News of Sustainable Settings selling its property came as a shock to many. The announcement’s proximity to April 1 had some wondering if it was a joke. After nearly two decades of building soil south of Carbondale, the biodynamic ranch has become a defining characteristic of the region. Soon, however, the land may inherit a new custodian, as Sustainable Settings looks onward toward its next iteration.
“Woody Creek was 1.0,” Maestro di Niente Brook LeVan told The Sopris Sun on a sunny afternoon. “This is 2.0,” he said, gesturing to the surrounding ranch, “and something else is 3.0.”
Maestro di Niente, LeVan’s self-given title, translates as “Master of Nothing.” His demeanor is determinedly playful. Asked first if he’d like to address any misconceptions since the news broke, he responded, “Well, we’re not retiring. That word’s not even in my lexicon.”
To tell the story of Sustainable Settings, he began by introducing his viking ancestors. The idea of settlement, he explained, is a thread through the work that he and Rose, his wife and accomplice in creativity, have cultivated throughout their lives. “She’s incredible,” he stated, recounting their world adventures.
Freshly graduated with master’s degrees in fine arts in 1989, they traveled to West Africa on a Fulbright grant to study “how human meets nature.” Learning from the Gurunsi people, whose territory intersects Ghana and Burkina Faso, he had an epiphany. “The Gurunsi woke us up,” he said. “They had no word for ‘art.’” LeVan ceased signing his name on work and vowed to integrate art into everyday living.
Years later, shortly after floating the Yellow River in China with traditional watercrafts fashioned from goat carcasses, the couple arrived at Anderson Ranch in 1997. With another Fulbright already secured for a subsequent trip to India, they made the acquaintance of George Stranahan, who invited them to dust off a ceramics studio at his home and take up residency.
One day, while crossing Woody Creek, LeVan was struck with inspiration. Under the umbrella of the Aspen Educational Research Foundation, now Compass, the seed for Sustainable Settings was sown at the Aspen Community School. The trip to India was perpetually postponed.
In 2003, the nonprofit secured funds, thanks to generous donations, to purchase 244 acres of the historic Thompson Creek Ranch for $2 million. The land had been subjected to many decades of conventional agriculture. So, the artists set out to explore building soil using “potentized homeopathic fertilizers,” as LeVan calls their biodynamic preparations.
“Raw dairy, incredible meat, peak flavor and health benefits, these are all byproducts of the main effort: to build soil and discover incredible relationships with all of life,” said LeVan.
Nineteen years later, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) soil tests demonstrate consistent improvements in the ranch’s health and vitality. “Seven years of Soil Health Test Data have shown me that the principles Sustainable Settings employ have led to positively trending results,” Derrick Wyle, a USDA soil conservationist, is quoted saying in a press release for the sale of the ranch. “The active life in their soils has gone up every year” and tests higher than any other farm he’s analyzed for the Glenwood Springs Field Office.
As “our latest community-based, site-specific installation,” said LeVan, “This work of art will finance the next.”
Opening at $24.25 million, “this rare gem becomes more precious each year and will remain as you see it today forever in an agricultural open space,” the press release continues. The ranch itself and surrounding properties are protected by conservation easements, restricting what can be done on the properties into perpetuity.
The sale also includes senior water rights fed from two separate watersheds, three wells, and several structures including pole barns, a solar-powered bathhouse, three greenhouses, an outdoor kitchen, store, office, a guest cabin, the Thompson’s homestead cabin and a Victorian house. It’s described in a sales brochure (www.crystalrivergem.org) as “a turnkey agricultural operation.”
The crew at Sustainable Settings is prepared to move within 30 days, said LeVan, but also open to advising the land’s next custodians. “There’s been interest already, different scenarios discussed with different groups.” Until the ranch is sold, the Biodynamic Raw Dairy Herdshare program will continue serving its current 120 family members. The vegetable CSA and ranch store will also remain until further notice.
In the press release, Sustainable Settings board president Pete Hawkins attributes “the expense for a growing, land-based nonprofit organization to keep pace with the ongoing costs locally” to the unanimous vote to sell, determined best for the long-term success of the organization.
Proceeds from the sale would fund the purchase of another smaller ranch parcel, the press release continues, “construct facilities … and provide an endowment to help fund annual operating expenses.”
For Brooke, 3.0 means “to continue the work, find the next place … more data points, implement right away what works here.” They will test the soil immediately for a baseline, then attempt to “prove it again.”