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A man lies and dreams of green fields and rivers

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Boulder

Oct 23, 2018

Know your Roots: Boulder’s Local Food Movement

News from Boulder: A handful of small-scale farmers are instigating legislative change to support localized, sustainable agriculture.

WRITTEN BY

Kela Fetters

Animals run the show at The Golden Hoof, a small dairy goat farm just ten minutes from Boulder’s bustling center. Despite the proximity to downtown, the farm feels worlds away. It is enchanting even on a chilly, drizzly day, when mist expunges the iconic Flatirons and a traipse around the property requires rain boots and a heavy jacket. Dogs of every body size and color chase each other up the dirt lanes; energetic hens strut under the legs of cows and sheep in a green pasture; ducks saunter through a muddy puddle. Golden Hoof stewards Karyl and Alice Starek point to a plot containing seven or eight large pigs snout-deep in lettuce heads and pineapple stalks. They explain that the pigs are chowing pre-consumer food waste obtained from local restaurants. The pigs produce manure, which layers the ground and matures into rich soil fodder. In a few months, the Stareks will utilize this plot as a vegetable garden.

Pigs are an integral part of The Golden Hoof Farm’s animal ecosystem approach

“You are a reflection of your food’s soil”

This is the model of regenerative agriculture that farms like The Golden Hoof want to make mainstream. “Good farming is stewardship of a natural environment. Agriculture is biomimicry. We are not doing anything new; we are using ancient wisdom on the co-evolution of animal and plant systems,” Karyl explains. Taber Ward of nearby Mountain Flower Goat Dairy corroborates the nature-led, ecosystems approach. “We are about less additives, less control. We let the system be in its natural state and observe that system to inform its management,” she says.

Sustainable, regenerative agriculture prioritizes soil health, and by extension, human health. According to Alice, “You are a reflection of your food’s soil.” Michael Moss stewards the 30-acre Kilt Farms on Open Space land he leases from the county and is devoted to improving his soil’s fertility. “I do soil testing; I find out what’s missing and do what I can to put it back in,” he enthuses. “Colorado Front Range soils are tough because they are adapted to grassland prairies, not vegetable crops.” The Stareks infuse their soils with animal manure; in his first growing season, Michael seeded his with 2,000 pounds of sea salt. Seven years later, through diligent observation and experimentation, he has found his sustainable groove: “I am growing some of the best food in the county on baseline weak soils.”

Boulder County’s regenerative farmers are passionate, resourceful, and paramount to a transition from industrial agriculture—but they’re also few and far between. For example, only 5 of 24 organic farms operating on Boulder County land in 2011 are still in business. And the farmers who are left compete for a small slice of the consumer market; agriculture advocate Michael Brownlee estimates that just 1-2% of food sales in Boulder County are locally grown. The demographics of the farmers themselves indicate an erosion in engagement of younger generations in agriculture. As Krisan Christenson of Farm Wild ‘N Wellspring point out, “The average age of a farmer in Boulder County is 58, and in the US West, less than 6% of farmers are under the age of 35”.

These statistics indicate that something—or many things—may be hamstringing small-scale local farming. A quick perusal of the Boulder County Agriculture Outreach Project’s March 2018 public forum reveals common grievances expressed by farmers. While stratified, most concerns orbited the County’s Land-Use Code. According to Karen Starek, the ability to buy agricultural land and pay for it by farming alone is almost impossible in Boulder. Since the 1960s, vast tracts of agricultural land have been purchased by the county and the city of Boulder, relabeled Open Space, and leased to local farmers. Currently, Boulder County Parks & Open Space (BCPOS) has 16,000 acres of its 25,000-acre agricultural total zoned for cropland leasing. Due to the regulations and restrictions of Boulder County Land Use easements, small and mid-sized local farmers sometimes find it difficult to perform the necessary operations to generate a living income.

And that’s if farmers are granted a lease in the first place; BCPOS pledged to phase in 25% organic acreage by 2020, but an “organic” label does not encompass all methods of sustainable farming and carries no stipulations of local product circulation. However, Agricultural Specialist Blake Cooper claims that a significant portion of the BCPOS land maintenance budget goes to support market-farm renters who are specifically producing food for local markets.

