In 1991, when Lee Bradley started farming near Paonia in Colorado’s North Fork Valley, he was hired to manage a fruit farm owned by coal mining company, Cyprus Coal Corp. The bosses of the mine gave him a ridiculously difficult goal: To make money.
Bradley decided to focus on marketing. “We shined the apples and sold them wherever we could,” he says. With the pressure on him and his wife Kathy, they also opened a farm stand inside their rented barn near a highway.
“In the beginning, we only sold what we produced. But people had money, so we rushed out, collecting local produce from everywhere to have more to buy.
A few years later, in 1996, Homestead Meats, a local natural beef co-op (without additives), was born, with just five families involved. Plant manager Gary Peebles remembers everyone agreeing to “keep it small and try the idea”. Now six families strong, he says, “No one thought we would have 40 employees or a packinghouse. Not quite grass-fed, the beef is finished with grain, “providing consistency and marbling,” says Peebles.
Consumers have onboarded as many people are increasingly concerned about how the beef they buy is produced.
Now, reports Peebles, Homestead Meats has just purchased Callaway Packing, which is doubling its production to 80 locally processed animals each week and sold throughout western Colorado. Even better, they are no longer tied to the commodity market, where 85% of beef is processed by four companies.
Stories like this apparently make Delta County a model, attracting young farmers and ranchers. Thirty percent of Delta County farmers were considered “new and beginning” farmers in the 2017 USDA Farm Survey, and most are pursuing natural but not strict “USDA organic” practices.
When the documentary, The Real Dirt on Farmer John, screened at the Telluride Film Festival in 2005, few Coloradans had heard of community-sponsored agriculture, which asks dedicated consumers to prepay farmers for weekly food boxes.
Fast forward 17 years, and hundreds of CSAs, as they are called, serve cities and rural areas of Colorado, reports Farmshares.info, including several CSAs in the North Fork Valley.
The widespread availability of natural products and meat has not always been a given. For decades, most produce grown in the North Fork Valley was shipped to cities. Today, it’s resort towns like Aspen and Crested Butte that see North Fork Valley food and wine at their farmers’ markets or CSAs.
Bradley recalls a meeting 20 years ago of the new Valley Organic Growers Association (VOGA), where he gave advice that gave future juice maven Jeff Schwarz a burning idea.
“Clean up your farm, get a cash register, and you can sell stuff to the public on the spot,” Bradley recalls telling Schwarz, whose Big B’s Juices now processes 7.5 million pounds of apples a year for juice and cider, much of which he sells directly. to the public in its open-air restaurant. Schwartz picks up every apple available locally and imports the rest from Washington.
Today, what Schwarz and Bradley have in common is that their thriving businesses sell a wide variety of diverse food, wine, and craft products. Exploring either location can turn into a day-long event.
“I think it’s all about knowing your farmer,” says Bradley. “People walk around the farm. They see how you operate and pick things out themselves, which earns trust. It’s not certified organic, saying the cost is too high and hands-tying when pests invade.
And the best part? Young people who want to become farmers see local opportunities. “A business called The Painted Vineyard is starting up near my house,” says Bradley. It will have a tasting room, a B&B and a camping area, and Bradley thinks his customers will be his too.
Meanwhile, nearing retirement at 70 but still a farmer, thanks to his son Ryan, Bradley continues to help newcomers to the valley. One example is Storm Cellars Winery, a pair of Denver sommeliers run by Jayme Henderson and Steve Seese. They came to the valley knowing wine, but not much planting vines, fixing equipment, or making wine from scratch.
“We kept going back to Bradley,” Henderson says, “and he kept helping us.”
Dave Marston is the editor of Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to lively discussions about the West.