Photos and Words by Emily Bowie
The drive to the Old Fort Farm in Hesperus, Colorado is deceptively steep. From downtown Durango I rose steadily, almost imperceptibly, and gained a thousand feet within minutes. From afar I had seen snow on this mesa just days before - not anymore. Pulling in, I found a large, aging, post-harvest farm; brushed with deep golden hues of well-watered land in a Colorado autumn.
With a bit of navigating, I located the Fields to Plate farmers. The small crew was harvesting a thousand-pound beet sunset: red, gold, pink, purple. The bounty seemed unlikely for such a dry, high altitude location; so, I set forth to learn how they did it.
Over the past century, the 6,279-acre "Old Fort," has known a military fort, a Native American boarding school, a high school, and Fort Lewis College. The college moved to downtown Durango in 1956, and the Old Fort now holds an agricultural research center and market garden incubator.
Fields to Plate Produce blossomed from the incubator program. Max Fields and James Plate (yes, those are their real names) founded the farm in 2013. Fields and Plate grew up in Denver together attended Fort Lewis College together, joined the incubator program together, and since graduating have operated their own farm for three seasons.
Next year Fields and Plate will set off on their own, leaving the Old Fort for a new plot closer to town. As they look forward, they're concerned about the incubator program's future.
"A lot of Fort Lewis Students don't even know this property exists," Fields told me as we unloaded beets into storage. A few students seem interested, he said, but "not as many as we need to... keep it going."
This surprised me. Young farmers are popping up all over the country. In fact, there's a very active chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition centered around Durango. The Old Fort incubator program, open to students and non-students, struck me as a fantastic service worth using.
Fields and Plate think one deterrent to potential participants is the mental struggle of farming. "There's a lot of people who come into it and expect gloriousness and get hit with reality," Fields explained, "You start picking a couple thousand pounds of beets and you're like, wow, no shit, that's real, that's some real work."
But Fields and Plate have certainly overcome those mentality barriers. As Plate puts it, in priorities "optimism is number one." The result is a booming business set to graduate from the incubator program in a few months.
After spending some time getting to know the duo and working the field, it was clear which habits drove their success: they acknowledge their restraints and create their own opportunities.
Fields and Plate sell mostly storage crops: beets, potatoes, squash, and cabbage. This focus on a few specific crops intrigued me. I expected the more traditional "market garden" model, with an emphasis on variety. But then the pair explained the obstacles they face.
The climate isn't exactly kind. "It's all about the environment," Plate illustrated, "it's a short season, we have 90 days, give or take." The farm lies at 7,600ft, so snow in September isn't uncommon.
Luckily the Old Fort has access to year-round water resources. But this isn't a privilege they take lightly, "It's still always a concern, just because you have a bunch [of water] doesn't mean you shouldn't be conserving it," Fields clarified.
Fields and Plate do what they can to conserve water, including dry land farming and picking drought hardy, heirloom species and varieties. Through the incubator program they also learned keyline design, a farming technique that utilizes a piece of land's topography to maximize water use.
But conserving water is not easy, especially on a leased plot of land. Fields explained: "We don't live out here. We have to commute, so we can't leave the pump on at night. We end up having to water during the day or late afternoon," which isn't ideal, because water will evaporate before soaking into the ground on hot, sunny Colorado days.
Fields and Plate have to grow things that won't die in an unexpected frost, last months in storage to provide for a longer market season, use low amounts of water, and have a high yield on their small acreage. Through the incubator program, the pair learned the limitations of their land. As a result, their crop list contains only varieties that make the most sense: root vegetables, squashes, and cabbage.
As students, Fields to Plate watched and helped the first incubator participants get off the ground. Through that experience, they learned what does and doesn't work on the Old Fort property. They also had the opportunity to observe the Durango local food scene. They recognized that the market for the traditional "market garden" was satiated. When they finally started their own business they set out to do something unique that worked with their limitations and a market niche: bulk storage crops.
"Having access to this root cellar drove our crop model from the beginning," Plate explained, "Let's grow for bulk and sell it through the shoulder season when not a lot of other people are producing."
Producing only storage crops allows them to sell through the winter to large clients: restaurants, wholesalers, and school districts. Many of those clients they've had to find and secure themselves.
"It's all about creating opportunities," Fields told me, "If you get any sort of commitment or notion from someone that they do want to buy local food, then you need to do anything in your power to make it happen."
This seems straight-forward, but from Fields' experience not all farmers are good at it. He illuminated:
"They're not going to buy food from you if you farm. No one cares if you farm. They care about local food, but sometimes farmers get this head on them where they feel entitled because they're farming and doing something right for the earth, or people, or society in general. When it comes down to it, no: no one cares... If they cared as much as you think, they would be paying that top dollar price, but they're not doing that. They're still trying to meet their bottom line."
Fields and Plate's solution is to "amp up economics of scale": grow more and sell for less, especially for large customers (i.e. wholesalers and schools).
They're good at creating opportunity for smaller clients as well. Recently, they realized the severe limitations of the Durango Farmers Market: "Three hours on a Saturday is not enough," Fields asserted, "There's room for more outlets." They launched a small farm stand on Wednesday evening outside an office building in town to bring produce to people who can't make it on Saturdays. So far, Fields to Plate Produce attend with one or two other farms, depending on the week. To make up for lacking variety, they stock their stand with produce from other farms in the area. So far the community has been enthusiastic: "We've just got to keep it going, keep the hype up."
Fields to Plate Produce made a tough situation profitable by working within, not against, their restraints, and searching out their own markets with tenacity. The Old Fort incubator made it possible, and they hope more students and community members find the program, and that it continues to help young farmers thrive.
In the meantime, Fields and Plate are looking to the future. Next year they'll move to their new place closer to town, at a lower elevation. They still won't own it, but it's another step towards independence. They're looking to settle into the new spot, expand their production, and feed more people each year.
"In general, the scheme is to create local food security in our tri-county region," Fields said. They have high hopes for this vision. When I asked if they think the region is moving in the right direction Plate asserted: "Absolutely, we have tons of friends who are making big steps for local food and our AG economy in the Southwest, especially in our age group."
It's connecting those young, enthusiastic folks with fantastic training programs like the Old Fort incubator that will ensure this vision comes true.
Sometimes to understand a place you need to engulf yourself in their culture, get consumed by their process, get to know the individuals that shape an organization, and share ideas. Artisan Features are our attempt to do just that. We spend the whole day, if not several, and become an insider. We relate, we uncover, and we understand what makes a place and its people special. Click here to see more.