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High Country farmers face challenges

Brooke Bates
Daily file photoFarmer's Markets are a good opportunity to purchase fresh produce.
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As a true Midwesterner, I miss seeing the patchwork of vegetable gardens spotting yards as I drive down the roads.

But not as much as I miss walking barefoot to the backyard and plucking a handful of strawberries for shortcake or digging up potatoes for dinner.

I would even settle for roadside stands set up to sell fresh corn and melons. But trying to find vegetable gardens in Vail is like trying to find mountains in Indiana.

The high altitude of the Vail Valley makes gardening difficult, even if you’re just tending flowers. The Rocky Mountain climate hosts a shorter growing season, but the cooler nights can have their advantages, said Tony Austin of Austin Family Farms.

“Cool nights bring out sugars, making sweeter fruit,” Austin said. The Austin Family Farms relocated to Paonia from Tennessee. The family brings their southern fare of fruits ” cherries, peaches, raspberries and “everything else except citrus” ” to the Minturn Farmers’ Market every Saturday.

Even with the advantages of high-altitude gardening, it’s not an easy undertaking, Austin said. When she decided to plant strawberries and blueberries, she treated the soil first with sulfur, peat moss, sawdust and vinegar. None of these were enough to counter the soil’s alkalinity, or saltiness, and she lost a fourth of her berry crop.

The tricky soil, along with short growing seasons, extreme temperatures and dry climates, create an abundance of farming challenges that dissuade many valley residents, Austin said.

“Too few people have a passion for growing,” she said.

Joe Miller of Miller Farms in Platteville echoed Austin’s frustration at what may be a dying practice. He said farmland is being lost to development across the country.

Although houses and shops may be better for land value, Miller said he laments the loss of tradition.

“It’s almost impossible to make a living farming, but we’re still trying,” said Miller, who brings his harvests to Edwards, Minturn and Vail markets each weekend. “People got away from canning and cooking at home, too.”

“People don’t garden in town anymore either because of water bills,” he said. “It’s cheaper to just go buy produce.”

At Platteville’s lower elevation, crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and zucchini are more likely to thrive, especially in Miller’s 1,500-square-foot greenhouse. At the higher elevation of Vail, greenhouses are even more necessary for successful crops, but people aren’t likely to invest in a greenhouse just to get some simple greens.

The future of farming

In addition to dining out, people now depend on shipped produce, Miller said. They can enjoy fairly fresh veggies from China without venturing too far from home. It’s more convenient, but it has cut people off from this country’s farming history, Miller said.

“Kids don’t know potatoes grow underground,” he said. “What do you think, they grow on trees? I have people asking me for watermelon in May. They don’t know it’s a summer crop.”

Miller said a return to the days of self-sufficiency may be found by promoting agritourism, or letting tourists experience a day on the farm. Miller Farms offers these opportunities throughout year. During their Fall Harvest Festival, children can meet goats, cows and pigs at the petting zoo and harvest their own potatoes, squash and pumpkins.

“The outlook isn’t good,” Miller said of farming’s future. “Things have to change. I hate to be the cynic, but people need to wake up before they’re buying all their produce from Mexico and spending all their time inside with the air conditioning running.”

Brooke Bates can be reached at vdeditintern@vaildaily.com

Vail, Colorado


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