It begins like a storybook; I explored the Pleasant Valley, while residing on Leprechaun Lane, situated directly under what seemed to be daily sightings of double rainbows. I had the opportunity to stay with friends, on their budding new homestead in the little town of Howard, CO. Spending the entire first day soaking in their 360 degrees mountain views and other great features to their 2+ acres property. The place is pretty perfect - along with some of my favorite people around, this homestead has a dog, two cats, 8 chickens, 5 ducks, a tortoise, and so much space for activities.
On that first day, when I was just soaking in the perfectness, I watched as they planted their first three trees for an orchard. Just beyond their vegetable garden. We talked plans of how they would expand their homestead with goats, and greenhouses, and gravity irrigation. I’m thrilled that I was able to see this property in their first year, and excited to see it develop in the years to come. (...on this same day we scored a unicycle at a yard sale for $1.) It was an all around feel-good day.
Not far from my homestead suite, but on the other side of some foothills, Ring-a Ding Farm has been growing organic lettuce for several years. This farm grows beautiful fancy lettuce, selling mostly to large grocers and restaurant clients. Their operation is pretty impressive. Unfortunately, with an unusual amount of hailstorms this summer, the delicate greens have taken a beating.
I’m grateful to have been able to help harvest the last crop of arugula for the season. I stood on the conveyor belt special harvester with my friend to my left, as the owner/farmer, guided the bizarre piece of equipment through the field at dawn. Surrounded by mountains. The freshly cut arugula poured up the conveyor belt, where we quickly (but as gently as possible) scooped the leaves into large crates. I estimate we filled a crate every 30-45 seconds, or so. Within minutes of the harvest, my lack of coffee was no longer a problem… absolutely invigorating. The fragrance of fresh arugula helped too.
Before I knew it, we had harvested 3 long rows of this stuff, and the filled crates filled the bit farm truck. We unloaded more than two pallets full of this spicy stuff, before running all of it through the washing and packaging line. The farm grows over 10 acres of mixed salad greens, high tunnel tomatoes, and a large garden area for their employees to plant personal gardens. In the last year or so, Ring-a-Ding added a pond to feed their irrigation.
After dealing with a historic drought in Upstate New York last year, I got a taste of just how critical a farm’s water source is to it’s production success. Especially as weather gets more unpredictable, a farmer must be able to manage his or her water.
I experienced two dramatic hailstorms during my first week in Colorado. The first I drove through just as I crossed into Colorado from my long Kansas drive. I was certain that my windshield would shatter from the impact of the marble sized hail. It didn’t. And I live to tell the tale. The second hailstorm, I witnessed from the comfort of the homestead’s back porch. We all watched as the pea sized hail accumulated everywhere.
I had read a little about Colorado Farm to Table before I left for my road trip. I knew that I needed to see it before I left the area. They donate all of the food they grow to food banks, in every county south of Denver. The assistant farm manager was able to take an hour of his time to walk the farm with me and elaborate on some of the details of their non-profit organization. Funded by grants and private donations, and with a large group of dedicated volunteers for harvest, this place has a lot of heart. …and a lot of acorn squash. (They donated around 72,000 acorn squash last year. 72,000!)
The farmer, who started farming in Kansas when he was 14, took a job for Colorado Farm to Table, after seeing an advertisement in a mid-western farm publication. As I admired different mountain views from the valley location, the farmer noted that weather comes from all directions in this area of Colorado. Unlike in Kansas, it’s hard to tell when a storm is heading toward your crop. No one seems to look at weather predictions, because they are almost always wrong. A side of one foothill may be hit with flash flood conditions, while the other side is enjoying all sunshine and poufy clouds.
In addition to being a wonderful and generous organization, this farm devised an interesting way to manage water. They use an irrigation method that I had not seen before, using a series of little trenches and simple (but large) valves. Water can be directed to specific areas of the field, and it soaks the soil around the crops.
Although every morning began with chicken tending, not every day was farm focused. Being that I was in Awesomeville, (with my super crafty, plant-loving friend) we were sure to experiment with crafty skills, and nerd-out on succulent collections too.
My last full day was basically devoted to soap making. We experimented with processes that were new to both of us as soap makers. We made bison tallow (a process in it’s self) and then turned it into soap - scented with cedar wood and accented with walnut powder and cranberry seeds. After cooking purple carrots, we experimented with using the puree as a soap colorant. One process produced a surprisingly orange soap, the other style tinted the soap a lovely denim blue. The soaping collaboration brought great results and good lessons – so much so, I think it should be an annual affair.
Early in the week, we stopped in at a green house in Salida, with a nice little cacti display. The manager of the nursery noticed us cooing over her collection. Due to our enthusiasm, she told us of a specialty greenhouse in the next town over, Buena Vista. She said we would love it.
Between soap batches, I called the specialty greenhouse and arranged an appointment - interested to see what it was about. Although the greenhouse is not typically open to the public, as they predominately wholesale their plants, the owner allowed us to visit. I planned it to be my last stop in the region before heading north.
This succulent and cacti operation was breathtaking and spectacular. I immediately saw varieties that I had only previously seen on the Internet. And, there must have been hundreds of others that I had never seen before. I’m pretty sure that I was dancing in place, bursting with excitement, as we first began to look around. When the owner said that we could choose plants to buy, I nearly lost my mind.
This wholesale succulent and cacti greenhouse propagates rare plants, selling mostly to regional nurseries. They use two main greenhouses, which have been improved upon for over 30 years. Some of the “mother” plants are much taller than me. I could go on, for days, about this place, but words cannot possibly capture just how much it meant to me. A fitting finale to my five day stay in the Pleasant Valley region.
After the specialty succulent greenhouse visit, I started my drive north with a head full of homesteading concepts, principles of water and weather management for farms, a heightened admiration for nature, and memories of some really good times.