Sustainable Settings: Learning from the land
Special to the Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
CARBONDALE, Colorado – Pulling in to Sustainable Settings’ whole systems learning center, just south of Carbondale along Highway 133, a visitor is greeted by smoke and guns. Make that Smoke and Guns, with a capital “S” and a capital “G” – a pair of large, white, Great Pyrenees dogs, whose names belie their personalities. These two are big sweethearts, but ranch director Brook Le Van, who co-founded the organization in the late 1990s with his wife, Rose, says he couldn’t run the place without them. “They chase predators and bark,” he explained. “They’ve even treed a bear and a [mountain] lion.” Fortunately for the visitor, the dogs prefer a belly-rub to a chase around the barn.
Animals are a big part of this 240-acre working ranch, homesteaded by the Thompson family more than a century ago and purchased for use by Sustainable Settings in 2003. In addition to four dogs, a friendly barn cat, and a new quarter horse, the ranch is home to hundreds of chickens of varying breeds; turkeys; black-faced Suffolk sheep; a large, pregnant pig; two Belgian draft horses; a herd of spotted, Guernsey cows, calves and bulls; and a charming Nubian goat.
Most of the livestock are heritage breeds. Sort of like heirloom tomatoes, only livestock. “A heritage breed is an older breed that has fallen out of favor in the commercial world,” explained Rose on an egg-gathering tour of the pens. Take chickens, for example. “Typically in the commercial world, you want a small chicken that doesn’t eat much but lays a lot of eggs,” she said. “And those kind of things don’t really go together.”
Rose’s chickens are large, free-range birds. The multi-colored hens lay brown, white, and sometimes pale green eggs. Chicks are usually shipped in the spring from New Mexico but, said Rose, the ranch is slowly hatching its own stock.
In addition to the eggs, Sustainable Settings, an entrepreneurial nonprofit, sells produce at the Aspen Farmers Market and raw milk from its new, solar-powered dairy to people who invest as shareholders in the Guernsey herd. The milking room holds only two cows at a time, but for the Le Vans, small – and local – is beautiful. And it’s what 240 acres can handle.
Brook and Rose designed the ranch as an experiment to build a diversified, sustainable agricultural operation using the resources at hand. The land came with senior water rights to the Low Line Ditch and the Pioneer Ditch, which flow from the Thompson Creek and Crystal River watersheds. Close to a third of the place is irrigated. The remaining pasture is wild. “Our 90 acres of arable land is the largest collector of the sun’s energy,” explained Brook. “Off of that, we harvest meat, vegetables, eggs and fiber.”
Photovoltaic-generated energy warms water for domestic use, space heat and radiant systems. Other energy needs are met by Holy Cross Electric. “We do live in the world,” said Brooke with a chuckle. Meaning, they drive a car (a Prius) and use diesel-powered equipment. “But we also have draft horses and are trying to move off the grid.”
The purpose of the ranch is to “create and model integrated strategies for sustainable living” based on natural systems. Diversified agriculture, green development, land stewardship and the importance of local food are cornerstones. “Humanity has destroyed and altered the food system to the point where we’re sick,” said Brook. “We need to live within nature’s economy.” That means farming within the limits of the land without forcing it to produce more. “That’s what sustainability is all about,” he added. “Knowing when enough is enough.”
The organization also offers internships, a kids’ camp, and school programs plus classes and workshops about sustainable agriculture and whole systems design. Brook has taught small-scale, high-altitude organic farming for the Colorado State Extension Service, the Farm Bureau, and community-based growers throughout the state. “We are an open book,” he said. “We teach and share all the things we have learned – both the things that work and the things that don’t.”
Bee Guardianship is the first offering this spring at the ranch. And Brook teaches a sustainable agriculture course at Colorado Mountain College, beginning May 26.
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