EL JEBEL - As winter edges toward spring, the prospect of a meal cooked with fresh ingredients, as locally produced as possible, can serve as a harbinger of better times to come.
In Garfield County and the lower Roaring Fork Valley, the usual providers of local foods have been farmers markets that spring up in early summer, stay in business until mid-fall and close down for the winter.
But three very local outlets have remained open through the winter months, offering what they can in terms of organic and locally grown produce, mostly organic prepared foods and a variety of healthy meats, cheeses and dairy products.
The three are the Osage Gardens holistic farm between New Castle and Silt on the old Colorado River Road, the Carbondale Food Co-op on Main Street in Carbondale, and the Eagle Crest Nursery Winter Market, in El Jebel.
The Osage Gardens market store, 36730 River Frontage Road, is a tiny thing, maybe 250 square feet in size, but loaded with an unexpected amount of foods for sale, even in winter.
It is not, strictly speaking, a farmers market that appears once or twice a week at a parking lot or other public location.
But it is a market outlet for farmers, whether the farms are in the Colorado and Roaring Fork valleys or further afield.
Located on the south side of I-70, it is about four miles west of New Castle and is reached via a ranch-access bridge, which carries traffic from U.S. Highway 6 over the interstate to the frontage road. Signs along Highway 6 point the way.
The market carries, among other things, produce from about two and a half acres of greenhouse space, located both behind the store and at Osage Gardens' original farm, which is to the north of Highway 6.
The store also carries produce from organic farms in Paonia, Palisade and other parts of Colorado, and from other nearby states.
Tomatoes in a stacked array of boxed produce are from the Osage Gardens greenhouses, explained Rachel Reiter, manager of the farm store and the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) part of the business.
She said the tomato plants are grown in soil that is artificially warmed, which Reiter said gives the resulting fruit a moister and more "tomato-y" flavor than tomatoes grown hydroponically (in a water medium, without soil).
Eggs from free-range chickens, or chickens not raised on traditional hormone-and-chemical laden feed, take up space in a stand-up cooler.
But, Reiter noted, "Chickens don't lay eggs in the cold weather. Well, they lay, but they don't like it," so the supply of eggs may not be as constant in the colder months as it is in summer.
The store carries meat products from Crystal River Meats in Carbondale, fish from Kaleb's Katch LLC in Gypsum, and freshly baked bread from the Avon Bakery in Eagle County.
While Osage Gardens started out more than two decades ago strictly as a CSA farm - meaning customers bought "shares" in the operation and received weekly deliveries of produce - the current model is something called "Fresh Eats," Reiter said.
In the Fresh Eats system, she explained, members maintain a running account at the store and make daily or weekly purchases against that account, regularly depositing money to keep the account current and their purchasing power active.
The Osage Gardens farm itself, Reiter said, is mostly dedicated to non-vegetable farming.
"We're primarily culinary herb growers," she said of Osage Gardens.
But with the trade in vegetables, produced foods and other products, she said, "I like to think of it as a CSA/Coop hybrid."
Osage Gardens can be reached by phone at 970-876-5445, or at the website, www.osagegardens.com.
The Carbondale Community Food Cooperative, 559 Main St., also is not a traditional "farmers market," since it is open seven days a week, year-round.
There is no one farm that grows produce for the Co-op, as it is known, but it nonetheless shares many of the qualities that attract customers to the weekly markets.
It has plenty of organic fruits and vegetables, either from farms in the immediate region or elsewhere in Colorado, including everything from Brussels sprouts to snow peas, jalapeno peppers to broccoli, tomatoes to avocados, garlic to mangos, and much more.
The Co-op carries herbs from Osage Gardens, bulk grains from organic suppliers, dry goods, toiletries, vitamins and supplements, and "lots of chocolates," as a sign at the front door announced the weekend following Valentine's Day.
Originally a buyers club for local lovers of organic foods, the Co-op began selling memberships in 2007 to build capital and open a storefront. That storefront expanded in 2012, taking over a neighboring vacant space and doubling its available square footage.
Although it is only about seven miles from the newly opened Whole Foods grocery store in El Jebel, it appears to be thriving despite the gargantuan competition just down the road.
"We're busier than we were last year, when we were half the size," said volunteer Amy Ellena, who was running the cash register recently.
Although it is a members' co-op, meaning members get certain discounts, nonmembers are welcome to shop there.
The store is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays; and noon to 6 p.m. on Sundays.
Diane Mundinger is the general manager of Eagle Crest Nursery, 0400 Gillespie Drive in El Jebel, and primary manager of its Saturday winter food market, which is the relocated location of the old Willits Winter Market that closed down in spring 2012.
Mundinger is quick to point out that the market was due to shut down for the year on Feb. 23 but will now be open until March 16 to meet popular demand.
After that, she said, the space currently used for the market will be taken over by bedding plants for the spring planting season, as part of the nursery's normal course of business.
In the meantime, she said, "We have not as much produce as we'd like, but it is winter."
The market features one vendor - the Bottoms Up Farm from Paonia - that offers fresh produce from farmers in the Paonia area, said vendor Alesia Riehl.
"I get it from a lot of different farmers," Riehl said, naming off Osage Gardens in Garfield County and, in Delta County, Eagle Springs and Small Potatoes Farm.
"It's all organic, grown in greenhouses," she said. "It's just hard this time of year for everybody to sell, so I just decided to do it for them."
Aside from the produce, she sells eggs laid by Earl's Girls, on the farm of Earl Cabe in Crawford; Upper Crust breads from the bakery of the same name; and wines from the Black Bridge Winery outside of Paonia.
Riehl's contributions include homemade pesto and pork products.
"I do pigs real well," she said with a grin.
Another Western Slope vendor at Eagle Crest, Elissa Buckley, does business as the d'Elissious Cake Studio of Aspen.
A veteran of the three-year run at the old Willits Winter Market site, Buckley said the Eagle Crest spot is starting out slowly, but is expected to expand both in terms of its customer numbers and the number of vendors selling their wares.
"I think it will grow," she said hopefully.