This is part one of a two-part series featuring locally grown foods. The commercial growers and sellers are covered in this story, and the Farmers Market, home gardens and the movement to create a community garden in Ridgway will be highlighted in the Sept. 11 issue.
OURAY COUNTY, Sept. 4, 7:25 a.m. – With the Western Slope harvest season upon us, locally grown food is turning up all over Ouray County. Growers, sellers and consumers are working hard to get more local foods on the dinner table.
Reasons to buy local foods abound. Melissa Johnson, owner of Season’s Harvest Natural Food Grocery in Ridgway, and a former commercial grower, cites the health values of fresher foods as one of the reasons she buys locally.
“I want my customers to have the healthiest and the best that they can get. Local foods get here sooner, sometimes the same day that they are picked,” she says. “I know that’s not the case with stuff grown in California.”
Season’s Harvest offers a variety of foods grown locally and regionally.
Jane Pulliam, from Drake’s Restaurant in Ridgway, echoes Johnson: “Locally grown foods are just fresher, they last longer and they’re better tasting.” Drake’s gets all its lettuce, as well as spinach when available, from a grower near Delta. The restaurant also gets many of its fresh herbs from Shining Mountain Herbs, based just outside of Ridgway.
Growers and consumers both cite fears about the weakening of federal organic-foods regulations, the environmental impacts of corporate-style agriculture and the decreasing diversity among food crops, as reasons to grow and buy food locally.
“It can get you excited about food to have some variety,” says Karen Byler of Straw Hat Farm in Montrose.
With only an acre in production, Straw Hat grows 15 varieties of garlic and eight varieties of potatoes, from blue to red to yellow to purple. They also grow tomatoes, squash, green beans, and eggs, selling their products to Season’s Harvest and at the Montrose Farmers Market.
Closer to home, Sheila Finch-Manzagol owns and operates Shining Mountain Herbs on County Road 23 just outside Ridgway. Originally founded to grow medicinal herbs that are rare or in danger of being over-harvested in the wild, Finch-Manzagol has expanded her operation to growing numerous food crops, from greens and root crops to beans and peas. “We try to grow enough to feed ourselves, to sell some and to share,” says Finch-Manzagol, who donates part of her harvest to the Ridgway secondary school’s whole-foods lunch program.
With a hothouse full of tomato vines, Finch-Manzagol points out a green tomato with dark green stripes on it. “That’s a Zapotec tomato; it will stay green even when it’s ripe.”
Heirloom varieties like the Zapotec add diversity in color, flavor and nutrition. The product of generations of selective breeding, heirloom varieties are often suited to a particular climate type – the colorful varieties of corn, for example, grown by Native Americans in the desert for centuries. Growing heirloom varieties suited to a high altitude and dry climate is one way to grow food successfully in what many consider a challenging environment.
On the other hand, Finch-Manzagol says that there could be more local growers, despite the widespread sentiment that local soils are too poor to support good crops. “I had a guy come down to test my soils, and he said he almost cried when he saw it because the soil was so beautiful,” she says. “He said he’s never seen soil that color in Colorado.”
In addition to the above-mentioned outlets, other stores and restaurants in Ouray County sell locally grown foods or serve dishes made with locally raised meat or produce, when available. Duckett’s Market, the Silver Nugget and Billy Goat Gruff’s Biergarten in Ouray and the Mountain Market, Garden Goddess Creations and Ashé in Ridgway are just some of the businesses where local foods are available on either a regular or occasional basis.
Ridgway’s Siam Restaurant serves locally raised elk and beef. “It’s only natural that we do that in a ranching community,” says Jeff Badger, Siam’s owner. However, the availability, or lack thereof, of both products and time have prevented him from serving local produce consistently.
“I’d love to support anything local,” he says, “but I don’t have time to go to the farmers market every week and track down the products we need in the large quantities that we need them. I’d love to be approached by a local year-round producer who could provide us with a reasonably priced product on a regular basis.”