it starts at 10 a.m. and is indoors. I love it.”

Her customers are treated to a few recipes as well, and the one which catches my eye is the Irish lamb stew. “The not-so-secret secret is the Guinness,” says Lindgren. “It’s what makes the stew so tasty,” and she doesn’t have to do anything else to convince me as I add lamb to my already bulging bag of goodies.

Paul Stirniman and Deb Silverman, regular customers at both the summer and winter markets, are also having a good time, chatting with friends and browsing the vendor tables. “We enjoy getting the fresh produce all year long, and we enjoy interacting with all the vendors,” says Stirniman.

Silverman agrees. “We are market groupies – that says it all.”

A woman nearby with a child on her hip overhears our conversation and smiles, adding, “I just can’t stand buying vegetables at the grocery store.” Her comment is met with nods of approval from everyone in earshot.

And then another round of hugs, as a regular customer, basket in hand, steps in to say hello to her friends. In another corner a shopper from Summit Lake introduces her mother to one of the vendors, and then “oohs” and “ahhs” can be heard as the women sample fresh handmade bread on display.

Gail and Vic Vanik started the winter market at their Four Seasons greenhouse and nursery in 2012. Gail Vanik says she is delighted by the market’s success. “It makes me feel real good to help others, she explains. “It’s become a social event.”

But her main focus is on education and helping producers in the area. She and her husband weren’t raised on farm-fresh foods, but instead on processed food, like most of us. “We were perhaps the first generation to be raised on fast foods, and sadly, now children don’t even know that eggs come from anywhere else but a grocery store,” she says.

She is delighted to teach people, especially children, how to grow and use fresh herbs and vegetables. “The educational component is huge for us.”

She offers classes in everything from installing and growing a garden, including winter windowsill planters, to holiday crafting.

Vanik walks up and points to the sunflower micro greens. “We just cut these,” he says. He can hardly contain himself as he continues, “and these (peppers), and these onions were dug this morning, and the tomatoes, and the lettuce. It’s a voyage of discovery,” he notes, and motions for me to follow him for a tour of the greenhouses and plants. We squeeze behind a vendor who sells soaps, essential oils, and cards made with pressed herbs and flowers. In the back, behind rows of poinsettias ready for Christmas, there is another world of tomatoes – both hanging and potted, cucumbers (“they’re almost finished,” says Vanik) and fresh herbs including basil, rosemary, thyme and cilantro.

As he tells me which tomatoes are which, Vanik climbs between the plant racks and under the hanging tomatoes to grab a red one hidden in the foliage. “These will be ready in another couple of weeks,” he says, pointing to a vine full of tiny green cherry tomatoes.

There are 13 greenhouses total. One is full of lettuce, another planted with lettuce and kale, another with more lettuce and dino kale. Vanik smirks as he brings me to the door of yet another greenhouse – the “experimental house,” he explains as he opens the doors. There are peas growing on unused seed-packet racks, and rows and rows of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts.

“We planted in early August, but we’ll have to wait a little more for the Brussels sprouts and cabbage,” he says. “I call this experimental because I don’t know how it will turn out. Look – the days are too short for the cauliflower,” he says, pushing away the leaves to let me see a small head of cauliflower.

I am somewhat stunned by the bounty. “It’s kind of exciting, seeing what grows, and the people’s response,” says Vanik.

Besides selling their produce at the Saturday market, the Vaniks sell all over the region: Zuma, The Farm, Pippo’s, Dolores River Brewery, the Ponderosa, Wild Nature, Dolores Food Market, Pepperhead. Vanik keeps mentioning more and more places as I hurry to catch up with this exuberant man, the names lost in the wind, but I am getting the clear message that there is no small demand for locally grown organic fresh produce.

When asked about Four Seasons’ produce, Tazwell Vass, owner of the Dolores Food Market, says, “I am thrilled he’s doing the farmers market. It will make the pie bigger. We’ll take all they’ll sell us – we’ve been buying for years. We sell his sprouts and greens, and I’d take his tomatoes too. I sell local produce 365 days of the year.”

