[October 2019 | San Juan Silver Stage]
Ranching and farming are intricately woven in the historical fabric of the Western Slope. This is especially true in the lush valleys of the North Fork Valley, so named because of the “north fork” of the Gunnison River, which flows through the valley.
According to the Valley Organic Growers Association (VOGA), the North Fork Valley is the largest concentrated hub for organically certified agriculture in Colorado. It is fast becoming renowned for its wide variety of organic products and its focus on sustainable and responsible agriculture. A unique array of orchards, vineyards, and farms offer up a rich cornucopia of fruits, vegetables, flowers, herbs, hops, and meats to the public.
After the Ute Indian Reservation was closed in 1880, pioneer families ventured into the area along the river and at the base of the West Elk Mountains. They were seeking the opportunity to create a new life and left behind a legacy for future generations in the process. Early on, they recognized the diverse potential of the land, and while some chose animal husbandry, others went to work planting orchards and plowing fields.
Newer isn’t necessarily better
For the first half of the twentieth century, farming and ranching remained the same. Then the demand came for more—for meatier livestock, bigger harvests. Conventional agriculture became all about high-yield crops and concentrated feed lots. Antibiotics, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers were introduced as the latest and greatest thing for American agriculture. Across the country, the small operations that had been passed down from generation to generation were forced to adhere to the new norms if they wanted to receive government subsidies and survive being taken over by mega-farms and commercial animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Ranchers and farmers were pressured into following the trend or risk putting their livelihoods in jeopardy.
New chemically-enhanced foods flooded our supermarkets and America was touted as the best food producer in the world. This modern, state-of-the-art, commercial endeavor also brought with it a host of problems that sent agricultural scientists and consumer gurus back to the drawing board. Not only was conventional agriculture taking a toll on the environment, but agencies like the US Department of Health and CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) were finding an alarming rise in costs to the public health. Soil, air, and water contamination from the pesticide and fertilizer pollution was making Americans sick and more susceptible to disease.
Combining the old and new
Today, a new generation of ranchers and farmers are looking back to the old ways of farming and ranching, and they are combining what worked then with new knowledge and methods. They have accepted the challenge of finding a balance between quality and quantity free of synthetic inputs.
Today, in the coffee shops and on Paonia’s street corners, you’ll find hipsters and old-timers using hot touch words like organically produced, biointensive agriculture, diverse ecosystem, biodynamics, agroforestry, and permaculture design. These dedicated entrepreneurs are striving to bring back an old way of life—one that is prosperous, viable, earth and people-friendly, and by all accounts, they are succeeding!
Paonia—creative community center
The friendly laid-back, town of Paonia has long been an agricultural hub for the region. The town, incorporated in 1902, got its name when one of the first European settlers, Samuel Wade, planted peony roots in the fertile valley soil and suggested the Latin name Paeonia.
A communal center then and now, this pretty little town has plenty to offer. Nestled along the banks of the North Fork of the Gunnison River, not only will you find a bounty of the region’s organic agriculturists, you’ll find that Paonia is also home to some artistically creative people. (See the article about the Blue Sage Center for the Arts, page B-10.)
Fall means harvest time, so pack your baskets and bags and head east on highway 133 to Paonia, and it’s equally creative neighbor, Hotchkiss. Plan to spend time roaming the artisans’ shops, doing some wine or beer tasting, sampling the culinary delights, stocking up on products from local stands, or taking in a workshop or concert. Take a day or a weekend to discover these hidden gems. The North Fork Valley is a great place to be when it comes to creativity, natural and home-grown creativity.