Fresh Food Capital of Colorado!
At first glimpse, the North Fork Valley still appears to be centered on old-time ranching. You see livestock grazing almost anywhere you look; cowhands often move their cattle from summer to winter pasture much as they did when the valley was re-settled by white settlers in the 1880’s. There are still a number of sheep ranchers with impressive flocks; local orchardists still dote on their crops, just as they have for well over a century. Indeed, agriculture still features prominently in the local economy as it has for many, many years. But sometimes first impressions are only part of the story.
It is true, there are still ranches operating in the venerable old-style. Places where weather-worn ranchers earn an honest, if hard won, living using the skills passed down through generations of experience. There are fruit ranchers working hard to produce fruit similar in quality to the Paonia fruit that won awards at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. All of that continues in this Valley, much to the benefit of us all.
If you look closer, however, you will note that much of that fruit is now “organic”, with an expanded diversity of apple, peach, pear, apricot and cherry varieties being grown. You might even notice that some of those orchards are actually vineyards! In addition, there are a healthy number of commercial organic gardens growing fine produce for sale locally and in larger urban areas. Some growers even specialize in “heritage” varieties. On a similar note, some of those cattle and sheep that you see grazing in the distance, qualify for the “organic” label as well… but squint and you will find that some of those are not cattle or sheep at all, but rather buffalo and elk (or even ostrich, emu or llama).
If you wonder what has prompted such change, it can be boiled down to two things… The first: Necessity (competitive pressure). The second: An openness to alternative methods; or in other words, open-mindedness.
Consider that agriculture and animal husbandry involve more ‘inputs’ in a semi-arid environment. Animals need many more acres of pasture and all crops require irrigation. This puts local ranchers and farmers at a competitive disadvantage in traditional agricultural pursuits, when compared to their counterparts in other areas of the country; so to remain competitive many have had to learn to ranch and farm smarter.
To a large extent, this improvisation has meant not only the continued feasibility of agricultural endeavors in the Valley, but an explosion in the diversity of what the Valley has to offer. The Valley now boasts a special viticulture appellation – The West Elk - and nine wineries; the products of which have won several national awards. There is even an organic brandy and hard cider producer which creates its products using organic apple bi-products of the Valley’s own organic cider press.
The many organic food producers have come together to form their own trade organization, The Valley Organic Growers Association (www.vogaco.org), which helps guide local growers toward organic certification, acts as a clearinghouse for the sharing of information, and offers numerous educational opportunities to its members.
Besides fresh grown fruit and produce, there are a number of small companies making products from the bounty of the Valley… There are two companies that make applesauce and related products. There are several mustard and condiment makers with interesting and delicious products made of Valley-grown produce. There are companies specializing in jams and jellies, soaps, and others in natural salves and tinctures. The diversity is really astounding for such a small geographical area.
For those intrigued by the wonderful foods of the North Fork Valley, author Eugenia Bone, who splits her time between New York City and Crawford, has written an enjoyable and unique cookbook (published by Houghton Mifflin in 2004) entitled, At Mesa’s Edge – Cooking and Ranching in Colorado’s North Fork Valley. Bone also recently published Well Preserved, explaining the joy of 'putting up' fresh food for later enjoyment once the harvest has passed. She has previously written about food and the Valley in Saveuer magazine.
Remember while you are exploring the Valley to employ all of your senses in the adventure – including taste! For your convenience, this section of this website contains a list of locations where you can pick up the best of the Valley’s bounty. -nrs