Nelson Harvey
Rifle, CO Colorado

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July 3, 2012
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Folly in the fields: Looking for a free lunch on the farm

It's 96 degrees at three in the afternoon, and I'm pounding wooden stakes into a bed of peas, struggling to drive them deep into the hardpan soil.

As the sweat streams down my back, I remember an old joke about an economist who refused to pick up a $20 bill she found on the sidewalk. The reason? According to economic theory, if the bill were real, someone would have picked it up already.

The joke is meant to illustrate the fact that in business, there's no such thing as a free lunch. And in competitive markets, opportunities are often snatched up just as soon as they appear.

Which makes me wonder: What if a commercial vegetable farm at an elevation of 6,200 feet is like that mirage of a $20 bill? If such an enterprise were profitable, after all, wouldn't it already exist? Will our foray into high alpine agriculture, on river bottom land on the outskirts of Carbondale, ultimately prove to be a fool's errand?

Certainly, we won't make a free lunch of peas alone - the succulent spring treats are notoriously unprofitable, requiring as they do so much maintenance and picking time, and yielding relatively few salable pounds.

But we are a market farm, required to present a weekly cornucopia at our Sunday stand in Basalt, where customers seem to think that freshness and variety trump quantity every time. We must lose money on some items to earn it on others, and so we slave over peas.

I take comfort in the fact that farms have existed here before: In the late 1800s, Thomas McClure established a homestead on this site and began cultivating the potatoes that had been so popular in his native Ireland.

Over the years, he developed the McClure potato, a red and pockmarked tuber known for its superior flavor that soon became a commercial success. By the 1930s, according to the food heritage group, Slow Food Roaring Fork, more than 400 train cars full of potatoes left Carbondale each year, destined for urban markets.

The harsh climate and mountainous topography of Colorado's mountain west would ultimately keep much of the region from becoming a center for large-scale agriculture, and today farms like ours do more to increase the resiliency and variety of our local food scene than to stock the grocery store shelves.

Magpies and flea beetles browse freely on the salad bar we've planted. As a certified organic operation, we're precluded from using many pesticides. Squirrels slip easily through the oversized holes in our recently erected deer fence, and marmots totter contentedly around its perimeter, awaiting the free meal they'll enjoy when we've left for the day.

Yet, as I finish trellising the unprofitable peas, I recall the joke about the economist and the $20 bill is often told to illuminate the holes in economic theory. Unexploited business opportunities, like lost $20 bills, sometimes do materialize. And most people look for more than money as they walk down the street.

Farming has long been a vocation whose fringe benefits outweigh its financial rewards. The view to the south from our "office" among the garden beds is the looming ridge of Basalt Mountain, and at least for now, a pristine creek flows past along the fence.

At day's end, we eat what we produce, which is more than you can do with the email correspondence that is the sole product of many modern jobs.

We remain almost comically dependent on the increasingly volatile whims of the climate. Last year was too wet, this one far too dry. But the best answer to volatility is diversity, and whether the economists would agree or not, that's reason enough to bring a bit of our food production closer to home.

Nelson Harvey is an employee of RoarinGardens, a market garden and geothermal greenhouse on the outskirts of Carbondale. He's also a regular contributor to The Citizen Telegram and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.

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The Post Independent Updated Jul 3, 2012 07:11PM Published Jul 3, 2012 06:42PM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.