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Know Farmers, Know Food

Margaret Hedderman | Summer/Fall 19

Durango Farmers Market

It’s Saturday morning in Durango. The sun has crested over Raider Ridge, illuminating the old brick buildings of Downtown. The sound of guitars and fiddles drifts toward Main Ave. like the smell of fresh bread from the oven. Locals and tourists alike follow the music to the Farmer’s Market where brightly colored tents glow in the morning rays. Pops of tomato red, zucchini green, eggplant purple, and corn yellow greet the eye. This is the essence of Durango’s vibrant and growing local food scene. 


With thirty agricultural vendors in addition to numerous local artisans and food dealers, the Durango Farmer’s Market is the community’s primary hub for fresh, local food. 


“We’re a grower’s market,” says market manager Melanie McKinney-Gonzales. “The vendors are the farmers and ranchers who are in the fields raising those livestock and planting and harvesting the crops.” 


The Durango Farmer’s Market only features farmers and ranchers from the area’s surrounding five-county region. It ensures consumers find truly regional meat and produce, as well as get to know the people who grow their food. Despite the short growing season and often challenging weather events – think wildfires, dust storms, and blizzards – there is a strong local food community in the Durango area. 


“We came to farming because we really wanted to find a career that we enjoyed and provided the life and lifestyle that we wanted,” says Hana Fullmer of Tierra Vida Farm. 


Tierra Vida Farm is situated on two acres beside the Florida River between Durango and Bayfield. Ms. Fullmer and her husband Daniel Fullmer specialize in developing and improving soil health as a method of producing nutrient rich vegetables.


 “Nutritionally dense food isn’t available in the same way it used to be,” Mr. Fullmer says.


“In the health sphere, we talk about how people are overfed but undernourished,” adds Ms. Fullmer. “We’re getting the calories, but not the micronutrients.”


The Fullmers practice something known as regenerative agriculture, which aims to improve soil fertility by increasing biodiversity and cycling carbon back into the land. 


“Rather than being a carbon producer, we remove carbon and put it back into the soil,” Mr. Fullmer explains. “It’s really become a high leverage point for us in affecting climate change.”


The process not only improves the quality of the land, but also produces healthier food. The Fullmers have seen a direct correlation between soil health, the quality of their produce, and anecdotal evidence from customers who say they feel healthier. While Tierra Vida Farm doesn’t display at the farmer’s market, they do have a popular CSA program that allows them to interact directly with their customers. 


This type of thoughtful and intentional farming is prevalent among Durango growers. North of town at the James Ranch, Jennifer Wheeling and her husband Joe manage the family business’s beef production. The James Ranch has been raising grass-fed and finished beef in the Animas Valley since the early 1990s. Ms. Wheeling’s father Dave James cultivated the natural grasses on their land, building a rich mixture of orchard grass, fescue, and clover. They began rotating the herds to minimize the impact upon the land and provide their cattle with a constant supply of fresh grass. The process results in their juicy, richly marbled steaks. 


“From a traditional, beef standpoint, most animals are raised up and processed between fifteen and eighteen-months-old,” Ms. Wheeling says. “At a year, they’ll go to a feedlot and be pumped full of grain and steroids.” 


Because James Ranch cattle are raised entirely on grass and processed locally, they don’t receive hormone or antibiotic treatment. They also live longer.


“In order to get fat onto their muscles, we have to hold our animals up to twenty-six months,” Ms. Wheeling says. “It’s a total shift of mindset [from traditional beef], but that’s just how our program works.” 


James Ranch also produces a variety of artisan dairy products, pork and vegetables; which is available at both the Durango Farmer’s Market and at their on-site market. 


As the demand for local food increases, Durango restaurants are taking heed. Eolus Bar & Grill, Living Tree, and El Moro among several others source local, seasonal food for certain menu items. During the summer months, the Garden Terrace Cafe at Mercy Regional Health Center sources salad greens from Tierra Vida Farm. If you’re eating out in Durango, it’s likely you’ll find something local on the menu.  


The greatest challenges inherent to raising livestock and growing produce in Southwest Colorado aren’t always the most obvious. Yes, the Western Slope’s rugged climate offers challenges, but many growers say their biggest obstacles are more systemic – from the cost of land to a lack of distribution.


“The constraint for most farmers is not their land or production, but the ability to sell based on consumer demand,” Mr. Fullmer says.


Despite the success of the farmer’s market, it can still be difficult to find local foods on a regular basis – especially for residents outside of town. 


“We’re looking to establish additional end-markets for our ag folks,” says Rachel Landis, director of The Good Food Collective.


The new non-profit is developing a viable “seconds” market for bruised or damaged produce, as well as organizing a system of volunteers to provide better distribution of regional foods, particularly among under-served communities. 


“It’s great that lots of us have access to healthy foods,” says Landis. “But there’s a sizable chunk of the population doesn’t have access to sufficient nutrients.” 


Last year The Good Food Collective organized a regional food gleaning project to collect unused fruits and vegetables from farms, neighborhood gardens, and even backyard fruit trees. The group amassed over 10,000 lb. of otherwise unwanted produce and donated much of it to local food banks. 


“Eating healthy food shouldn’t be a privilege, it should be a right,” Landis adds. 


In the thirty years since they began promoting grass-fed beef, Ms. Wheeling of James Ranch says that she’s seen a dramatic shift in the demand for local food. Nationwide, local food sales are up and Durango is certainly making the most of that trend. However, as many proponents believe, that to establish a strong local food system in Durango, it will take the entire village. Are we up for the challenge? 


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