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A glimpse at the future of farming in the Roaring Fork Valley

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Jen Ghigiarelli moves sheep at Rock Bottom Ranch.
Chris Cohen/courtesy photo

Farmers often see their best-laid plans go awry. They suffer heartbreaking lows nearly as often as spirit-soaring highs. Their work is physically and mentally demanding. They must find rewards beyond pay.

They wouldn’t want it any other way, at least not this year’s crew at Rock Bottom Ranch in the Emma area.

Mariah Foley is the “vegetable lead” at the midvalley ranch for a second season this year and is working her fifth year full-time in agriculture. She got interested in farming while attending the University of Denver.

“Hopefully, my 18-year-old self would be proud I’m still with it,” said Foley, now 26.

Rock Bottom Ranch is owned and operated by Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. The nonprofit uses the ranch to demonstrate how agriculture can coexist with wildlife and nature. It promotes sustainable and regenerative practices.

The Rock Bottom Ranch crew is expanding efforts to teach a broader audience about its practices. All of its operations, from planting to harvesting vegetables and from assisting in births to the slaughtering of livestock, will be captured on video and words. The material will be offered to the world to absorb.

The effort kicked off Thursday night with a panel discussion of this year’s crew. For the second year in a row, the crew is all women. Three veteran and three first-year farmers shared their experiences about the work they do as well as their hopes and dreams for themselves and for agriculture overall.

“I anticipated farming being really hard, which it has been,” said Kathleen Voight, 23, a first-year farmer who joined Rock Bottom Ranch to learn about the relationship between food production and sustainable land management.

The day-to-day experience, she said, is gritty and challenging, but she’s finding answers to the issue that piqued her interest.

Dara Unger, 22, another vegetable crew member, dabbled with farming at college, working four hours a couple days per week. Now, she’s in her first year at Rock Bottom with a particular interest in small-scale vegetable production. She often works from sunrise to sunset.

“I’ve become a lot stronger,” she said.

Maddi Sorrentino, 23, has a background in wildlife biology but felt disconnected with the animals. She is working with the cows, pigs, sheep, goats and chickens at Rock Bottom Ranch in her first year there. The experience is much more hands-on. She said she finishes every day more satisfied than with any other job she has held.

“I do think farming is physically and mentally demanding,” she said, quickly adding that it also is energizing.

Despite the challenges, all first-year farmers said they intend to stick with their new careers, some maybe for a year or two, others for longer.

Unger said the job requires a lot of trial-and-error experimentation. She is determined, she said, “to get it right.”

Sorrentino said she already has gained insights that will lead to better food choices for the rest of her life. She intends to keep expanding her knowledge.

“After just one season, I’m completely hooked,” she said.

The veteran farmers indicated they are in agriculture for the long haul.

“I think at this point, my eggs are in one basket,” Foley said, though she admitted it can be tough. She has seen many of her peers hit barriers.

The biggest reward can’t be bought, according to Foley.

“It’s the realization that people are making a meal (out of) the food we’re growing,” she said.

Rock Bottom Ranch has the advantage of ACES’s deep pockets. While the nonprofit organization isn’t blindly plowing money into the ag operation, it is able to ease the lack of capital that face many small farmers.

Foley said America’s food system needs to be overhauled. The goal should be providing ample healthy food, not necessarily making a profit. The system should be designed with feeding people as the starting point, she said.

Jen Ghigiarelli, 31, the livestock and site lead, said land ownership systems need to shift “quite a bit” for farming to be more viable. Entry into the business is prohibitive for anyone who doesn’t have inherent land, particularly in areas like the Roaring Fork Valley, where prices are so high.

The United States needs farming to be viable to ensure communities are well fed and food access is secure, she said.

Alyssa Barsanti, 29, who has been at Rock Bottom for six seasons and is now agriculture manager, said the longer she’s been there, the more confident she is of possessing the skills to make a farm of her own successful.

One important lesson is that farming is humbling.

“You grow emotionally as you get all these curve balls thrown at you,” Barsanti said.

The veteran farmers spoke of a subtle, societal pressure to strike out on their own. Ghigiarelli said the farming part doesn’t daunt her, but she’s not sure her passion for farming could carry over to running her own business.

“I’m not really passionate about accounting and business marketing,” she said with a laugh.

Ghigiarelli also noted that if she was in a point in her life where she wanted to start a family, she’s not sure farming would be a viable path. That said, she cannot imagine pursuing another career at this point.

“Farming just ruins you for all kinds of other work,” she said.


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