Special to the Daily
Before our local area was dotted with chairlifts and ski runs, lettuce fields populated the landscape and the valley was a sea of green rustling in the quiet mountain breeze. In the 1920s, fresh lettuce was packed in ice and shipped in boxcars, heading as far as the East Coast.
Our main local economy may have transitioned from agriculture to skiing, but there are many in the community still committed to growing their own produce and making meals fresh from the farm to the kitchen. Even restaurants are seeking out locally sourced or Colorado-made ingredients for their menus. Whether you call it “farm to table,” “slow food” or “from the garden to the gut” (we made that one up), the local food movement in Eagle County has not only taken root but is sprouting up quickly, making it easier to grow, buy and dine on fresh food.
Growing your own
If you’re new to the local food movement, then spring can be the perfect time to start thinking and living green, as a way to prepare for the peak fresh produce season this summer.
Growing some of your own food is not only environmentally conscious, but there are few greater pleasures than biting into a fresh veggie from your backyard. Due to a shorter growing season, getting a garden going in the mountains can be challenging but not impossible. Todd Rymer, director of Culinary Education at Colorado Mountain College Culinary Institute in Edwards, said local nurseries are great resources, and it’s easiest to purchase plant starts as opposed to using seeds.
“If you’re trying to grow tomatoes or even a lot of the other different crops, it takes a long time,” Rymer said. “You need to buy them pre-started, ask (the nursery) how long it takes to mature and what special needs the plants have.”
Valley Fresh Organics, run by Rick Kangas and Chris LaVenture, specializes in organic vegetables, fruits, herbs and more. Right now, they’re offering their own plant starts for the season, which have become more popular recently.
“(We) noticed more people wanting to do some of their own gardening, so that’s been on the increase” Kangas said.
As an expert gardener, even Kangas admits that the local landscape can be a tough climate to sprout new roots in.
“There’s no room for making mistakes,” Kangas said. “There’s no tolerance for that. Find somebody that knows (how to farm locally) and do a lot of research on your own.”
If you’re a gardening newbie without a natural green thumb, anyone can come and help out on the LaVenture farm in Gypsum and learn about growing in high altitude. At the end of the day, you even get to go home with an armful of vegetables, Kangas said.
While the local food movement is still smaller than Kangas would like it to be, especially when it comes to organic growers, there’s been a significant change from the days when it was hard to convince others there was even a need for a community garden.
“(In 1999), we tried to get the town of Vail to give us some land to put up a community garden and they just laughed at it,” Kangas said. “Now they have one in West Vail, there’s one in Eagle-Vail, one in Avon, one in Edwards … their plots are full and they have people on wait lists. It’s really taken off.”
Getting a true taste of Colorado
In the spring and summer months, our local food buying options begin to blossom, and there are many ways to support your neighborhood farmer and get fresh produce. Kelly Donovan, of Copper Bar Ranch, which has been growing everything from rutabagas to Jerusalem artichokes for 35 years, said we need to break the habit of shopping with a checklist and use what’s in season as a spark for cooking creatively.
“There’s still a bit of a learning curve of what it means to truly buy local,” Donovan said. “People have to embrace a lot more culinary flexibility. (Rather than) go into a week saying ‘I want to have a Caesar salad every day,’ instead you have to go into a week thinking, ‘I want a salad of whatever greens are best and in season right now.’ It’s very different. We’re used to having a menu or set of ingredients in our head.”
Rymer said in addition to hitting up the local farmers markets, consumers can still shop local at the grocery store by looking out for Colorado Proud items, which are grown, raised or processed in the state. He also said the biggest change people can make is to eat more fresh food and less processed food, and it’s OK if making the switch to buying local and sustainable items is a slow process.
“It definitely gets complicated, and it can be a little overwhelming,” Rymer said. “The thing to remember is nobody is going to have an entirely sustainable diet. For most of us, myself included, it’s fairly easy to have a more sustainable diet. You start off making small changes, like saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to buy this (type of food) locally because it’s in season and looks good.’”
We may not have plenty of farmland anymore, but what we do have are a plethora of local restaurants focused on crafting local cuisine. Some restaurants have even taken this a step further, starting their own gardens and serving up produce that’s picked from the ground and arrives fresh on your plate in just a few hours.
Grouse Mountain Grill in Beaver Creek has a garden that grows a variety of root vegetables and greens. Executive Chef David Gutowski said growing their own garden has been a learning process.
“We’ve had a lot of failures,” Gutowski said. “I think last year we really got it down. We grew tons of lettuce, which in hindsight, duh, the whole valley was a lettuce farm, why didn’t we plant more lettuce? We kind of bombed on potatoes, broccoli — those didn’t really go too well, but I think that’s more our fault than the environment.”
In the spring, Gutowski said their menu is about 50 percent grown from their own garden or other local farmers, which spikes to about 75 percent during peak summer season. The chef said it’s important for food to “have a sense of place,” and growing your own makes you care more about what you’re eating and how you cook it.
‘Pay homage to the farmer’
Gutowski is not the only chef committed to slicing and sauteing the Colorado way. Executive Chef Paul Anders, who oversees both Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard in Vail, said he focuses on using as much locally grown or raised-in-the-state dairy, meat and produce as possible. When it comes to red meat and poultry, Anders said it’s important to know how the animals are treated, whether they’re free range or come from a pasture, are grass fed and don’t contain any hormones or antibiotics. And, of course, the tongue is the final deciding factor.
“If it tastes great and meets all the other criteria, we go ahead and use it,” Anders said.
Anders said he sees sourcing ingredients local as an opportunity to “show off their hard work and pay homage to the farmer, and try not to overdo it too much.”
Once you experience your first red, ripe, juicy organic heirloom tomato, or chomp down on a piece of spinach grown at 8,000 feet elevation that will “knock the socks off any other spinach anywhere else in the state,” Donovan said, it’s not hard to fall in love with local food and those who grow it. For many, part of the locally grown movement is as much about the farmer as it is about what they produce.
“Once you meet the people we work with — we genuinely like them and they’re good people — and you see the passion they put into it, how can you not buy from them?” Gutowski said.
Vail Mountain’s tagline is “Like nothing on earth.” This philosophy can also translate to our native plants and herbs that have somehow been able to spring up despite snow, cold and a shorter growing season.
“People come here for something they can’t get at home,” Gutowski said. “Anyone can go to (the grocery store) and grab some tomatoes. But when you come up here, we owe you more than that.”
As more people decide to start a garden, pick up fresh produce and eat what’s made right here in Eagle County, the future of the local food movement is looking pretty green.
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