Reviving the local farm economy

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In 1930, an amazing amount of food was being produced in Montezuma County – everything from dairy products to fruit to wheat and beans.

Today, although the local area is perceived as being an agricultural community and roughly the same amount of acreage is being farmed as in 1930, only 4 percent of people in Montezuma County are employed in farming, 23 percent in Dolores County. That’s according to a 2011 report by the Region 9 Economic Development District of Southwest Colorado.

Michele Martz prepares to plant seedlings for the upcoming season at her farm, Songhaven, in Cahone, Colo. Photo by Wendy Mimiaga

Michele Martz prepares to plant seedlings for the upcoming season at her farm, Songhaven, in Cahone, Colo. Photo by Wendy Mimiaga

Can agriculture really be an important economic driver for the region if it employs fewer people, produces less food, and accomplishes this by taking up almost as much acreage as it did 80 years ago?

A group of locals who work in agriculture say it can. The Montezuma Valley Farm Hub is a new association of local farmers who have come together in their shared passion for the agricultural economy and culture.

In a letter announcing the formation of the MVFH, the intent and goals of the organization were articulated: “By supporting producers, consumers, and the connection between the two, we envision a region known throughout the Southwest for its quality fruit, vegetables, beans, grains, meat, dairy, wine and a myriad of locally produced agricultural products.”

Montezuma County is a “breadbasket,” according to Jude Schuenemeyer of Let it Grow Nursery and Garden Café in Cortez. He is one of those involved in MVFH. “We have a tremendous amount of food here – we have the crops. This is a place that can grow food.”

Indeed, in 1930 there was a great variety of food being produced in Montezuma County. Cindy Dvergsten of Arriola Sunshine Farm compiled an inventory of products harvested in 1930: Milk, butter, cream, turkey, beef, pigs, chicken, geese, ducks, honey, eggs, apples, grapes, peaches, plums, cherries, pears, apricots, raspberries, potatoes, corn, wheat, barely, oats, sugar beets, dry beans, and market vegetables.

And the quantities of those products were significant: 877,069 bushels of potatoes, for instance; 2.1 million gallons of milk; and 139,000 bushels of wheat.

The total county population at this time was 8,000.

In 2011 the population of Montezuma County was triple that, yet most food is now trucked in. Many of the products listed above are no longer produced here (such as dairy products, potatoes, barley, oats, and sugar beets) or if they are, it is only in small amounts, such as honey, pork, eggs, apples and market veggies. These local products are now typically available only at local and regional farmers markets, through CSA (community-supported agriculture) shares, or at the farms themselves through “u-pick” operations. Some restaurants, smaller grocery stores and schools have also begun to purchase local food.

Let It Grow is one of the places where you can buy local produce, as well as meals prepared with in-season fruits and vegetables. Schuenemeyer and his wife, Addie, are celebrating their 14th year in business, and a major thrust of their work has been to support local foods.

In addition to the café, they operate a family farm in McElmo Canyon, growing organic peaches and market vegetables. Schuenemeyer said there is a “chicken and egg” aspect to this work. While there is a move regionally and nationally to promote production and consumption of locally produced foods, the going can be rough for those who give it a try. It’s not easy to make a living farming.

“Whatever you learned the year before, forget it.” That’s the advice of longtime bean farmer Mike Coffey of Dove Creek, according to Rosie Carter of Stone Free Farms.

“Montezuma County presents one of the most challenging climates for farming, and yet it is possible to do and rewarding,” agreed Melissa Betrone, who moved to the region 11 years ago with dreams of running a sustainable small-scale farm. She developed and operated Rude Becky’s Flower Farm from 2002 to 2009. Besides flowers, she offered high-quality, organic market vegetables available through a CSA and at the farmers markets in Dolores, Durango and Telluride.

However, she had to quit farming because, she said matter-of-factly, “I couldn’t make enough money.” She added, “Not everyone wants to sit outside in a parking lot in the weather to sell their products.”

