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Food production at elevation is hard but possible

The issue

On any given Friday afternoon in summer, the produce area at the local grocery store in Crested Butte may look as if worried townspeople have ransacked the shelves in preparation of the 100-year storm.

With no lettuce to be found and the lone remaining apple resembling the sort of small offering given to public school kids during a year of extensive budget cuts, it’s an selection that can make the most hardened shopper worry about not only what’s for dinner tonight, but what’s for breakfast tomorrow.
Issues of food security are gaining traction in the upper Gunnison Valley, but in this land where gels, bars and artisanal cocktails can make up a disproportionate amount of the average person’s daily caloric requirements, the presence or absence of a few carrots rarely makes headlines. Yet, with more interest being placed on energy consumption, sustainability and overall health, heads are indeed turning toward the food system and the possibility of producing food at the local, and often home-kitchen, scale.
“Right now we’re seeing more and more people wanting to grow their own food, so we’re seeing a greater number of people taking innovative approaches to gardening and having success,” said Eric McPhail, director of the Colorado State University Extension office in Gunnison County. “Knowing where your food comes from and having some control over its production while also encouraging sustainability and environmental health is really a feel-good thing.”
However, taking food production from a warm and fuzzy cerebral activity to a dirt under the nails, mud on the knees and food in the kitchen exercise is not always simple, especially at 9,000 feet above sea level.

A problem and a solution
They say summer in Crested Butte lasts for 60 days. They’re wrong. According to the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture at Colorado State University and the Colorado Climate Center, there remains a 90 percent chance of a killing frost on June 19 of each year and a 50 percent chance on July 9. By July 29, that likelihood has dropped to 10 percent, but it’s a fleeting reprieve and town is back to a 50 percent chance of a hard freeze by August 17.
“It’s a 37-day growing season,” said McPhail. “That’s going to rule out warm crops in any sort of unimproved growing conditions: no squash, no beans, no corn. We’re looking at crops that can withstand some cold. Leafy greens and some root crops—radishes, beets.”
The majority of fruits, melons and berries take too long to ripen, as do summer staples like tomatoes and cucumbers, said McPhail. More tropical fruits and vegetables like avocados, bananas and oranges have little hope of survival.
“For some of those, like the little cherry tomatoes, it can happen with the help of weather buffers and a lot of planning,” said McPhail. “It’s just a matter of how hard folks are willing to work, but for others we’re always going to be reliant on the grocery store.”
That mind-set, though perhaps realistic, isn’t necessarily shared in full by everyone in the valley. The Mountain Roots Food Project, founded in 2011 and of which McPhail is a board member, works within the Gunnison Valley to ensure access to “affordable, nutritious food that is regionally based and sustainably produced.” This mission often translates to building and cultivating community and school-based gardens, and helping home gardeners garner the skills they need to fill their refrigerators and pantries.
“There are many challenges to growing food here, in our home; however, challenges can often be manipulated into advantages,” said Mountain Roots garden coordinator Ian Oster, who lists the short growing season, perpetual threat of freezing temperatures, powerful sun and winds as just a few of the challenges growers in the area face.
“Many cultures around the world, think Tibet or Chile, have adapted to these climatic challenges and can not only subsist from their local bioregion but can thrive. Our culture has lost the important skills necessary for agriculture and especially place-based cultivation. Mountain Roots Food Project is working to reestablish these fundamental skills and as a result build a resilient society. We do this through offering workshops, facilitating community gardens, and incorporating local food into the K-12 grades.
“We can grow a lot of things here and some things we can grow exceptionally well. … We can grow a variety of vegetables like greens and roots, we can raise food staples like oats, potatoes, and quinoa, and we can raise animals,” Oster continued. “We may not be able to grow the average American diet of corn or peaches but we can grow many other substitutes that are often higher in nutrient value, like currants, Nanking cherries, or orach. Many gardeners rely on simple technology like a cold frame, which is a mini-greenhouse, or rowcovers, a fabric that protects from frost.”
Mountain Roots currently runs or assists in the running of seven food-producing gardens in the valley, and also works to get fresh produce into the hands of at-risk community members.
“Right now one of the big projects we have under way is Backyard Harvest,” said Lauren Contorno, who is working with the organization’s Access and Outreach Program. “It’s a food donation project that aims to get locally grown nutritious produce to those who need it most. Through the program we’ve been donating to the Gunnison Food Pantry and Young at Heart. The donations come from backyard gardeners in Crested Butte and Gunnison, as well as from some our community gardens.”
According to the most recent census, about 25 percent of the population in Gunnison County is living below the federal poverty line, and Contorno said that’s a situation that can lead to an increase in food insecurity, especially in already vulnerable populations. In addition to the Backyard Harvest program, she is working to conduct a community food assessment to learn more about the food insecurity, the availability of fresh foods and the resiliency of the local food system.
“Food insecurity is a notable issue here and hopefully we can get a sense of the ways in which Mountain Roots can help increase access to locally grown food,” Contorno said. “Part of this may include giving people the knowledge they need to grow their own food, or facilitating access to open land or gardening supplies.”
“There is a mentality that Gunnison is inhospitable, but with the right knowledge and diligence you can grow a huge portion of your diet,” added Oster.
For more information about the Mountain Roots Food Project, visit

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