My first experience with the North Fork Valley took place over 15 years ago when my midwife brought me around to some of the farms in her community surrounding Hotchkiss and Paonia where it seemed everybody was growing something.
In the late summer, with my baby in a sling, I climbed around in orchards harvesting pears to be dried for my upcoming winter adventures in the mountains. I found plums growing wild by the side of the road and the next spring I gathered wild asparagus shooting up along freshly running irrigation ditches. For my various post partum needs, I found a variety of local herbalists concocting homemade tinctures and salves with plants from their gardens. I was so impressed with the abundance of that valley and the clean green living of its inhabitants that I have continued to return there ever since. In fact today I make the North Fork Valley part of my regular foraging and shopping adventures.
It always surprises me how few of my friends and acquaintances in the San Juan Mountains have taken time out of their busy lives to explore this nearby agricultural hub of Colorado.
Highway 92 leading east from Delta crosses through relatively barren and dry terrain where several irrigated roadside farms produce crops such as onions and pumpkins. Passing through Delta flats where the wind whips up dust storms along the banks of the well-hidden Gunnison River the traveler finds prairie dogs to be some of the only signs of life. Then with little warning the highway ascends toward Hotchkiss and into the lush North Fork Valley, laden with organic farms, stunning commercial flower gardens and a variety of trees that bear fruit for almost six months a year. Surrounding this valley that glistens with abundance is the Grand Mesa National Forest and the Gunnison National Forest, including the Black Canyon National Monument and 11,395-foot Landborn Peak, which serves as a gateway to the Gunnison National Forest. The majestic peak looms over Paonia, where the elevation is a mere 5,645 feet above sea level, adding to the diversity of an already pristine location.
In 1992 a group of growers formed the Valley Organic Growers Association with a mission to promote the benefits of holistic, local agriculture, land stewardship and soil sustainability.
Today over 50 local agriculturists have joined VOGA. While the primary goals of the organization involve educating the growers and the public about the benefits of sustainable agriculture, VOGA also has become a resource center for growers and buyers of local organic foods. One of the most difficult struggles in building a local market is that most people are too busy to do the networking necessary to find their local food sources, so they end up at the grocery store. Each year VOGA puts out a market directory available in various locations throughout the valley as well as online. The directory provides the names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses and websites of all VOGA members, including a description of the food they grow. For the visitor to the North Fork Valley the directory is a gem of a resource. For example, after wading through the list of farms I've come up with a list of items to purchase during my next visit: A case of hard cider; several braids of heirloom garlic (great holiday gifts); a box of carrots for juicing; a barrel of compost and some fish fertilizer for my greenhouse; plenty of goat cheese; a case of apples; a half a grass-fed lamb; perhaps a case of organic wine (more holiday gifts); and, of course, a pumpkin.
Now one might start to wonder why I would travel over 100 miles to buy my groceries. Compared to local grocery store prices buying direct from a local grower is far more economical and personally more rewarding. If you have a weekend to spare during this off-season I would recommend visiting the North Fork Valley for a few days so you can take your time checking out the local farms and perhaps an apple orchard or pumpkin patch. This is also a great opportunity to expose mountain-raised children to the wonders of farm life. The VOGA directory even includes several bed and breakfast farms and vineyards that offer not only a warm bed, but a taste of what is growing in the valley.
A NORTH FORK VALLEY ADVENTURE
If one happens to be passing through the Hotchkiss-Paonia area, a great alternate route when traveling to Colorado's Front Range by the way, here are a few suggestions for sampling what the North Fork Valley has to offer.
Round Earth Farm has been selling fresh produce to the Telluride community at its weekly farm stand for the past four years. Adam Silverstein and Valerie Stone have been farming in the North Fork and surrounding region for 13 years. To find their 70-acre farm (about eight acres are cultivated with vegetables), turn left on 4th Street in Hotchkiss. About a mile up 4th Street, take your second left onto Powell Mesa Road, then drive another mile straight to the farm. During the summer season Round Earth offers a discounted, pick-your-own produce option. Crops such as beans, peas and basil are plentiful and fun to harvest. Come fall, potatoes, squash, onions, carrots, and garlic can be harvested. According to Silverstein, the inexperienced or experienced gardener is always welcome on the farm to trade labor such as weeding for produce.
"It's something that someone with very little training can do to get a feel for what it takes out here to grow food and go away with something for themselves," explained Silverstein of the farm's barter program. If you plan to visit the farm, he advises calling ahead, as he and his crew are often busy in the fields.
Silverstein was a founding member of VOGA. He said the organization is key to connecting growers in the valley and allowing a variety of produce to be sold at different markets. When Round Earth sells produce in Telluride, for example, they always bring fruit and goods from other farms to sell.
"We like to be able to provide the widest variety possible for our consumers and VOGA has really helped us to do that," he explained.
After checking out Round Earth and loading up on garlic and potatoes, continue back on Highway 92 into Hotchkiss, where the road becomes 133, and head toward Paonia. Past Paonia on the left is Black Bridge Road, turn there and take a left at the bottom of the hill before the historic bridge that crosses the Gunnison River. There you will find Orchard Valley Market and Black Bridge Winery. Orchard Valley Farm has been operating since 1997 and has supplied grapes to some of Colorado's finest wineries. Visit the gardens, orchards, a unique market filled with specialty items, and a tasting room serving a variety of locally grown wines. Visitors may also pick their own produce and fruit. Be sure to check out the farm's underground wine cave currently under construction. Lined with steel salvaged from a local mining operation, the cave will be used for barrel storage, aging and tasting events. The farm's market is a culinary experience in itself and a great place to gift shop for specialty items such as ciders, butters, chutney, jams, vinegar, and more.
Next, continue further up Black Bridge Road until you reach Landborn Valley Farm and the Old River Trading Post, a place that many consider to be the heart of the North Fork Valley community. The trading post is housed inside of an old fruit-packing depot on the train tracks. In this remodeled historic structure one will experience the very important and spiritual role that food has in nourishing a community. The trading post includes a restaurant, bakery, health food store, and a thrift shop. It is owned and operated by a small intentional community whose vision is to connect health and the environment in the fertile North Fork Valley. According to Chris Bailey who has been living and working at Landborn Valley Community for the past four years, the Old River Trading Post is far more than a commercial venture to sell food. In fact the community considers its 136-acre farm a place where people can gather to share knowledge and experience around sustainable living and healthy food.
"All different bends end up here," said Bailey, adding that community events and classes take place there, such as solar and wind power workshops and cooking classes. An alternative school is also located on the property. Be sure to save time to enjoy the community's buffet-style meal, which offers vegetarian fare unlike any I have ever found in Colorado. Soup and several hot entrées are served beside a mind-boggling salad bar of locally grown produce. Homemade kamut bread prepared by Bailey is a valley-wide favorite and is available for purchase at the trading post. The store itself contains a wide variety of foods for different health styles including macrobiotic products unavailable anywhere else on the Western Slope, and delicious raw food spreads. The bulk food prices are also quite competitive.
On your way out, with a satisfied belly and bag full of goodies, be sure to pick up several copies of the Valley Organic Growers Association Market Directory to share with friends and to help map out a course for your next visit to the valley. The directory is also available on the web at www.vogaco.org.