Farmers markets are a wonderful opportunity for consumers to meet and get to know the people responsible for producing their food – and vice versa – but the small, unpredictable venues are not for everyone. Markets are open only on certain days and certain times, and are generally held out side where consumers (and farmers) have to weather the elements. Some consumers may not even know a market exists in their community. Others may not understand the benefits of locally grown food.

“Where do most people here get their food? At the supermarkets,” Schuenemeyer said.

And where do those supermarkets get their food? California, Mexico, Idaho, Florida, Iowa, Vermont, Oregon, Wisconsin – name a state and there is a chance that at some point in the year, food grown there is shipped cross-country. Depending on the product your food item might even have travelled from South America, Indonesia, Africa, or China.

On her website, Michele Martz of Songhaven Farm in Cahone notes, “Most food travels over 1,500 miles from farm to plate.” This system increases costs, and decreases quality and freshness, because of the time it takes to get the food out of the fields and into the stores.

This is true even in agricultural communities. Foods produced by large corporate farming operations dominate the market. In Southwest Colorado there has been a gradual but steady shift in agriculture away from food products consumed by local and regional residents to cash crops like alfalfa, which can bring in a more consistent paycheck on the national exchange.

Other foods, such as eggs and dairy products, stopped being produced in Montezuma County due to increased regulation of food processing.

As a result, there is less food produced locally by fewer people, even though the acreage of cropland has remained steady.

But members of MVFH hope to reverse that trend.

While others might see a crisis in the steady decrease in farmers and local food production, Carter of Stone Free Farm sees opportunity, noting that there has been an upsurge of activity and interest in local food production in the past two years.

“There’s a lot of momentum right now,” she said. “With the Buy Local campaign there is more and more demand. The farmers markets have all grown, and the Farm to School movement is really taking off. Ole Bye has begun a distribution service, Local Foods Logic, which makes it easy for farmers to have their goods distributed.”

She believes there is a bright future for those who want to give farming a try, and that the Farm Hub will help by providing a forum for education, collaboration, and preservation of tradition.

“We’re interested in the broader ag community,” Carter said. “Montezuma County kept its roots, and so the agricultural base can continue.”

Right now there is not enough supply to meet the demand for local foods, she said. Carter is talking about market vegetables, which she grows. She and her husband, Chuck Barry, moved to the area, purchased a three-acre farm in need of some TLC, and began farming in 1995. The land was affordable, there was good soil and water, and the region had a rich agricultural history, which made it a perfect place for Carter to realize her dream.

Eighteen years later, Carter still considers herself a neophyte. The work is not for everyone. “It’s a very complicated and dynamic process. It’s incredibly difficult, there are so many variables, and then you have to be a businessperson on top of that. If there’s one thing I have learned about farming, it’s that it takes tons and tons of practice, and we are lucky because there is a wealth and depth of agriculture in this region.”

Betrone agreed, noting that the Montezuma Valley Farm Hub will be able to help people like her, who are in need of access to resources – knowledge, land and skills – including business acumen as well as farming expertise. “I still firmly believe local production for local consumers needs to be a core focus of economic development for the region.”

Schuenemeyer explained, “Practical knowledge based here can be used and taught to increase the economic opportunities.” The history of agriculture in the region is a strong foundation from which the new generation of farmers can learn. Betrone said that MVFH will sponsor educational forums for those in need of information on how to farm successfully in Montezuma County. “The workshops will get more people with skills and knowledge to those who don’t have them. I think that educating people and exposing people to the principles of production helps the entire community. Elevated awareness and elevated connectivity will move the community forward,” she stated.

Schuenmeyer beams when he starts talking about fruit. “In the 1950s the Montezuma Valley Fruit Company sent fruit to California. It’s hard to do this – to bring fruit IN to California. Imagine!” The reason Montezuma Valley Fruit Company could export was the high quality of the fruit, a result of the altitude. Montezuma County is higher than most other fruit-growing areas, such as Paonia or Palisade. The diurnal temperature shifts set the sugars, which results in a sweeter fruit.

