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Using old ways, lifelong friends farm for the future

When it comes to embodying sustainable lifestyles, look no further than these two farmers. James Plate and Max Fields have maintained a friendship since the second grade. They then attended Fort Lewis College together and founded Fields to Plate, a farm rooted in quality and responsibility.

“Our whole goal was to build resilience through our farming practices,” says Plate (Business Administration, ’14). “It’s about feeding our community, first and foremost, and then doing it with as little carbon footprint impact as we can achieve.”

Plate and Fields (Environmental Studies, ’15) started the company that bears their fortuitous surnames in 2013 through the market garden incubator program at the Old Fort campus, in Hesperus. The incubator program provides educational classes, access to land and water, and infrastructure to farmers just starting out.

“We were out there every single day throughout the summers,” Plate says. “We absorbed as much knowledge as we possibly could, working with producers in the region for the two years before we started the farm.”

The population of Southwest Colorado is particularly keen to support local producers, Plate says, acknowledging that this environment also leads to a surplus of competition during the summer months. That situation led him and Fields to define the flavor of their farm.

“We really saw a lack of local food in the shoulder season, in the fall, winter, and spring,” Plate says. “And we also looked at what are chefs and buyers are lacking from producers. So we focused on root crops.”

It’s about feeding our community, first and foremost, and then doing it with as little carbon footprint impact as we can achieve.

Basically, these farmers decided to utilize the root cellar technique at the Old Fort—no walk-in refrigeration, instead relying on the earth itself to overwinter their tubers, onions, and root vegetables. To this day, these winter crops are their specialty, though they also dedicate some land each year to succession summer crops and other produce.

Of course Fields to Plate strives to grow as much food as possible. Yet these guys are much more focused on the quality of their food and its environmental impacts than they are on sheer tonnage.

“We really adhere to traditional techniques of preserving food—canning and root cellaring,” Plate says. “And our style of farming—root crops, small scale agriculture—utilizes a lot of these old tractors that were designed back in the forties and fifties when there was a lot more production of our style happening nationwide.”

“Ultimately,” he says, “we use organic methods and old techniques that are less fossil fuel intensive.”

When it comes to distribution, Fields to Plate serves a number of regional restaurants and grocery stores, as well as running their own farm stands at local markets. Plate explains that the majority of their work at farm stands is educating patrons on delicious and nutritious ways to prepare these crops.

“It's a very difficult industry that we're involved in, because vegetables are bar none the cheapest product you can buy at the supermarket,” he explains. “But, when people have the knowledge to prepare foods, they also have the highest nutrient content that folks are going to receive.”

Ever since graduating from FLC, Fields and Plate have maintained ties with their alma mater. They placed second in 2016’s inaugural Hawk Tank Business Plan Competition, hosted by the School of Business Administration, and they continue to hire interns through the Environmental Studies program.

One of their first interns, Kale Casasanto-Zimmerman (Environmental Studies, ’15), is now a full-time employee of Fields to Plate. Casasanto-Zimmerman sees himself integrating his FLC experience with his new career on a regular basis.

“It opened up a different way of looking at the way the world operates,” he says while selling beets at a recent Fields to Plate farm stand. “It changed and highlighted previous ideas that I had. Whereas a lot of people aren’t open to new ways, I think that’s what’s important about the Environmental Studies major at the Fort.”

Both this openness to new ideas, and the willingness to return to old ways, have nurtured Fields to Plate into the wider world. This past season, the farm moved out of the Old Fort and into its new digs in the Animas Valley. Plate says they produced on five acres this past year, growing about a hundred thousand pounds of produce. And along the way, these lifelong friends have remained as focused as ever.

“If we can create a high nutrient rich product, lower our carbon footprint, and create what we believe to be a premier product,” Plate says, “then we’re making sure that folks are receiving the best food they can possibly get.”

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