Before ski runs and hiking trails, much of the Vail Valley was farmland. Some local business owners are trying to remind us of this by returning to the area’s roots, literally. Valley Fresh Organics, a joint venture from former chef Rick Kangas and organic farmer Chris LaVenture, aims to provide people with organic produce and other goods that take the shortest route from the ground into your mouth.
A variety of vegetables
Kangas and LaVenture started Valley Fresh Organics last year at the Eagle Farmers Market, and this year have started selling their own plants in addition to produce. Unlike plants you might buy commercially that have been shipped from somewhere else, theirs can withstand the area’s sometimes difficult growing conditions.
“We have an interest in things that are a little bit more unusual, more exotic herbs and varieties of vegetables that you wouldn’t find necessarily in the stores,” LaVenture said. “It’s a tough climate to grow in, but you can also do a lot of different things in this climate.”
Valley Fresh Organics now offers more than 120 different kinds of plants, including 10 different kinds of basil, 12 different kinds of peppers and 35 different kinds of tomatoes. They’ve also started growing culantro, and no, that’s not a typo. Culantro is an Asian version of cilantro, which Kangas said has a richer, better flavor.
“Fifty-percent of the people who don’t like cilantro don’t like it because (they think) it tastes like soap, but this stuff doesn’t,” Kangas said.
Along with organic produce, Valley Fresh Organics also sells eggs, preserves, pesto, hummus, honey, steak seasoning and banana bread, which comes from a Kangas’ family recipe.
“I had to trick (my mother) into giving it to me,” Kangas said. “I asked her to make me some and I watched her out of the corner of my eye. It comes from my great grandmother, and I make it organic.”
Curbing the carbon footprint
Kangas and LaVenture also run the Colorado Fresh Network, an online market for organic products and produce. The website is for both vendors to sell their local goods and consumers looking to buy stuff straight from the source. The online business not only helps suppliers and buyers connect; it also helps businesses be more sustainable in other ways.
“Hauling all those vegetables up and down the Valley, that’s a huge carbon footprint,” Kangas said. “Whereas if we’re just selling from the farm, that cuts that huge footprint in half.”
Kangas’ goal is for the website to become like an “online food co-op,” where vendors can pool their orders together and deliver all goods in a single trip. While many have heard the term “farm to table,” Kangas said it’s now all about the “farm to fork” movement.
“It’s advancing even further,” Kangas said. “People are upset about the carbon footprint. Restaurants are (promoting ‘farm to table’) for public (attention), having dinners out in field, but the chef has to plan weeks in advance and order a lot of extra produce. ... The new thing is farm to fork, where you eat what’s available when it’s available.”
‘Their health and the health of the planet’
Eating organic is not a new phenomena, but the duo behind Valley Fresh Organics have noticed a big uptick recently in locals interested in getting what they eat, well, locally.
“It’s really gained steam in the last three or so years,” LaVenture said. “I think people really care about what they’re eating. They’re hearing things on the news about how (food) is grown. They’re not happy about what the farmers are doing, and they’re thinking about their health and the health of the planet.”
Although people are shopping less at the grocery store and moving towards getting food at farmer’s markets, buying the organic way still takes some getting used to.
“One of the things I’ve learned from Chris is you have to do some semi-marketing and packaging,” Kangas said. “People are used to going to the grocery store and buying (greens) in a 12 ounce package. I would bring mine loose, and Chris would bring hers in a plastic bag.”
LaVenture said people are now becoming more comfortable with picking through their produce, but it can be hard to convince people that getting exactly what they want, when they want it, isn’t always what’s best for the planet.
“We’re competing with the grocery store approach all the time,” LaVenture said. “Last year we’d have people come up and say, ‘Why don’t you have melons or peaches?’ and I’d say, ‘Well, they don’t grow well here.’ That’s hard to change.”
Valley Fresh Organics would like to operate year-round, but it’s a challenge to find more spaces to plant where other’s aren’t already planning to put in a condo. Currently, LaVenture has her own farm of four acres in Gypsum, but it’s mostly pasture.
“Having the space to grow in this Valley is an issue because of the cost of real estate,” LaVenture said.
Despite the challenges both organic and otherwise, Kangas and LaVenture are passionate about their business and hope it continues to grow as well as their plants do. The valley may not be filled with farmland anymore, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t use a few more gardens, and the fresh produce that comes from them. Valley Fresh Organics is doing their best to give locals more organic options, and do as little damage to the land here in the process.
“Because Mother Earth deserves it,” Kangas said.