In the not so distant past, there was a time when you couldn’t always get strawberries. You had to wait until strawberry season. In Colorado, that’s late May to early July. Most of us don’t remember a time like this. We are so accustomed to buying anything we want, any time we want, from any place we want—even if it is that tasteless, pale imposter of a strawberry—that we’ve lost our connection to the seasons.
A growing number of people are recognizing that just because modern agriculture affords us the luxury of eating winter strawberries, that doesn’t mean we should. According to the Climate Institute, global agriculture and food production emit more than 25 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gasses, which help keep the earth’s atmosphere warm and contribute to climate change.
The distance that food travels from farm to plate is part of that total food-related carbon footprint, at about 11 percent. Emissions from agricultural production make up the other 89 percent, including everything from pesticides to food storage to cutting down forests for cattle to graze. To eat your way to a healthier planet and a healthier you, choose food that is grown locally (within 100 miles) and in season. Buying local supports small-scale farmers, who often use more diversified and sustainable farming practices, and helps reduce those production-related emissions.
Eating fruits and vegetables in season, the way nature intended, ensures not only that the food hasn’t traveled far, but that it was also picked at the peak of ripeness. Many studies show that seasonal foods are more nutritious. One of the more famous came out of Montclair State University, comparing the vitamin C content of broccoli grown in season with the broccoli imported out of season. The latter contained half the vitamin C.
“Nature sets us up by providing the nutrients our body needs to thrive for the season we are living in,” says Holly Conn, executive director of Mountain Roots Food Project, the Gunnison Valley non-profit that helps the community eat locally through education, food production and access to local food and farmers. “It’s like we are eating food when it’s most alive, and when we do that, the vitamins and minerals in the food nourish our bodies in the biggest possible way.”
In addition, Conn points out that seasonal food can be less expensive.
“If you are in touch with when the bumper crop comes in, you can get it for much less. Farmers lower their prices, even at the grocery store,” Conn says, adding that there are hidden costs in cheap, industrial food, such as soil degradation, over-fishing and disease from genetically modified crops. For a global population facing climate change, she says the choice is clear: Pay for it now, or pay for it later in unwanted costs.
Fortunately, eating locally and with the seasons is getting easier in the Gunnison Valley. Here’s how to do it:
Sign up for a community supported agriculture box
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is one way to buy local food directly from a farmer. You purchase a “share” before the growing season, typically between December and April, that provides much-needed funds to a farmer prior to the growing season. You then receive a weekly box of vegetables, fruit or other farm products like eggs and meat, throughout the growing season, usually 16 to 20 weeks, at an average of $17 to $50 a week. CSAs vary, but one box usually feeds a family of four, or two veggie-lovers.
“Our members share the costs and risks of farming via their CSA subscription, and in turn they get the satisfaction of enjoying a weekly bounty of fresh, wholesome produce only hours from the field, and knowing where their food is coming from,” Lynn Borden says. She and her husband, Guy, own and operate Borden Farms, located on the Western Slope in Pea Green.
A member’s box grows with the season, making it a culinary adventure. Early-season shares are smaller and include the very first crops to be harvested, such as spring salad mix, beets, carrots, Swiss chard and kale. By mid-August, boxes are bigger and may include juicy peaches and homegrown tomatoes. Mid- and late-season shares usually include 12 to 15 items, and start to feature additional produce like beans, broccoli, eggplant, leeks, melons, okra, onions, potatoes and squash.
“You get to really see what is growing abundantly that year,” says local yoga teacher and CSA member Juliet Stillman. “I like not having to choose the veggies. It’s what’s in season that week.”
Mountain Roots offers a multi-farmer CSA that includes produce from a variety of Gunnison Valley farmers, including veggies grown on Mountain Roots’ community farm just outside of Gunnison. “The multi-farmer CSA format allows the Gunnison Valley family farmers to diversify production and balance the risk among more people,” Conn says. “For the customer, you get high-quality, high level of consistency and diversity in the boxes. Why know just one farmer when you can know 10?”
For those who aren’t sure they can commit to a CSA, Farm Runners—a regional food distributor specializing in custom-harvested products from a variety of farms within a 100 miles of Hotchkiss—offers what they call a “Flex Summer Share,” which for $50 per week allows customers to pick and choose the weeks they would like a delivery. Customers can also select additional items, including but not limited to eggs, meat, and cheeses.
“It’s easy. It’s online. The quality is consistent,” says private chef Dana Zobbs of Crested Butte’s Personal Chefs, whose business focuses on local, seasonal food. “When I plan my home meals, it’s always a protein, vegetable, carb. If you know that, buying local is easy. Then you just decide if it’s Mexican night or Udon noodle night.”
Shop the local markets
From late May and early June to early October, there are farmers markets in Crested Butte (Sundays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and Gunnison (Saturdays, 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.). Both markets host farmers from within 100 miles, some coming from the Gunnison Valley and others from the Western Slope. As opposed to a CSA, where the farmer picks and packs for you, at the farmers market you can touch, smell and even taste a rainbow of fresh fruits and vegetables.
It’s here you get to meet the farmer, ask questions about specialty heirloom varieties or how to cook the Japanese eggplant you’ve never seen before. Farmers will have lots of ideas about what to do with summer’s bounty in the kitchen. And since you have direct access to the farmer, you can also set up a trip to visit the farm and pick your own. This is a fun, educational way to really learn where your food comes from. And in Crested Butte South, Tassinong Farms offers hydroponically-grown, local greens, herbs and other produce – fresh veggies just seven miles south of town.
Grow your own for peak freshness
Imagine heading to your backyard or deck to pick vegetables for a salad. You clip and then eat. Nancy Wicks, owner of Round Mountain Institute, a demonstration farm and greenhouse located outside Crested Butte South, says growing at high altitude isn’t as hard as people imagine; you just need to know a few tips. First, choose the right vegetables to grow for our climate, says Wicks.
“Because our days are so hot, people get fooled. Our nights are cold, and you need to choose cold-hearty vegetables like cooking greens, kale, chard, collards, along with lettuces, arugula and cilantro to add even more flavor to your salad garden,” Wicks says.
Potatoes are another easy crop, she says, along with garlic, which you plant like tulips in mid-October. “Plant garlic four to six inches deep, cover with straw so it overwinters without freezing, but if we are having a big snow year, snow is another great insulation layer. Every root vegetable is happy when there’s a lot of snow on top,” says Wicks.
Our climate is dry, hot and windy, so watering and using row covers is extremely important, Wicks adds. And if you choose to buy starter plants, she urges you to “harden them off,” meaning, expose them slowly to the outside before planting, since they were most likely grown in a temperate greenhouse. And remember, the mountains’ frost-free date is Father’s Day, not Mother’s Day, and even then, things can frost or freeze in July.