The “market-farmers” who do win the bid are subject to the laws of their landlords. Land-Use Code exists to protect premium Open Space from intensive development but inevitably constricts farming operations. For example, the Code prohibits the erection of new infrastructure on Open Space easements; this stipulation is detrimental to farmers looking to install necessary infrastructure such as drip lines, hoop houses, greenhouses, or access roads. Michael Moss says that when he needs to repair a fence or improve an access road, he must apply to the county and hope for the best, which limits business efficiency. The Stareks take issue with restrictions on food processing and sales. The rules, intended to address public health concerns of food contamination, can stunt the growth of small-scale farms. In consonance with Colorado’s Cottage Food Act, food producers are permitted to sell certain items sans commercial health inspection, but there are many limits on these sales. Farmers cannot sell meat products, canned or cut fruits and vegetables, or milk and dairy products. Cottage foods cannot be sold wholesale and sales are capped. Taber Ward can’t market her goat’s milk as a cottage food, and thinks these restrictions are barriers to the financial viability of small-scale farming. She suggests that better relations between local farmers and public health officials could improve policy to facilitate food sales.

“People often portray conventional and organic farming as mortal enemies, but there is no great chasm between the two”

It seems the County has heard the pleas of farmers; in a recently published draft proposal, Code amendments include relaxations on farm event rules and increased leniency in infrastructure projects deemed “Season-Extending Agricultural Structures”. The draft proposal accompanies an online form soliciting public input prior to a final revision to be presented to County Commissioners come November. Farmers like the Stareks, Moss, Ward, Christenson, and others can opine whether the proposed Land-Use Code changes have the clout to challenge Boulder County’s agricultural norm.

Pumpkin Patch at Munson Farms

“We’re competing against California farms who send their product to King Sooper’s”

BCPOS’s Blake Cooper offers another perspective. “People often portray conventional and organic farming as mortal enemies, but there is no great chasm between the two. Organic operations and conventional operations both benefit each other,” he says. “For example, if we converted all Open Space acreage to organic operations, the price of organic products fall. Organics command a premium price on a market because they are special. Conventional farming benefits from the organics because they help to pull up prices and stay competitive. Supply and demand necessitate cooperation.” He also sees the mutualism play out with disease and insect pressures. “Organics rely on good soil and crop health. Conventional farms keep regional pests in check by applying pesticide, while organic farms provide a refuge for insects without a selection pressure for pesticide resistance.” Cooper’s moderate stance on industrial agriculture challenges the demonization of conventional farming in the fervor of local food movements.

To be sure, compounding research identifies detriments to human and environmental health from conventionally grown crops and factory-farmed livestock. Boulder County residents care about sustainability, public health, and local food sovereignty; the community cherishes its CSA programs and farmers markets and boasts an innovative farm-to-table restaurant scene. Without consumers consciously choosing to eat outside of the industrial model, current small-scale growers would have no market. But even the best of us are motivated by ease, speed, and convenience. As Moss reminds us, “We’re competing against California farms who send their product to King Sooper’s. The more farmers we have who exemplify the good stewardship model, we more we could pull people away from the grocery stores and traditional agriculture”.

A revitalized Land-Use Code that advantages local circulation of locally-grown food could greatly incentivize sustainable farming by making it the easiest, most convenient source of food for county residents.

Boulder County’s sustainable farmers are adaptive ecosytsem stewards who draw on co-evolved soil, plant, and animal relationships. They “know their roots”, and consumers are demanding the same transparency of their food purchases. This grassroots assemblage of innovators will hold their breath until the release of November’s Land-Use Code revisions, which could alter the trajectory of sustainable agriculture in the area.

Special thanks to Taber Ward of Mountain Flower Goat Dairy, Karyl and Alice Starek of The Golden Hoof Farm, Michael Moss of Kilt Farms, Krisan Christenson of Farm Wild ‘N Wellspring, and Blake Cooper from the Agricultural Department of BCPOS, who were interviewed for this piece.

All photos by Kela Fetters.

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Boulder

Nov 06, 2018

Winter Warfare in the Colorado Rockies

In the high-stakes tug-of-war between mega-conglomerates Alterra Mountain Company and Vail Resorts, independently-owned ski areas face a tough choice: partner with the big dogs or get creative to stay relevant.

