Locavore Movement

Greenhouse in Carbondale, Colorado

photo by Karen Connington

Originally Published in
Aspen Business Journal.
by  Karen Connington

Farm to Table. Slow Food. Community Supported Agriculture. However you call it, one thing is certain: the locavore food movement is thriving in Colorado’s Western Slope. As consumer demand for sustainable cuisine increases, regional farmers, distributors and retailers face both new obstacles and new opportunities.

In a special six-part series, Karen Connington explores the work, the appeal and the people behind our region’s newfound passion for locally-grown and locally-produced food.

CARBONDALE, Colo.—”Cock-a-doodle-do” is a primal sound. Many kids crow before they speak. My inspiration was a rooster named Peppino, a prized pet who resided at my grandparents’ home in rural New Jersey. As adults, my siblings and I learned that Peppino was in fact a series of birds successively bought, butchered and served at Sunday dinner. We were aghast.

But traditions run deep, and today I’m on the hunt for local roosters to roast. Meeting them in person is still a bit unnerving, but, like Peppino, the chickens at Sustainable Settings seem quite content.

Brook LeVan, the center’s executive director, ran down their prospects for me. Some birds enjoy a short, sweet life as future fryers and bakers; others stick around to lay eggs. And then there’s the matriarch, who lives the longest and, as it turns out, makes the perfect Coq Au Vin.

Rich details emerge in casual conversations at Sustainable Settings, a 90-acre non-profit agricultural center on the old Thompson Ranch Homestead south of Carbondale. LeVan runs daily operations with his wife, Rose, both co-founders who sit on the board along with five other trustees—all deeply entrenched in a range of entrepreneurial and philanthropic ventures.

LeVan is quick to note that the trustees are more humanists than environmentalists, focused on the way our species relates to the earth.

To that end, Sustainable Settings trains summer interns and the public at large in agriculture, green development and self-reliance. Their origins were in Woody Creek in the late nineties, where the LeVans were invited to join the Educational Learning Center (now COMPASS), to add an agricultural module to the progressive ventures happening under the wings of George Stranahan.

By then, permaculture wizard Jerome Osentowski had moved on, leaving an old raised bed that LeVan tilled and turned into his first patch of high-Alpine garden.

The dirt got under more than his skin.

“I was driving a dumper full of five-year-old steer manure while my son was sitting on the fender of a tractor. Winding across the fields, something in me said ‘this is the place,’” LeVan recalled. “I wrote six pages, put a budget together and presented it to the board before the end of the week.”

An angel (who to this day remains anonymous) funded the project and the LeVans selected the name. The word “sustainable” was not really a part of the public vernacular, much less our consciousness, but to their minds, it represented a wiser, more viable way to live on the planet.

In 2001, Sustainable Settings established itself as an independent 501C-3 nonprofit organization. In 2003, the center purchased Thompson Creek Ranch along the Crystal River, a parcel originally designated to accommodate four 15,000 square-foot homes on seven 35-acre lots. The tract is now divided between wild slopes of sage and juniper, and pasture lands, where cattle and mobile chicken-houses roam.

The farm operates through a parallel financial structure—the 501C-3 overseeing the land, all educational programs, water and buildings—while a corresponding LLC drives a for-profit venture to sell food. Meat, greens, eggs and vegetables are sold to CSA (Community Sustainable Agriculture) members and local chefs, and in their booth at Aspen’s Saturday Market.

The organization owns a total of 244 acres, 90 irrigated, and 10 that form a panhandle where residences, barns, coups, and an orchard sit between gardens and grazing lands. The stretch buzzes and stirs with people, animals, tractors and trucks—all in a surprisingly rhythmic flow against the undulating cliffs of the Crystal River Valley

Bucolic and serene, though, is a gift to the guest. LeVan sips raw milk in-between questions about how to layer compost in the fields, and scanning calls from a delivery truck due to dump sand. His mode is easy. And his mission is scrupulous.

“When we put this organization together it was about food and community. The food part is critical. We’re out of relationship with our own places. We don’t know who we are, and we’re sick. I want to put psychiatry out of business,” he said. “If people would relate to the soil and the production of their own food, and have more to do with creating their own homes and communities, they’d be healthier; they’d have a healthier core.”

The LeVans have worked with local chefs like Carbondale’s Mark Fisher, along with home-gardeners, and growers from the North Fork since the beginning. Before Harvest Festival, their annual fundraiser and gala farm dinner, local chefs wander the farm’s gardens, all clad in their classic whites, hand-picking prime ingredients for the evening’s menu. Bryce Orblom, Chef de Cuisine at SIX89, shot the pig this year for the event—the first time he’s slaughtered his own meat and the second time he’s ever held a gun.

Today, as a culture hungry for local food and natural living swiftly catches up to him, LeVan mobilizes leaders of international movements along with young men and women clearly ready for new paths.  A group of twenty-somethings arrives each year, all with personal goals that are ultimately subject to a wider agenda.

“Seventy percent of the time they do whatever needs to done. They learn to build soil, distribute and market food, and design energy-efficient buildings. If there is any spare time, they might build a solar food dryer or a human-powered bicycle that blends mojitos,” said LeVan.

The partnerships ultimately intersect in relationships LeVan calls “social assets.” This month, Fisher invited the entire crew to The Pullman, his Glenwood restaurant, for dinner, in trade for his pick of fresh veggies off the farm.

“His staff was proud to list us on their evening’s specials,” said LeVan. “You could see it. And my staff, who works hard, was thrilled to see someone use their work and apply their food to the offerings.”

After buckling under Pitkin County pressure to install costly improvements several years ago, LeVan is now helping local law-makers build codes and standards that encourage sustainability throughout the valley. The ultimate test of their truce is on the horizon, as LeVan prepares to re-apply for a county permit to build a raw-milk dairy he initially proposed three years ago.

“I brought the county officials a dairy, which they’d never seen before, because dairies during the forties and fifties were built before codes and zoning. They asked how it worked, so I explained,” LeVan said.

“The cows come off the pasture, walk up the ramp and inside to the dairy parlor; we wash their teats and hook them up, milk them, and then the milk goes over here where it’s bottled and refrigerated. The customers come in on the other side of the building to fill up their bottles, and in another section we make cheese.”

“They said ‘Whoa, the cows actually come into the building, where they’re going to leave their waste inside?’ I said, well, yes, they’re 1,500 pounds, so if that’s what they want to do, they’ll do it,” he added.

He proceeded to explain that the waste is integral to the system, where it’s washed down after every milking and funneled back out to pasture. No manure, he sites, no veggies.

While the county bucks up to take another look, LeVan is stomping the valley for monies to fund the new dairy, and extending his quest to the west coast, where he’ll join Slow Money pioneer Woody Tasch next month for the organization’s third annual conference in San Francisco.

LeVan has also been invited to lecture at the conference, about non-profit models of agricultural community. His theme will be barn-raising, a classic tradition for bonding a neighborhood, which he plans to use to erect the new dairy.  His target date: when the money arrives!

For more visit .sustainablesettings.org and slowmoney.org.

Share your thoughts and experiences as growers, chefs and dedicated locavores through our comments section (below) or by emailing karen@aspenbusinessjournal.com.

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