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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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Events

Mar 25, 2019

GritFest 2019: The long-awaited trad climbing event returns

Fueled by a common passion, an assembly of seasoned climbers revive the traditional climbing movement just outside of Delhi, India.

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The wind coming off the rock face felt inhospitable, but the air itself gave off a sense of communal joy. After 33 years in absence, the thrill at the Great Indian Trad Festival, or Gritfest, emerged again for a new generation. 

We stood together in ceremony around Mohit Oberoi, aka Mo, the architect of the Dhauj trad climbing era, whose been climbing in the area since 1983. Mo, who continues to inspire many, briefly underlined the cause behind the Gritfest: a two-day annual trad climbing gathering that finally saw the light of day on February 23rd and 24th 2019. The gathering, although one of its kind, was not the first. The first one took place in 1985 and was put together by Tejvir Khurrana.

Read next: Mohit Oberoi: My History with Dhauj, Delhi’s Real Trad Area

“Dhauj is huge and there exists such an amazing playground right on their doorstep”

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the climbing scene in India, Dhauj is where some of the country’s finest climbing began. Located in Faridabad Haryana, Dhauj is roughly between 18 to 20 miles away from Delhi. The region is home to the Aravali Mountains that start in Delhi and pass through southern Haryana to the state of Rajasthan across the west, ending in Gujrat.

The Great Indian Trad Fest was long overdue and brought together by Ashwin Shah, who is the figurative sentinel guard of the Dhauj territory. In addition to being the guy with more gear than you’d ever expect one man to own, he is also often caught headhunting belayers, sometimes even climbers. His never-aging obsession with Dhauj is also very contagious. I’m grateful to start my own climbing journey with Ashwin. In my first attempts at belaying, my simple mistake caused him to drop on a 5-meter whipper. It could have been more.

Rajesh, on the left, getting ready to belay, Ashwin in the middle and Prerna on the right

That whipper, in hindsight, transmuted into a defining moment for me. The primal squeal Ashwin let out while falling made me realize the danger of this new passion I couldn’t help but fall for myself. That being said, had it not been for Ashwin’s impressionable optimism to entrust me with his life, Dhauj wouldn’t have held the same allure that it does for me now. Ashwin started contemplating the Gritfest after his return from Ramanagara Romp in Bangalore: a three-day event that gauged the possibility of climbs undertaken during a two-day window.

Read Next: Why the Aravalli Forest Range is the Most Degraded Zone in India

The idea behind the Gritfest is to celebrate a legacy built over the last four to five decades. A legacy that should be preserved for posterity as it has been thus far. “The objective is to think about the future,” said Mo, as he jogged his memory from back in the days. Furthermore, the fest also aims to encourage and educate aspiring climbers on traditional climbing: a form of climbing that requires climbers to place gear to protect against falls, and remove it when a pitch is complete.

Mo leading Aries at the Prow.

Sadly, the fest also takes place at a time when the government of Haryana seeks to amend an age-old act,  the Punjab Land Preservation Act, 1900 (PLPA), that would put thousands of acres of land in the Aravalli range under threat. India’s Supreme Court, however, has reigned in and we will likely know the outcome in the days to come.

The know-how around trad climbing rests with a handful of members in the community. This also makes the Gritfest ideal for supporting a trad-exploration pivot in the country. Dhauj, also home to the oldest fold mountains in India, has been scoped out with lines that go over 100 feet. The guidebook compiled by Mohit Oberoi documents some fine world-class routes since the early stages of climbing in and around Delhi. With grades ranging between 5.4 to 5.12a, Dhauj has more than 270 promising routes.

The fest kicked off with Mo leading the first pitch on Aries, a 5.6 rating, 60 feet high face at the prow, while the community followed. Seeing Mo repeat some of the climbs he’s been doing for over 30 years was exhilarating to say the least. Amongst the fellow climbers, we also had some professional athletes, including Sandeep Maity, Bharat Bhusan, and Prerna Dangi. The fest also saw participation from the founders of Suru Fest and BoulderBox.

Kira rappelling down from the top of Hysteria with a stengun, 5.10a.

“Trad climbing can be a humbling experience”

While the Gritfest finally came to fruition, I wondered as to why it took so long for it to happen. One of the questions that I particularly had in mind was regarding the popularity of places such as Badami and Hampi over Dhauj. Although the style of climbing varies across all regions, the scope and thrill of climbing in Dhauj remains underestimated. For one reason, I knew that there is a serious dearth of trad climbing skills which makes it partly inaccessible. Whereas the red sandstone crags bolted with possibly the best sports routes in India make the approach to Badami relatively easier.

I reached out to Mo, and asked him to share his perspective on the fest as well as some of the questions I had in mind.

1) Tell us a little about your thoughts on theGritfest?

It’s a great way for climbers to get together and climb, form new partnerships, share information and also solidify the ethic part of climbing, especially in Dhauj, which is purely a trad climbing area.

2) What is it that the current community can learn from Gritfest?

The possibility of climbing in Dhauj is huge and there exists such an amazing playground right on their doorstep, also Dhauj is an amazing place to learn “trad climbing”.

3) Since it was the first installment, where do you see it heading in the future?

I think it will grow to a large number of climbers congregating here as long as we KEEP IT SIMPLE, and climb as much as possible. We should keep the learning workshops “How to climb” type of courses out of this. This should be one event where we just climb at whatever level we feel comfortable with.

4) Why is it that Dhauj isn’t nearly as popular as Badami or Hampi?

I’m not sure why, really. It’s possible that the grades are not “bragging” grades and climbers don’t feel comfortable starting to lead or climb on “trad” at a lower range of grades. “Trad” climbing can be a humbling experience as one has to work up from the lower grades upwards. It is both a mental and physical challenge unlike climbing on bolts. Despite the guidebook, there is a reluctance to going out to Dhauj which surprises me, that Delhi / NCR locals would rather have travelled more times to Badami / Hampi than take a short ride to their local crag.

Perhaps it is about bragging rights. Perhaps it’s about the lack of skills. Whatever the reason might be, Dhauj will continue to inspire generations to come and fests like Gritfest will serve to strengthen our community. Whether you are new to climbing or have been at it for years, there is always something to learn.

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