Friday, November 22, 2013

Field Trip Report - Rock Bottom Ranch

Most of the folks who know me have heard me say, I'm a "both-and" kind of girl, not "either-or".  And it's true about a lot of things.  Beauty vs. practicality?  No. I choose both.  Beauty AND practicality.  Sustainability vs. luxury?  No.  I say, let's have sustainability AND luxury.  Healthy economies vs. healthy environments?  No.  I know that healthy economies and healthy environments are not mutually exclusive, and that more often than not, healthy economies exist not in spite of, but because of, healthy environments.  

Yesterday I had the pleasure of visiting a wonderful place that is demonstrating all of the above "both-ands" and one more -- abundant wildlife including large predators like bears and mountain lions existing in relative harmony adjacent to a financially profitable agriculture operation.  Don't believe it?  Read on.  

As many of you know, I'm now a full-time student at Colorado Mountain College (CMC) most likely headed toward a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sustainability Studies.  This semester I'm a 42 year old freshman and loving it.   

So, yesterday, I got to go to Rock Bottom Ranch, in the El Jebel area in Colorado, with the rest of my Intro to Environmental Science class (ENV-101).  What a treat!  

Muckers. Sexy? To me, yes! BECAUSE they are so practical.
We arrived during a lovely late autumn drizzling rain.  Some of us arrived in casual shoes, some in athletic shoes.  Some who came from up valley near Aspen arrived in winter boots, because it was snowing up there.  Some wore what I call muckers.  The muckers had it right.

The staff offered muckers to anyone who needed them.  They have several sizes available just for the purpose of sharing with folks who come for farm tours, which they offer every weekday at 11 am. 

Rock Bottom Ranch (RBR) is a part of Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES), an organization dedicated to "building a strong community of knowledgeable, capable, and motivated environmental stewards" and to the conservation and restoration of natural environments through a strong focus on education.  RBR is 113 acres, 70 of which are reserved only for wildlife.  ACES bought it at a time when it was under scrutiny for a 50+ unit housing development.  It's a very special property, because it borders wild lands and it is a crucial link for wildlife migration from the higher altitudes of Crown Mountain and Mt. Sopris to the Roaring Fork River, on the valley floor.  Not to mention - it's breathtakingly beautiful with a mixture of pastures, riparian areas, woods, and mountain views.

View from the back porch of the farmhouse / office at Rock Bottom Ranch.

ACES has worked with Aspen Valley Land Trust (AVLT) in creating conservation easements to protect this land in perpetuity.  If you don't know much about conservation easements or land trusts, I highly recommend reading up on them at AVLTs website.  

Rock Bottom Ranch Director and chef, Jason Smith, gave us a wonderful tour.  He started by telling us about the basics of Multi Species Rotational Grazing which is also sometimes known as Management Intensive Grazing.  If you have read the Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan or heard Joel Salatin speak about the practices used at Polyface Farm you will already have an idea of what Jason was talking about.  At RBR it currently goes like this: 

  1. There is already about 30 acres of established pasture on the property that is separate from the wildlife corridor.  You could go really deep and wide with a discussion of what a healthy pasture is.  Basically, it's grasses and legumes like clover.  The pasture is the first step in the entire system.  It takes sun and water and converts it to food for ruminants like cattle, sheep, and goats.
    Fuel made from sun, soil, & water aka grass aka pasture.
  2. The ruminants currently at work at RBR turning grass into meat, milk, and fiber are sheep and goats.  Using a system of portable electric fences, the staff at RBR move the sheep and goats to different small areas of pasture every 5 to 7 days, more or less frequently depending upon how fast they are consuming the pasture.  The ruminants are mowers.  

    Mowers aka ruminants aka sheep.  Also, beings who convert pasture into wool - magicians!
  3. When the ruminants are moved to a new area of pasture, the pigs are moved to the area where the ruminants just were.  They like to root around with their snouts looking for grubs and roots and such.  The staff at RBR are currently considering moving the pigs away from the pasture and into a more woody area because they have been disturbing the soil more than is ideal.  Pigs are natural tillers and just like with mechanical or man made tillers, it's important not to over-till the pasture.  Pigs can be very helpful to woodland systems because they till the fallen leaves into the ground which helps create the next generation of growth of trees.
    Tillers aka the cutest pigs I've ever seen.  Also, bacon.
  4. The cleaners.  After the pigs follow the sheep and goats to a new area of pasture, the chickens come along.  They like to scratch around for bugs, grubs, and larvae.  When chickens are present in an ecosystem, the population of mosquitoes often declines, which, I personally think is an excellent side effect of this type of egg and meat production.  
    The cleaners aka chickens.  Also, egg makers.
That's basically it for RBRs Multi Species Rotational Grazing system.  Pasture, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, portable, lightweight electric fencing, a portable chicken house, a portable shade structure for the pigs, a small portable shelter for the goats, and small, portable, water containers for all the animals.  It takes 3 or 4 members of the staff just a couple of hours to move all of the animals to a new area of pasture when it is time to do so.  

With this system, the animals do most of the work that machines and chemicals often do on a "conventional", modern farm.  They mow, till, fertilize, and help control pests and weeds.  At the same time, they produce meat, milk, fiber (wool), and eggs and have a great quality of life.  