As we return to the vending area, I hear a young man telling a gray-haired woman, “These are the sweetest carrots you’ll ever taste.” Meet Max Fields, who with his partner James Plates, started their organic farm “Fields to Plate” this year.

“We did not change our names,” he laughs. Twenty-two year old Fields is a second-year student at Fort Lewis College majoring in environmental studies during the winter. But in the summer he and his partner farm just a half-acre of ground in Hesperus.

“We are at 7,600 feet, and can only grow root crops. But our farm has senior water rights, and it’s the best water in the region,” he says proudly. They planted a quarter-acre of beets and a quarter-acre of carrots, and harvested over 13,000 pounds of vegetables. Although he lives in Durango, he says the trip to sell at Four Seasons is worth it.

“Vanik invited us, and since then we’ve picked up six accounts in Cortez and another two in Mancos.” Fields laughs about the work: “Yesterday we power-washed 600 pounds of produce in the snow! There was ice coming out of the power-washer hose! I love it. I will be farming for the next 20 years, or 30, or 40,” he says, with a wide grin, “or until James runs me over with the tractor.”

Cecelia Berto says he better not say that – farming can be dangerous work. Fields agrees, still laughing. I didn’t think I wanted beets, but Max’s enthusiasm is catching and next thing I know I’ve got a two-pound bag for $2.50. Even though Max credits the Small Business Incubator at Fort Lewis for helping him with the farm, I think the guy is a natural!

The regional draw is not limited to vendors, who arrive from Dove Creek, Cortez, Durango, Cahone, McElmo Canyon, Dolores and Mancos. Vanik, who has owned the nursery for 15 years, says already this year they’ve had customers from Pagosa Springs, Farmington, Telluride and Durango for the Saturday Market, and his wife’s classes also draw people to the area.

Many of the vendors echo this, saying it has been great to be able to pick up accounts and customers from around the wider Four Corners region. For some reason the winter market draws people from further away, notes Gail Vanik. Perhaps because in winter people who don’t ski are looking for a weekend outing?

Beets, carrots, lamb, bison, pork, lettuce, tomatoes, bok choy, spinach, fresh herbs, coffee, and eggs are not the only things at the market, however. You can buy homemade bread, enjoy a made-to-order crepe or pizza, sample cookies, jams, cupcakes, even buy some rose-scented goat-milk hand cream. Gail Darling of Gemstone Farms has been raising Alpine goats in Montezuma County for 30 years. In the spring, after the goats kid, she will have goat milk, which can be sold through Colorado Raw Milk Association’s farm-based protocol.

She grows all the herbs contained in her products, and uses only organic essential oils. She uses the goat milk for her lotions and creams, and also has bath salts, cleaning liquid, hand soaps and herbs. Today she is giving away packets of fresh chai tea, made with her own herbal mixture.

Teresa Halsey Hollan of Dragonfly Farm also sells herb products. “I blend my own teas, grow my own herbs, and I also do different medicinal teas.”

Hollan, who has a day job in the Montezuma County Sheriff ’s Office, explains that she has a background in herbal medicine, having attended the Global Institute for Health. She has packets of herb teas for digestion, and others for colds and flu. It is her second season with the market, and she says although she has an unheated greenhouse, “most of my stuff is still coming from outside.”

When asked how she manages to operate the farm as well as hold a full-time job, she laughs. “I’m crazy, right? I think most of us here do that!”

While the jury is certainly out as to whether or not anyone there is crazy, what is obvious is that the market is alive and thriving, it is fun, and it is full of people dedicated to creating healthful foods, products, and lifestyles. On second thought, that doesn’t sound crazy at all.

Vic Vanik explains: “So many people have become conscious of where their food is grown and produced, that keeping it local has become a big focus for us. We’re certified as an Organic Grower by the State of Colorado and many of the people participating in the market are also growing their products naturally.

“This is a way to know exactly how your food is grown and where it comes from. It’s important to us to support the agricultural businesses in our community by providing this venue and we see this as a way to bring it all together during a season when there typically isn’t much growing going on. Once our Christmas shop comes down in January, we’ll have even more room,” said Vanik. “We already have a waiting list for some of those spots.”

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From December 2013.