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WRITTEN BY

Kela Fetters

The ski industry’s 2018 pre-season media reel dramatizes the battle royal between Alterra Mountain Company and Vail Resorts in their quest to become Colorado’s undisputed “king-of-the-ski-hill”.

These large corporations hold tenure in a sport where idiosyncrasy is historically celebrated. When gold was discovered in Colorado circa 1859, miners and prospectors used crude skis to cross mountain passes and battle snowdrifts. Those frontiersman and their primitive planks were harbingers of a world-class ski culture; in the early 20th century, Norwegian champion Carl Howelsen brought ski jumping to the western slopes, and later, 10th Mountain Division “Ski Troops” returned from WWII and popularized the sport. Over 175 recreational ski areas have graced the spruced slopes of the state’s jagged Rockies, many of them experiencing rapid stints of boom-or-bust reminiscent of the area’s gold mines.

“Mismanagement, financial issues, inconsistent snowfall, and insufficient clientele”

Local ski hills nucleated mountain communities and provided residents with affordable access to the slopes. These mom-and-pop operations, oftentimes just a single chairlift or towrope, were highly susceptible to both financial hardship and climatological slump. In 2018, Boulder-based adventure production company The Road West Traveled debuted Abandoned, a ski film that explores these now-shuttered destinations. Co-producer Lio Delpiccolo says that many of these spots went under well before today’s conglomerates moved in. “Mismanagement, financial issues, inconsistent snowfall, and insufficient clientele drove many small hills to close their doors,” he informs.

The small-scale resorts were not generating staggering profit, but to locals and visitors, they were the sine qua non of old-school mountain culture.

That homespun era has been largely superseded by skiing’s new epoch: The Age of Acquisitions. Just 30 resorts remain in operation statewide, and most of them are owned or managed by a handful of large companies. Ski towns have evolved from humble mining camps to high-end Swanksvilles: main streets packed like Times Square on winter weekends, Starbucks on every corner, and some of the most expensive real estate in the country. The big ski resorts are similarly crowded, the slopes overwhelmed by tourists and the lodges by $15 hamburgers.


Members of the 10th Mountain Division training at Mount Rainier National Park during WWII. Photo by Mount Rainer NPS via Wikimedia Commons.

Some locals decry the megalomania of corporate operators and commodification of the ski-town experience (and not to mention the nightmare I-70 traffic), but the influx of tourism is a boon to local economies. And the mom-and-pop hills that frequently scraped through each season by the skin of their teeth have found new financial opportunity by way of big-name acquisition. It may be hard to admit, but even as Vail and Alterra glamorize and mass-produce the recreational skiing experience, their sheer might can benefit smaller resorts and actualize projects such as affordable employee housing.

In 2016, pre-season Epic Pass sales netted the company $525 million in cash.

Vail Resorts, today worth a cool $1.4 billion, has been perfecting its acquisition prowess since the early 2000s. With CEO Robert Katz at the helm, the company snatched up big-name resorts like Utah’s Park City in 2014 and Canada’s Whistler Blackcomb and Vermont’s Stowe Mountain in 2016. The multi-national headliners complement classic Colorado destinations like Breckenridge, Keystone, and Vail. The 14-resort gestalt assumed the moniker “Epic Pass” in Vail’s famous industry innovation. A season pass bestows its holders’ keys to all the kingdoms for a ridiculously low price, and every resort added to the repertoire is an opportunity to pull more skiers into Vail’s robust orbit. In 2016, pre-season Epic Pass sales netted the company $525 million in cash. Vail Resorts also draws a portion of its annual revenue of $425 million from hotel and real estate development and guest sales in resort villages.

Alterra Mountain Company, Vail Resort’s upstart rival, is the brainchild of a 2017 joint venture of KSL Capital Partners and Henry Crown & Company. The arrows in their quiver include Colorado’s Steamboat Springs and Winter Park and California’s Squaw Valley and Mammoth Mountain. A total of 26 resorts comprise the “Ikon Pass”, Alterra’s answer to the Epic Pass’s preeminence.

Charging through powder in Vail’s Blue Sky Basin. Photo by Zach Dischner via Wikimedia Commons.

