North Fork's Natural Edge Region Tops State in Organic Farmers Per Capita
Colorado has 498 businesses under the heading of crops, livestock, process handling and wild crops certified as organic
In the chill, dark days of winter, Steve Ela prunes tree limbs on his 100-acre certified organic farm near Hotchkiss, on Colorado’s Western Slope. There, he grows Honeycrisp, Freyburg and 21 other varieties of apples, 14 varieties of peaches, five varieties of heirloom tomatoes, four varieties of plums and three varieties each of cherries and pears. Harvest here, in the North Fork of the Gunnison River Valley, lasts from June until almost Halloween.
Whether the fruit tastes good matters most to buyers, about 90 percent of whom live along the Front Range. “When we give you a peach, we want you to bend over, so the juice can run down your chin (not your shirt),” he says. Some customers also care that the fruit is locally grown, says Ela, a fourth-generation Colorado farmer, but it’s very important to many people that the fruit is certified organic.
Ela bought the farm in 1987, when organic was still considered fringe, even weird. He began transitioning blocks of peach and pear trees in 1994, earning organic certification for the farm in 2004. The North Fork Valley has 17 farms certified as organic. Colorado has larger organic farms and, around Boulder, more of them. But nowhere are there more organic farmers per capita than the North Fork Valley.
The North Fork Valley is something of a sister to California’s Napa Valley, except with more dramatic scenery. It’s a place of narrow, winding roads and fences made of piled-up rocks amid the three small towns: Hotchkiss, Paonia and Crawford. Mount Lamborn and the West Elk Range stand tall to the east. One coal mine still operates. You can buy grass-fed beef, cheese, fresh-cut flowers, fruit and grapes plus a cornucopia of vegetables, all certified organic. No place else in Colorado has such variety.
The climate is temperate, even by Colorado standards, but not uniform. Microclimates matter, and the microclimate of Rogers Mesa, the location of Ela Family Farms, is exceptional. Fruit needs heat but also nightly cool to produce sweet, flavorful flesh. “We’re kind of in that sweet spot where we can grow lots of things,” Ela says. “It’s not too hot but hot enough, and not too cold but cold enough.” Cold can be good because it limits pests.
Fruit growers like reliability. In recent years, the weather has been less so than usual. Warming springs have produced tree blossoms two weeks earlier than normal. Then came frost. Ela lost about half his harvest before he started in 2017. “It’s warmer overall, and there are more extremes. Fruit trees don’t like extremes,” he says.
The business model of Ela Family Farms values market diversity. About 40 percent of his produce goes to Whole Foods and other grocers, including Lucky’s Markets in Boulder, Longmont and Niwot, single stores, restaurants and farm stands. Community-supported agriculture programs, such as when people buy shares during spring and are assured of weekly deliveries through harvest, get another 10 percent. Ten percent goes to in-house processing, such as for pear jam. And 40 percent is sold at farmers’ markets along the northern Front Range, from Fort Collins to Denver, from July into November.
Ela drives a loaded 18-wheel truck on Friday evenings during three of those months to a warehouse in metro Denver. Early Saturday mornings, he and his son load trucks for distribution to the nine family markets and occasional special events. Ela himself goes to Fort Collins and on Sundays to the Old South Pearl Street Farmers Market in Denver.
Given the importance of these farmers’ markets to his income stream, Ela wants to be close at hand. “Some details require some finesse,” he says. He also values the human element. “I enjoy seeing my customers and getting that direct feedback.”
Colorado has 498 businesses under the heading of crops, livestock, process handling and wild crops certified as organic under the federal government’s National Organic Program. Operations can be found from Yuma to Cortez. The San Luis Valley has been a hot spot for new certifications, says the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Mitch Yergert. The cooler climate makes organic seed potatoes more valuable. And the valley’s high-quality alfalfa gets premium prices at organic dairies in New Mexico and Texas. Growers of organic millet, a dryland crop grown in Eastern Colorado, have also done well, as it is gluten-free. A handful of hemp growers have also become certified organic.
Tom Kay is among the newer organic-certified growers in the North Fork Valley. His 300-acre farm near Hotchkiss has grown pinto beans and alfalfa, but corn is his primary crop. He sends 8,000 to 10,000 bushels a year to Fairfield Farms, which has 150,000 chickens laying eggs. Kay says he’d like to deliver more corn, but he’s still learning the ropes as a farmer.
The former Colorado Springs real estate developer bought the property near Hothckiss in 1999 as a getaway, but it morphed into a passion. “You can’t leave a guy with land, water and a tractor and expect nothing to come of it,” he says.
Kay thinks organic makes business sense. If the yield is somewhat less, organic corn fetches three times as much money as conventionally grown corn. “Look at Amazon, the No. 2 retailer, buying Whole Foods,” he says.
Weeds are always a problem, and those who farm organically can use inputs, but not the very toxic kind, such as have fouled aquifers in farm-rich areas like Iowa. “It’s like they have petri dish farms,” Kay says.
Organic growers have some synthetic products available for control of pests but far fewer than conventional agriculture. Mechanical controls must be performed prior to use of the synthetic products. New capital-intensive technology, such as tractors with devices to recognize plants to be saved but remove others, is getting attention.
Soil health is a concern of all organic farmers. In his orchards, Ela mulches the pruned tree limbs and plants legume cover crops such as alfalfa between the rows of trees. Both create nutrient cycling within the soil, and the alfalfa provides nitrogen for the trees. He says Delicious apples and other fruits require a dynamic, active soil. “Soil quality, soil fertilization is really critical to how we farm,” he says. “It comes back to this idea of resilience.”
Kay, who once developed real estate for short-term profit, now focuses on developing his soil for long-term productivity. “Over 100 years, my ground will be more sustainable, more productive,” he says. He spends half his time gathering over-ripe peaches, cow manure, chicken feathers and whatever else he can find to amend his soil and improve its productivity. He’s growing 100 to 150 bushels of corn per acre but would like to get the right soil additives to yield 200 bushels. “I need to get that balance, get that recipe, so that I can do it year in, year out,” Kay says. “Then I can call myself a farmer.”
On a mesa above Paonia, Don Lareau can dive deep into talk of soil fertility. He and his wife, Daphne Yannakakis, have eight acres at their Zephyros Farm & Garden, named for the Greek god of the west wind and spring. Eighty percent of their production is in row after row of stunning flowers, in colors variously boisterous and demure. No strong chemicals were needed in any of this.
“We probably grow over 2,000 varieties of flowers, more than 100 types of dahlias alone,” Lareau says. They started by growing mostly organic tomatoes, eggplants and other vegetables but switched their emphasis to cut flowers. “There’s just a better profit margin in flowers, and also, we like it,” he says.
Most of their flowers are sold in bouquets at farmers’ markets in Aspen and Telluride for $20 to $40 each, a reflection of time invested in floral designs but also the affluence and size of those markets eager for organic products. It comes down to this: What does a person sniff when plunging their nose into a bouquet?
Lareau grew up in Colorado and studied biology in college, which led him to manage an organic mushroom farm. He helped write the standards for what constitutes organic in growing mushrooms.
Lareau insists that organic farming is not a passing fad but rather the future of agriculture. But he does argue for better understanding of the processes that create strong soil fertility.
“How many things are living in here?” he asks, referring to the soil on his farm. “It’s like we’re trying to go to Mars or the bottom of the ocean, yet we don’t even understand our soil that we have to rely upon to live.”
Organic farming appeals to him, he says, because it’s “about feeding the soil to feed the planet to feed ourselves.”