Rock Bottom Ranch has recently been certified as Animal Welfare Approved.  This certification and food label lets consumers know that these animals were raised in accordance with the highest animal welfare standards in the U.S., using sustainable agriculture methods.  Buying food with this label is the next best thing to visiting the farm yourself.  The myriad of food labels out there can be confusing, even if you are just talking eggs.  If you want to know more about this particular label and why it is considered the gold standard and a badge of honor for farms, the AWA website is a good place to start:
Pasture, chickens, pigs, sheep, goats, woods, mountains, sky.  Ahhhh.  

You might be asking yourself about those aforementioned large predators that are often strolling through the nearby wildlife corridor.  How does RBR staff deal with those?  Jason said that the electric fence helps with mountain lions and bears.  Also, having a 600 pound boar nearby will deter them from attacking mama and baby pigs.  The chickens can hide under their house from owls, hawks, and eagles and the roosters will fight to defend the hens.  At night the chickens go into their house and the staff simply closes the door to keep predators out.  Another strategy that is often used is having guardian animals like sheep dogs and, this one surprised me, donkeys.  Apparently donkeys will drive away predators.  (My smart husband, Adam, is just now telling me that llamas will also drive away predators.  A friend of ours told him she has seen her llamas chasing coyotes off of her property.)  

We also learned about why Rock Bottom Ranch is in the process of building a climate battery.  A climate battery is a system for extending the growing season here in temperate Colorado.  It's a way of heating a greenhouse with very minimal fuel input.  Pipes are laid under the ground of the greenhouse.  Thermometers sense the temperature and turn on fans when the air is warm enough during sunny days.  Those fans pull the warm air into the underground pipes using the thermal mass of the ground to insulate them.  Then, at night when it gets pretty darn cold, the fans blow the warmed air back into the greenhouse.   At RBR the fans will be run by solar power, just as the electric fences are.  
Soon to be a greenhouse with a climate battery.  Very cool.  

Rock Bottom Ranch is working to create scalable systems for regular people.  Jason and his wife ran their own farm in North Carolina, before moving back to the Roaring Fork Valley to be a part of RBR.  They were able to earn a very comfortable living with a small amount of land and they want to help others learn to do the same.

But isn't food grown in this way more expensive than with "conventional" methods?  Sometimes, but not always.  It depends on how you look at costs and which costs you factor in.  If we consider the costs of the health problems that come from the environmental pollution and degraded food quality that factory and industrial food production create, we may see that the methods I've mentioned here are, in fact, less expensive.  Also, I believe that we consume smaller quantities of food if we are consuming higher quality food and that can lead to better overall health for individual humans and for our planet.  

Jason told us that a pig grown in an industrial system isn't even afforded enough room to turn around and they never have access to outside.  In industrial production pigs' tails are cropped so they don't bite at each other and cause infections.  This isn't a problem at RBR where the pigs have plenty of room to move around and root in the dirt.  Also in industrial farms the piglets are weened at just 4 or 5 weeks of age and the sow (that's the mama) is bred again.  Sometimes it becomes necessary to modify the piglets teeth so the sow can handle the constant nursing.  At RBR the mama pigs decide when the piglets will be weaned and RBR has chosen a breed of pigs called the Large Black Pig partially because they are good mothers.  None of the animals at RBR have to be modified to keep them from damaging one another.  This pig breed was also chosen because they tend to be docile and they have high quality meat.  In an industrial system pigs go to market after about 6 months weighing about 300 lbs.  At RBR they have a market weight of about 250 lbs after about 9 months.

I thought it was so interesting that the Large Black Pig breed was one of the most popular in the United States back in the 1920s but became nearly extinct by the 1970s.  With a return to farms that raise multiple species and breeds of animals AND vegetables, we may see a come back of these types of pigs.  

There is so much more to tell.  I learned so much on our visit to RBR and got to see practices in action that I'd only read about.  

This was one of my very favorite days of school this semester because it gave me so much hope.  In environmental studies we learn so much about the problems for the environment and for humanity.  I don't advocate living a life with eyes closed to challenges, far from it, I think we should live with our eyes wide open to what IS, so that we can make smart decisions based on real information.  But here again, I'm a "both-and" girl.  I want to know about the biggest, scariest, craziest challenges we face AND the most creative, smart, doable solutions.  I'm so grateful to all the people in the world who are really giving their all to make the world not just a better place for future generations, but a great place to live NOW. 

I'll leave you with a quote from ACES CEO Chris Lane, "At Rock Bottom Ranch, ACES works to showcase how wild and agricultural lands can not only co-exist, but also thrive."  Hurray for "both-and" people and solutions!

If you live nearby, I highly recommend a visit to Rock Bottom Ranch.  Take the tour or just stop by and see what they are up to.  The wonderfully friendly and dedicated staff is sure to welcome you.  

Beauty AND practicality.  Sustainability AND luxury.  Healthy economy AND healthy environment.  Healthy, happy, abundantly productive farm AND vibrant wildlife population.  Yes AND Yum!   

(all photos taken by me with my phone)

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