COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado — As farm stands open for the season around Southern Colorado, a new tool aims to strengthen the connection between consumers and the families who grow their food. The Palmer Land Conservancy has just released its comprehensive Local Food Guide.
"It came out of a real need, a disconnect between community members and where our food comes from," said Dillon O'Hare, Community Conservation Manager for the Palmer Land Conservancy.
The document is much more than just a directory of farms and ranches around the region. It also includes an article detailing the history of agriculture in each county.
"There is a seasonal guide to help you get an idea of which vegetables are in season right now, there are recipes in there, there are producer highlights that kind of dive into some of the specific family histories,” explained O'Hare.
Britt Colon, a fourth-generation farmer at Colon Orchards in Cañon City, has seen the disconnect first-hand. She teaches classes about farming to public school student every day in October.
"When I ask them, where does food come from, it's not from the grocery store," Colon said. "There's a farmer out there that grew this."
She invites the students to pick apples off the trees.
"A lot of adults have never picked an apple off of a tree," she said.
Colon sees farming as an endangered profession. It requires a heavy amount of labor often for very narrow margins.
“Farmers don’t take days off," she says.
Farmers and ranchers frequently risk deep financial losses because of natural disasters. A few years ago, the temperatures stayed unseasonably hot well into November. When a sudden cold front sent the thermostat plunging, the temperature swing devastated the orchard.
"We lost like 85 percent of our trees," she said. "So, ouch. Farming is definitely hard."
Colon had to get creative. The farm now operates a corn maze in the fall, offers customers hayrides, the chance to pick apples, and pumpkins.
"It regenerated the farm, Agritourism is a big thing," shes said.
Rancher Elin Parker Ganschow also sees her profession in similar terms to an endanger species. When she was growing up, cattle ranchers like her father could generally expect a return of about $0.70 for every dollar a consumer paid for beef at the store. Ranchers today expect closer to $0.25.
She explained that in the 1940's the government came up with the concept of parity to value livestock.
"Here’s a simple way to look at it, how many cattle does it take to pay for a new F-150 Ford pickup, for example," she said. "So, back then it took about three, now it takes probably 60.”
Ganshow reimagined the business concept for Music Meadows Ranch in the mid-1990s. Consumers can buy a whole cow, or split the cost with other shoppers, through her product label Sangres Best Beef. The meat comes packaged and frozen for long-term storage.
“We have a very niche business providing ranch to table beef," she explained. "So, we sell direct to consumer.”
Where commercial ranches will send cattle to feed lots before shipping them off for processing, Ganschow lets them grow nice and fat eating the 60 different grasses, forbs, and legumes that are native to this valley.
“Much like Dolly Parton’s song, I was country when country wasn’t cool, well, I was grass-fed before grass-fed was cool,” she jokes.
Her managed grazing program has been recognized by conservation groups because it not only sustains the land, but also improves it. The herd is concentrated on smaller pastures for shorter periods of time.
“It fertilizes in a more uniform way, the hoof action is important because it creates divots in the ground which helps keep the runoff from running off," she explains.
The cattle are also competing with each other for the tastier grasses. That competition adds more variety in their diets and prevents less desirable forage from becoming overgrown. Moving the herd more frequently also lets the remain grasses recover quicker.
“We all want there to be some kind of short cut to everything, that’s just our nature, and when it comes to food, every single short cut is going to result in some kind of cost,” Ganschow said.
Like the Colon family, she also found a creative use for the ranch to support her family and increase public awareness of food production.
Guests can book a week's vacation in the family's ranch home and get hands on lessons raising cattle.
“We’re actually in the Dude Rancher’s Association now," she said. "We’re probably the tiniest dude ranch of all.”
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