With challenges of mountain gardening, ‘Locavore’ movement makes gains in Summit County
Chris Brower has driven about 180 miles each direction several times a week for more than a dozen summers, all for the sake of Summit County’s stomachs.
The Wildernest resident and his wife Suzanne own and operate farm stand locations in Frisco and Silverthorne named for his uncle — the first person to teach him about sustainable ranching practices and the value of eating locally produced fruits and vegetables. The couple of two decades now makes it their seasonal calling, spending countless hours traversing the Western Slope to offer the same to their community.
“It can make for a long day,” said Brower, who estimates he and his wife each work an average of 60 hours per week during the summer. “We took one day off a week ago Sunday. It’s definitely a hustle, but it’s something we both believe in and we like good food.”
Now into their 13th year as partners in the business, they’ve seen an uptick in interest in the products they deliver almost daily from the area surrounding Palisade between June to late-October in alignment with the spreading of the so-called ‘locavore’ and farm-to-table food movements. When, say, a regionally grown apple, asparagus or peach can be trucked in from 100-400 miles away, benefits exist for the producer, as well as the consumer in the form of fresh food.
“They want to know where their food comes from and what goes on it, and how it’s processed,” said Brower. “There’s definitely a resurgence in that I think because so many people are disconnected from that sort of thing. It’s a lot more socially conscious, and they’re looking out for the earth they live in.”
In Colorado’s mountain communities, the development of a more locally sourced system is affected by the challenges of maintaining a garden and yielding crops in the arid, alpine climate. With an especially short growing season, a mix of heightened ultraviolet radiation and the occasional overnight frost, on top of the need for a greenhouse to find much success with tomatoes and peppers, larger numbers of people are coming to rely on buying from stands, farmers markets or other grocery store alternatives to avoid warehoused, sometimes irradiated and waxed versions of the foods they crave.
“The majority of food today has a process that’s highly mechanized and dependent on fossil fuels,” explained Jessica Burley, programs manager for the High Country Conservation Center. “Local food is important because it eliminates that in food production and is much less intensive when it comes to organic versus synthetic methods. And in our case, it’s as local as it gets — it’s your backyard.”
The area nonprofit with an environmental focus oversees a network of community gardens throughout the county as a way to aid Summit County efforts of participating in an abridged food chain. Two donated spaces in Frisco function as the harvest sites for a community supported agriculture, or CSA, model, and other locations in Dillon Valley, Silverthorne and Colorado Mountain College in Breckenridge provide individual leased gardens or volunteer-based space to get in on the yield.
The CSA — where a member pays to take part in the program and receives a variety of produce as it reaches maturation each distribution — has expanded threefold in the last few years, and currently operates on an annual waitlist. The farmer matches the member’s $300 buy-in to organic fruits and vegetables at local markets and neighborhood grocery stores to ensure they collect full value on their investment. Sometimes they even get a little extra, and any excess lands with a local food bank or county-run programs to feed food-insecure families.
While these alternatives to getting everything at the nearest City Market or specialty grocer are growing in popularity, that doesn’t mean the economics are always there to support them. In the first couple years of their summer business, the Browers said they actually lost money in the pursuit of their passion.
The price of a pound of organic tomatoes some 15 years ago, for example, averaged around $2.50 at the predecessor of Uncle John’s Farm Stand, whereas today it has increased to just $3 despite fuel costs to transport product, wages for labor and pretty much everything else continuing to rise.
Still, farm stands and other farm-to-table models have to remain at or close to the grocery chain costs or risk losing their customer base.
“It’s getting tighter,” said Chris Brower. “We try to be in line with them even though we operate on not very big margins and the grocery stores are huge. In order to compete, that’s just what we have to do. So yeah, there’s a lot of educated guesswork that’s involved.
“Sources of origin seem to be a big deal though,” he added, “and I see grocery store signage for peaches from California, tomatoes from Mexico and a lot of Central American fruit. We’re pretty small time, but our prices are pretty in line with most farm stands in Palisade and the Grand Junction area, too. We’ve noticed that’s what we have to do for (people) to come by, and that’s why we work in the winter — because we don’t make a killing in the summer.”
This story originally published Sept. 10, 2017.
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