Time to get growing, Vail Valley
VAIL VALLEY, Colorado –There’s a revolution under way across the nation and in a garden plot in Colorado’s Vail Valley.
More and more Americans are getting dirty these days – taking the initiative to grow at least part of the food they eat. Local residents are no exception to that trend.
“Sustainable food production and consumption plays a big part in the health of our planet,” said local chef Rick Kangas. “I have always enjoyed gardening as well as cooking.”
But it takes a little extra motivation to garden in high elevation. The season is shorter and some produce is difficult to cultivate. However, this spring, a corps of local gardeners have bonded under the auspices of the Eagle County Colorado State University Extension Service’s Home Scale Food Production Series.
The eight-part series, co-hosted by the Eagle Valley Library District and held at the Eagle Public Library on Thursday evenings through May 27, has regularly attracted crowds of 25 to 35 participants. Laurel Potts, horticulture/small acreage management extension agent, developed the series with a broad objective in mind.
“In the fall of 2008, with the downturn in the economy, there was a perceptible increase in interest in growing your own food,” she said.
The reasons why ranged from financial insecurities to food security concerns to increased awareness about the health and environmental benefits of both eating and growing local produce, Potts said.
CSU extension agents statewide wanted to launch an education program that capitalized on interest and provided a comprehensive look at the issue of food production. “We are trying to reach out beyond the knowledge of how to grow a couple of your own tomatoes,” said Potts.
Eagle County, with its high altitude conditions, has some very interesting growing and food logistics to consider.
“We are, as an area, almost totally reliant on outside sources,” said Potts. “But we can grow a huge variety of vegetables. It is actually amazing what we can grow.”
Potts rapidly rattled off examples – lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts, beets, potatoes, turnips, onions, garlic, shallots, leeks, pole beans, kale, pumpkins, raspberries, strawberries, rhubarb and more.
She is hoping that programs such as the Home Scale Food Production series will spur an interest among small market growers. “We are just opening that door. People are starting to grow for local restaurants and farmer’s markets,” she said.
CSU has a program called Building Farmers that gives growers the management and product information they need to successfully delve into commercial agriculture. “Restaurants want locally grown, quality produce,” she said.
Some of the series’ participants are interested in testing those waters. Others are simply interested in maximizing their own gardening potential.
“The series gives specifics for growing produce in the valley – things like frost charts, raised bed design, cold frame design and use, how to water wisely and much more,” said Kangas. “I now have a better knowledge of planting times, ground temperatures and how to extend the garden season.”
“I finally have a place where I can garden” said series participant Katie Langdon, who started her garden last year. In addition to the hard data she has learned from the program, Langdon has also enjoyed networking with other growers and learning about their experiences in the local soil, she said.
“I grew up in Connecticut,” said participant Darcy O’Conner, “where you can throw a seed out the window and it will grow. Colorado is more challenging.”
O’Conner has loved gardening since she was 18 years old and she is thrilled to see a resurgence of interest in growing food for the family, she said.
“People are getting more and more interested in what they are eating. People are getting tired of processed food and unhealthy choices,” she said. “It’s just a miracle when you can grow something and then eat it for dinner.”
Carly Schreiber grew up gardening in Eagle County. Her family operates the Wildflower Farm. She enjoys the camaraderie she finds with other participants in the program.
“It’s just a really good support group for people who are trying to garden at this altitude. It is such a challenge,” she said.
Schreiber shares Potts’ vision of small farms popping up around the valley. “We, as a community, need to step up and have more options available for people,” she said. “My main passion now is I would like to help develop some small scale farms in our valley and get local quality produce to people.”
“This valley is not ‘food secure,'” added Kangas, “meaning that just after a few days of no travel east or west, the valley has no stores of foods. We’ve all experienced what happens in the grocery stores after rock slides and avalanches have blocked I-70.”
Kangas said he has grown most of his own produce for the past decade.
“I started when there wasn’t such a thing as locally grown produce,” he said. “There has been a complete turn around and I actually have people giving me fruits and vegetables. I still try to buy Western Slope before buying produce from the Front Range.”
There are still three sessions left in the series – Permaculture on May 12, Soils and Organic Soil Management on May 20, and Weeds and Pests on May 27. Additionally, Potts plans more sessions over the summer months to cover issues such as composting, vermiculture (worm composting), harvesting and storage, seed saving and more. Look for information at http://www.eaglecounty.us/csu.
“It’s really been a great thing,” said Schreiber. “We are getting together to creating a whole gardening community.”