The first orchards were planted in the 1890s, and soon Montezuma County fruit was garnering state, national and international awards, with people all over the country clamoring for more of the tasty apples, peaches and apricots.

The altitude complicates fruit production, however, as it is difficult to get a consistent annual crop due to the vagaries of the weather, including early or late frosts which can kill an entire year’s crop overnight. Addie Schuenemeyer said that in the 10 years they have been running a peach orchard, there were only three years that they were able to sell the fruit.

It’s tricky to build a market in these conditions. To help maintain a regular annual yield, early orchardists used in-field heaters and some even hauled water in trucks from the Dolores River to their fields in Lewis. The dedication of individual growers who cooperated during the growing season was an important reason for the exceptional quality of the fruit.

Yet growers also engaged in fierce competition come harvest time. Fruit-growers started the county fair and worked hard to earn a blue ribbon for their product. The blend of competition, cooperation and quality became what Schuenemeyer calls “an ethos.”

Many existing orchards today remain in the family of the grower who originally planted. “The orchards are kept alive because of the love of the families,” Schuenemeyer said.

The Schuenemeyers founded the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project, dedicated to restoring the orchard economy of Montezuma County. But growing good apples or peaches is only part of the picture.

“We cannot preserve the orchards without a market for the fruit. We need to develop the market,” Schuenemeyer said.

In the 1900s Montezuma County fruit went to Telluride, Silverton, Durango, Denver, Kansas City, Chicago, Texas. The Schuenemeyers believe the Montezuma Valley Farm Hub can help with preservation, production and marketing by pooling resources, so that individuals can work together for the benefit of all.

“Different things – and people – can come together for a common purpose,” stated Addie Schuenemeyer. “This is going to become what people make it – it’s about building community.”

The Montezuma Valley Farm Hub intends to facilitate education, provide support for local producers and the MORP, and preserve the rich agricultural heritage of the region. They have organized an eight-week seminar series on “High Desert Homesteading.” [See below.]

Carter explained that all sessions will be led by people who belong to families farming and ranching in the area for generations. The seminars will cover a variety of topics of interest to the entire ag community, from beekeeping to soil science. The seminars kick off with a social and a presentation on the history of homesteading in the Montezuma Valley on Wednesday, March 6, at Let it Grow. Lifelong farmer and founder of the Cortez Farmers Market Bessie White will be on hand with a story or two to share.

“People really love the tradition here. Let’s grow our ag community and culture and let it continue as a viable part of our community,” said Carter.

“There is a tremendous amount of food here. We have the crops,” said Schuenemeyer, interrupting his train of thought to answer a phone call.

“We just found a tree,” he told Addie. “It’s the Cedar Hill Black!” This apple was one of the original apples brought to the area in the 1860s by Jesse Frazer and is one of the rare commercial apple strains developed in Colorado. It was thought to be lost until one of Frazer’s descendants heard of Schuenemeyer’s work, and called to tell him about a tree outside of Durango.

“All this is possible,” said Schuenemeyer, smiling as he headed out to see the tree.

Montezuma County food production in 1930

877,069 bushels of potatoes
2,104,339 gallons of milk
138,646 bushels of wheat
258,965 dozens of eggs
122,816 bushels of apples
88,996 pounds of butter
33,840 bushels of barley
75,757 pounds of honey
24,479 bushels of oats
70,638 pounds of grapes
5,259 bushels of peaches
8,026 quarts of raspberries

Source: Information compiled by Cindy Dvergsten

Some restaurants and outlets that offer local foods

Cortez: Four Seasons, Let It Grow, The Farm Bistro, Pepperhead, Once Upon a Sandwich, Pippo’s
Dolores: Karla’s Kitchen & Bakery, Dolores River Brewery, Dolores Food Market
Durango: Bread, Cocina Linda, Cosmopolitan, Cyprus Café, Durango Coffee Company, Harvest Grill & Greens
Rico: Argentine Grill
Mancos: Absolute Bakery and Café, Olio


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From March 2013.