By Dale Will
It wasn’t long ago that many were predicting the end of agriculture in our valley. Rising real estate values were seen as the death knell to our local capacity to grow food. Fortunately, we’re now in the midst of a true renaissance in public concern about local food systems.
Can the Crystal Valley produce food? In a word, yes. In 1912, Eugene Grubb characterized the Valley’s fertility as follows:
“No part of the world is better fitted by nature for growing potatoes than the mountain districts of Colorado … The Roaring Fork and Crystal River Valley section of Colorado is as nearly perfect in soil conditions as can be found, and the potatoes grown there are not excelled anywhere in the world, and are equaled in but a few places.” -Eugene H. Grubb, “The Potato” (1912).
Between 1910 and 1945, Pitkin County produced 120,000-220,000 bushels (6,000,000-11,000,000 pounds) of potatoes annually. The farm census from those years also shows a very significant production of cattle, dairy cows and cream.
The loss of agricultural lands was identified decades ago as a significant threat. The central mountains lost 655,000 acres to suburban sprawl from 1987-2002 (see “Losing Ground”, Environment Colorado, 2006).
We are fortunate that much of the Crystal Valley’s agricultural lands are now protected by conservation easements. These legal restrictions permanently retire development rights and protect land for continuing agricultural production. The Darien Ranch, Cold Mountain Ranch, Sustainable Settings and other key irrigated lands in the Crystal Valley are now safe from development.
One recent conservation success story is Sunfire Ranch, a 1,240-acre spread at the mouth of Thompson Creek owned by Jason and Alex Sewell, direct descendants of its original homesteader, Myron Thompson.
In the early ‘70s, the ranch was subdivided into 29 separate 35-acre parcels, spread over the canyon and ridgelines. The full development of those lots would have significantly degraded its remaining farmland as well as important habitat along Thompson Creek. The irrigated portions of the ranch have been in continuous agricultural production for over 130 years. In December of 2020, the Sewell brothers conveyed a conservation easement to Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, permanently protecting these lands.
Of our historic commercial crops, until recently only beef remained in large scale production. However, with the renewed interest in local food, “bioneers” such as Jerome Osentowski have shown that virtually any plant that grows on Earth can be made to grow here, albeit sometimes under cover.
Of all the new faces changing agriculture in the Crystal Valley, perhaps none is more innovative and talented than Casey Piscura, owner of Wild Mountain Seeds, based at Sunfire Ranch just south of Carbondale. Wild Mountain Seeds is a vegetable producer, transplant nursery, a seed-breeding farm and a high-altitude research and education facility.
Casey founded Wild Mountain Seeds to “share the love of farming through the collection and adaptation of food-plant diversity, the development of innovative growing systems and the distribution of health-giving food and seeds with a story.” See www.wildmountainseeds.com to learn more. Casey’s produce is available every Wednesday at the Carbondale Farmers’ Market.
Sunfire Ranch will host CVEPA’s upcoming 50th Anniversary Celebration at 4 p.m. on Aug. 21. This event will include a tour of Seed Peace, the nonprofit born from Wild Mountain Seeds to solve systematic problems in the local foodshed, with a mission to accelerate the transition to regenerative farming and land management in the Roaring Fork Valley. Spaces are limited for the 3 p.m. tour, sign up in advance by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org; otherwise, no registration is necessary for this free event with live entertainment and a keynote address by activist Maggie Fox.
We are very proud to showcase two inspiring pieces of our Valley’s local food movement: a permanently-conserved, historic ranch, now home to a cutting-edge farm. For more information, please see www.cvepa.org/