Colorado Rocky Mountain School prepares for major agriculture project
Special to the Post Independent
From Red Hill, just north of Carbondale, hikers and bikers often enjoy an iconic view of the town with majestic Mount Sopris looming in the background. The view makes for stunning, panoramic photographs, including a historic black-and-white that graces the wall of Joe White’s office.
The finance director for Colorado Rocky Mountain School points out that Highway 133 didn’t exist when the photo was taken in 1910, nor did all of its storefronts, parking lots and power lines.
“It’s fun to see what’s changed since this picture was taken, but what I really appreciate is what’s still the same,” he says. “When we put land that was historically in agriculture back into agriculture, then we’re returning to our roots and our culture and our history.”
The boarding school for grades 9-12, along with many properties surrounding Carbondale, was originally a working ranch, and that rough-hewn heritage still characterizes the campus. But only about two of the school’s 300-plus acres are devoted currently to food production.
The Tick Ridge Meadows Sustainable Agriculture Project will soon change that.
Using a historic water right to irrigate 8 acres just across the Crystal River from the main campus, school officials are preparing both a major expansion of the garden program and an extension of the CRMS curriculum into the outdoors.
“This school really has the potential to be a showcase, to be the leading model for farm-to-school agriculture and curriculum,” said Heather McDermott, director of the garden program. “It’s exciting to think of the different ways we can interface with the academic parts of the school.”
While school administrators ponder the academic opportunities presented by the agricultural expansion — think everything from soil chemistry to the geopolitics of sustainable farming — McDermott is contemplating what to grow on the site. The garden program already produces root vegetables, leafy greens, squashes, tomatoes, beans, peppers, herbs and fruit.
One idea getting traction is the notion of growing pumpkins on a portion of Tick Ridge Meadows and selling them to the public. It’s not a certainty yet, but a pre-Halloween fundraiser could boost the school’s bottom line and, along with the ever-popular May 20-21 Annual Plant Sale, deepen community ties.
“Pumpkins are big and orange,” McDermott laughed. “Who doesn’t love pumpkins?”
FIRST CROP IN 2018
Recently, the school partnered with Natural Resource Conservation Service and Soil Conservation District to install a pipe and deliver water to Tick Ridge Meadows, which was farmed before the school’s founding and became an athletic field for a time.
Later this year, an electric pump and irrigation system will be added to spread water across the fields. McDermott expects to plant a cover crop this year to hold the soil in place. That crop will be plowed under in the fall to prepare the soil for the first real food crop in 2018. By that time, a 75-horsepower tractor will be on site to help manage all that new farmland, and a drip irrigation system will ensure efficient use of water.
The bulk of the new produce will go, as do the fruits and vegetables from today’s garden program, to the kitchen at the Bar Fork cafeteria, which feeds students and staff.
“Our current garden footprint can only supply the kitchen with so much produce,” McDermott explained. “The maximum amount was about 12,000 pounds in one summer.”
To date, the garden program has produced about 20 percent of the produce consumed at the school. The additional 8 acres of farmland will enable McDermott to let some ground lie fallow each growing season and thus regenerate the soil.
“We’ll be able to increase our production, but we’ll also be able to treat the soil better,” McDermott said.
McDermott looks forward to engaging greater numbers of students in the demanding and rewarding work of sustainable food production. Tick Ridge is already home to a couple of homes for school staff and a small trail network, which shouldn’t be affected by the agricultural operation.
CRMS Board President Chelsea Brundige sees the project as another expression of the school’s commitment to responsible land stewardship and conservation. “We have this magnificent piece of property right in the heart of Carbondale,” she said. “We board members see it as central to the CRMS mission to protect that resource and find ways to use it to support experimentation in our program and the education of our kids.”
Directly adjacent to Tick Ridge Meadows, on the north side of Garfield County Road 108, are 18 acres of open space that CRMS placed under a conservation easement. The Aspen Valley Land Trust holds the easement on that parcel. Perhaps the most noticeable demonstration of the school’s conservation ethic is the solar array on the north end of the campus. That joint venture with the Aspen Skiing Co. supplies about 200,000 kilowatt-hours of clean power to the school and the town.
In 2016, CRMS concluded a $10.6 million capital campaign that added new classrooms and dorms, and remodeled several existing buildings. But that flurry of development was performed with a careful eye toward renewing old structures, preserving green spaces and maintaining views across and within the campus.
“We certainly have (sold) parcels in the past and may do so in the future, but there’s always been a sense that the greater community has an interest in the openness of our space,” said Finance Director White. “I feel like the land has been conserved by virtue of the school’s ownership.”
By expanding the garden program across the river, school officials feel they’re honoring the school’s agricultural heritage and pointing the way toward a greener 21st century.
“Local food production and sustainability — these are things that have always been part of this school and this piece of land,” added White. “It’s fun that those ideas have become cool again.”
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