When Lee Bradley started farming near Paonia in Colorado’s North Fork Valley in 1991, he was hired to manage a fruit farm owned by the Cyprus Orchard Valley Coal Corp. coal company. belonged. Mining bosses gave him a ridiculously tough goal: make money.
Bradley decided to focus on marketing. “We cleaned and sold the apples wherever we could,” he said. Under pressure from him and his wife Kathy, they also opened a farm stand in their rented barn near a highway.
“In the beginning we only wanted to sell what we produced. But people had money, so we scrambled and got local produce from everywhere to have more for people to buy.”
A few years later, in 1996, Homestead Meats, a local all-natural (additive-free) beef cooperative, started with just five families involved. Plant manager Gary Peebles recalls that everyone agreed to “keep it small and try the idea”. Now it’s six families, he said: “No one would have thought we’d have 40 employees or a packing plant.” The beef, which isn’t entirely grass-fed, is enhanced with grain “to ensure consistency and marbling,” said Peebles.
More consumers got on board.
Now, Peebles reports, Homestead Meats just bought Callaway Packing, which is doubling its production to 80 local animals processed and sold weekly in western Colorado. Best of all, they’re no longer subject to the commodity market, where 85% of beef is processed by four corporations.
Stories like this apparently make Delta County a model that attracts young farmers and ranchers. Thirty percent of Delta County farmers were considered “new and beginning” farmers in the 2017 USDA Farm Survey, and most follow natural, but not strict, “USDA organic” practices.
When the documentary The Real Dirt on Farmer John was screened at the 2005 Telluride Film Festival, few Coloradans had heard of Community Sponsored Agriculture, which encourages committed consumers to prepay farmers for weekly boxes of groceries.
17 years later, and hundreds of CSAs, as they’re called, are serving cities and rural areas in Colorado, reports Farmshares.info, including several CSAs in the North Fork Valley.
Natural products and meat were not always widespread. For decades, most produce grown in the North Fork Valley was shipped to the cities. Today, it’s resort towns like Aspen and Crested Butte that see North Fork Valley food and wine at their farmers’ markets or in their CSAs.
Bradley recalls attending a meeting of the newly formed Valley Organic Growers Association (VOGA) 20 years ago, where he offered some advice that gave aspiring juice connoisseur Jeff Schwarz a hot idea.
“Clean up your farm, get a cash register and you can sell stuff to the public right there,” Bradley recalled telling Schwarz, whose Big B’s Juices now processes 7.5 million pounds of apples into juice and cider annually , much of which he sells direct to the public at his outdoor restaurant. Schwartz sources every available apple locally and imports the rest from Washington.
“I think it’s about knowing your farmer,” Bradley said. “People are wandering around the yard. They see how you work and choose things for themselves, which inspires confidence.” He’s not certified organic, says the cost is too high, and ties his hands when pests get in.
Meanwhile, nearly retired at 70 but still farming thanks to his son Ryan, Bradley continues to offer advice to newcomers to the valley. One example is The Storm Cellar, a winery and winery owned and operated by Jayme Henderson and Steve Steese, a Denver-based sommelier-trained couple. They came to the valley knowing a lot about wine, but not much about planting vines, fixing equipment, or making wine from scratch
“So we kept coming back to Bradley,” Henderson said, “and he kept helping us.”
Dave Marston is the editor of Writers on the Range, authorsontherange.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to lively discussion about the West.