Staying ahead of the curve on sustainability
SILVERTHORNE – Sitting in a warm, sun-drenched corner of Alpine Earth Center’s passive-solar garden center, co-owner Jon Harrington jumps from one environmental topic to the next like an electron zipping through a photovoltaic array. Greenhouse gas emissions, manure composting, electric bikes, community gardens, water quality, forest health and retreating glaciers all find their way into the conversation – as they have for more than three decades of Harrington’s life.Harrington and his wife, Sherie Sobke, run Alpine Earth Center, which has expanded in recent years from a garden center and landscaping business to include a coffee shop, yoga studio, solar-energy installation business, workshop venue and community gathering place.Given Harrington’s depth and breadth of environmental interests, one might guess that he hails from someplace like Boulder or the Bay Area. But as it turns out, Harrington spent his early years in rural northern Indiana. And his roots in America’s agricultural heartland have a lot to do with his ongoing efforts at the leading edge of sustainability in Colorado’s High Country.Harrington’s childhood was split between an Illinois suburb and family farms in Indiana, where he rode in combines and tended to dairy cows. His mother’s family still owns the farm, where his relatives remain in the agriculture business.”What pushed us more toward organic practices in landscaping was that I’ve had five of my uncles and aunts die from cancer,” Harrington said. “My uncle Dave, who ran the farm, was extremely progressive in the Green Revolution – the first Green Revolution, with pesticides, chemical fertilizers and herbicides. He was the youngest in my family to die from cancer.”Alpine Gardens, as it used to be called, switched to organic fertilizers in the late ’90s, before it had gained widespread popularity. The move went against not only what he had seen on the farm but also what he had learned in school as a college student at Texas A&M in the urban forestry program.”At that time, in the 1970s, they were still promoting heavy chemical pesticide and fertilizer use. My education was, ‘Spray as much poison as you can,'” he said.After graduating, Harrington went to work for the City of San Antonio where he served as city forester and supervisor of the San Antonio River Walk – a public park, tourism destination and community gathering place along the San Antonio River. At one point during his tenure there, his supervisor ordered him to spray a volatile herbicide into the river to kill algae in advance of a fishing tournament. Harrington refused, but his supervisor ordered his crews to apply the chemical anyway. They did, and in the mid-day heat, the chemical wafted upwards out of the water and defoliated all the live oaks whose branches stretched over the river.”This was the start of my realization that some of these things are just not right. After that, the honeymoon was over.”Harrington moved to Summit County in 1981 after landing a contract with the U.S. Forest Service to spray trees during a mountain pine-beetle epidemic. Again, he wasn’t enthused about heavy pesticide use. That same year, he started Alpine Gardens.In 1995, he designed the current building – an A-frame with an insulated north-facing pitch and a south-facing wall made up almost entirely of windows.”We broke ground in January 1996 and opened the building that summer, essentially as an experiment. Our design was a somewhat revolutionary retail space. I knew we could put a solid roof on it if it didn’t work, but fortunately, we never had to do that. In fact, this building is hotter in the winter than in the summer, because of the way we built it.”Today, Harrington is moving from passive solar to active solar energy – using a photovoltaic system to run the pump on his waterfall, among other things. Since November, the system has eliminated 3.6 tons’ worth of carbon emissions.”I’ve toyed around with electricity, electronics and mechanical systems since I was a kid. I always had bikes and motorcycles. My dad told me, ‘If you want one, you’ve got to fix it. That’s stayed with me since then, and I’ve always repaired my own machinery.”Just last week, Harrington received his solar-installer certification from the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners – “the gold standard of solar installation,” he said.When he’s not installing solar systems, working on a xeriscape landscape design, conducting a renewable-energy workshop, hosting a sustainability show on Mountain Public Radio or cultivating seedlings for a community garden, Harrington is working on a side project with his brother to develop a low-cost machine that will help compost chicken manure, thereby keeping it from running into Texas waterways.And while Harrington’s energy for such initiatives is driven by his desire for a cooler climate, clean water and healthy gardens, he said it makes plenty of financial sense to diversify his business and establish himself as a resource on sustainability.”The landscape and nursery business is very seasonal at 9,000 feet. And competing with big boxes, you have to have a niche.”
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