“Ninety percent of our income comes from pure, unadulterated skiing.”

Jen Brill of Silverton Mountain, an independently owned-and-operated resort in the southern San Juans, says that competing with the huge conglomerates is an uphill battle. Vail and Alterra draw from a massive clientele and a diverse revenue stream. “Small family-owned ski areas will struggle to stay relevant in the coming years,” Brill cautioned. “We don’t have other revenues for income like luxury real estate, merchandise, and expensive villages. Ninety percent of our income comes from pure, unadulterated skiing.”

Brill and other local operators don’t benefit from the financial gusto of the top dogs, but they offer an intimacy with their clients that is sacrificed with scale. “Close relationships with our resort guests is key. We see in a year what most of those resorts see in a day. As buyouts have happened, we think Vail will have problems with heavy crowding, and we can draw the crowd that will pay a little extra for solitude and independence,” Brill opined.

“My constant mantra is that the skiing comes first,”

Moreover, some small resorts are teaming up for a shot at the collective-pass market. Monarch Ski Area partnered with 15 other resorts on an affordable pass, and Purgatory owner James Coleman launched a “Power Pass” of five small southwest ski hills with limited days at bigger resorts. Coleman corroborates Brill’s emphasis on the esotericism and individuality of the ski experience. “My constant mantra is that the skiing comes first,” he asserts. “All the lodges and restaurants, those things are all important, but the skiing has got to be first.” He wants to target the drive-up vacationers and local enthusiasts—a smaller but sturdy market that might be repelled by the splashy Vail crowd.

The massive resorts in Vail’s repertoire may draw the most visitors, but the company recognizes the value of homespun charm. They moved to attract the type of skiers that Brill and Coleman are courting via acquisition of community-cherished Crested Butte Ski Resort in 2018. In addition to a partnership with independent Telluride Ski Resort, these hills infuse Vail’s Epic Pass with local flavor. Alterra Mountain Company has secured congruous partnerships with iconic independents Aspen Snowmass and Wyoming’s Jackson Hole. Telluride co-owner Bill Jensen opines that big-name partnerships will become the financial stratagem for locally-held resorts. “I think alliances are going to be just as prominent as acquisitions going forward. These two entities [Vail and Alterra] don’t necessarily have to buy a resort to bring it into their group.” Crested Butte representative Zach Pickett expressed enthusiasm for the impending increase in tourism. “Sharing Crested Butte’s legendary terrain and extraordinary mountain town with new guests is something the resort is very much looking forward to,” he says. “We are confident that our town and mountain charm will remain the same.” Given the perks, will all of Colorado’s in-bounds terrain soon fall under one of two sprawling umbrellas?

Crested Butte Mountain Resort, photo by Peter via WIkiCommons

There’s an enduring ism that corporations like Vail and Alterra value profit over people. But with limited budgets and resources, small resorts can really benefit from the influx of capital provided by corporate buyout. For example, Vail promised to spend $35 million in improvements over the next two years at recently acquired Crested Butte. And the Epic/Ikon Pass label, be it an allied or acquired destination, ensures a lucrative flow of tourists eager to spend cash on rentals, food, and merchandise. Finally, Vail and Alterra have the monetary fodder to fuel vital community projects. In October, Vail announced plans to develop deed-restricted workforce housing for their arsenal of seasonal employees. The lack of affordable housing in ski towns is a salient crisis in Colorado’s high-county, and ski companies have a vested interest in housing the workers who keep the lifts running and the village coffee brewing. Affordable housing projects are hindered by local zoning laws and soaring home values; Vail’s bottomless capital could support meaningful infrastructure in the ski towns that anchor their resorts.

If momentum is any indication, Vail and Alterra will increasingly dominate the landscape of the Colorado and national recreational ski industry. Independently-owned hills want to retain the high-octane individuality and counter-culture charisma of their origins, but the siren’s call of the Epic/Ikon Pass will continue to define skiing’s future.

The Outdoor Journal has reached out to Alterra Mountain Company and Vail Resorts, but so far they have declined to comment.

Cover Photo: A skier drops a cornice at Silverton Mountain Resort, notorious for its steep terrain. By Zach Dischner via Wikimedia Commons.

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