The snowy winters of a century ago did not prevent enterprising people from growing vegetables year-round, even right in Ouray. A truck farm at Portland (a town that once existed between Ouray and Ridgway) grew strawberries of legendary quality. Locally grown wheat was processed at a flour mill in Ridgway, while a creamery there turned locally produced milk into butter.
The organizers of this Saturday’s Agricultural Symposium at the 4-H Event Center in Ridgway believe that agriculture can and should flourish here once more.
“We just need to learn how to do it a little bit better and a little bit different to meet the changing requirements of today’s world,” said local author and ag-tivist Jane Bennett, a member of the Ouray County Agricultural Committee, which is hosting the symposium.
On some levels, the emerging new-agriculture scene in Ouray County, with its high-tech, high-yield greenhouses and aquaculture schemes, might look very different than the truck farms, cattle ranches and wheat fields of its past. But the underlying premise of small, diversified agriculture that existed a century ago is still the most viable model for a self-sufficient future, Bennett says.
Bennett has lived in Ouray County long enough to remember the discussions about economic diversification that took place here two decades ago.
“People were very discouraging about the viability of agriculture in the county at that time,” she said. “But I never would accept that.”
Bennett had come here from the north valley of Albuquerque, with its big, lush ranches – a place that was steeped in a history of traditional agriculture.
“I watched as development chewed up agricultural land and the ditches got shut down,” she recalls. “Once the land and the ditches are gone, you can’t bring them back.”
Bennett maintains that there is still hope for an agricultural renaissance in Ouray County – largely because of its intact network of ditches.
“We’ve still got the water, the ditch system, the open land,” she said. “We are so much better off than many other areas. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Twenty years ago, when Bennett talked about such things, people looked at her like she had two heads, she said. But last year, as a new round of discussions about economic diversification took place under the auspices of Gov. Hickenlooper’s Bottom-Up Initiative, Bennett noticed a new interest in the topic.
“Heads started bobbing up and down,” she said. “It was so encouraging.”
Although an Economic Development Council did not ultimately develop in Ouray County out of the Bottom-Up Initiative, some of the subcommittees that formed through the process had enough momentum to carry on. This included a committee devoted to the theme of agricultural development in the county. The Ag Committee continues to meet on a regular basis.
“It has been the best committee experience ever,” Bennett said. “They have talent. They have initiative. We all walk out of there every time really energized. We’re not going to wait for the government or anyone else to give us permission. We’re just going to do it.
If the people lead, the government will follow.”
Last fall, the Ag Committee hosted its first big event, a farm tour of the county. The tour took in Buckhorn Gardens, the Ridgway Community Garden, Elk River Ranch, Shining Mountain Herbs and Muddy Boot Farm, which together form the vanguard of the county’s new agricultural economy.
Buckhorn Gardens, near Colona, demonstrates the agricultural productivity of a small space in a controlled environment by using aboveground greenhouses as well as walipinis – underground or pit greenhouses originally developed in the Andes of South America. The word ‟Walipini” comes from the Aymara Indian language and means ‟place of warmth.” The growing area is located in a slot or pit, six to eight feet underground that is capped with greenhouse glass to capture daytime solar radiation; the geothermal mass of the earthen walls keeps the temperatures inside stable.
Shining Mountain Herbs near Ridgway is another local agricultural success story, with its locally grown medicinal herbs that are made into popular tinctures and salves. Muddy Boot Farm in Pleasant Valley, meanwhile, demonstrates the viability of a small, diversified farming and livestock operation.
Bennett and her group see these kinds of enterprises, rather than monoculture farming and ranching, as the future of agriculture in Ouray County.
“There’s no reason we can’t fit that model,” she said. “Growing big field crops may not be in the cards for Ouray County anymore. In the short run, to produce the maximum benefit, we’re not looking at field crops, we’re looking at controlled environments.”
For example, Ouray Mayor Bob Risch is heading up an effort to build a community greenhouse near the Hot Springs Pool, using geothermal heat.
All this talk of controlled environments also has implications for the hundreds of miles of historic mining tunnels in the area. They provide a protected, controlled environment, and have plenty of water, Bennett points out.
The agriculture committee has asked local mine consultant Bob Larson to conduct a mine inventory and to help locate potential properties where an experimental mine garden could be set up.
Of course, lighting in such an underground environment would have to be artificially generated. But Bennett said it could be produced in a closed-loop system via geothermal and solar energy or biomass digesters.
Crops like mushrooms and sprouts could conceivably flourish. The mines might also provide opportunities for aquaculture (i.e. fish farms), she said.
It’s all in the dream phase right now, but by continuing to build momentum and public interest, such ideas may eventually take root.
“It is a myth that we can’t sustain ourselves,” Bennett said.
Kris Holstrom, the sustainability coordinator for The New Community Coalition in San Miguel County, is one of Bennett’s inspirations. On Hastings Mesa, at 9,000 feet, Holstrom grows produce on a commercial scale in her greenhouse and sells it to Telluride restaurants.
“If you can do it at 9,000 feet, why aren’t we doing it here?” Bennett asks. “We have such advantages because we still have open land, water and ditch systems; we don’t realize how wealthy we are.”
FREE AGRICULTURE SYMPOSIUM THIS WEEKEND
This weekend’s free Agriculture Symposium, titled "Regional Successes Past and Present” features speakers, presentations, discussions and vendors. It opens Friday, April 20 with a "Transition OurWay" presentation and visioning session from 7 - 9 p.m. Saturday’s schedule includes speakers, discussions and vendors from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Topics to be discussed are: regional food systems; regional success stories; greenhouses; permaculture; soil preparation; wildcrafting; keeping poultry and goats; food storage; and basic organic gardening.
Sponsors include Black Canyon Regional Land Trust, CSU Extension Service; New Community Coalition; Ouray Agricultural Committee; Ouray County Ranch History Museum; Transition OurWay; the Governor’s Energy Office and Muddy Boot Farm.