The hoof prints of about 500 sheep could be seen across resting garden plots, marks from the months they spent playing a crucial role in rebuilding the soil that will host this growing season’s bounty. The sheep ate, shat, and stomped around the gardens for the winter, their excrement an input of nutrients and their stamps in the soil the perfect reservoirs for collecting moisture from spring squalls.
The sheep had been moved to pasture, and the budding vegetable sprouts growing in nearby greenhouses were being prepped for planting. By summer, the gardens will morph into the nutrient-rich, knee-high produce of Fields to Plate, an alumni-owned organic farm located 20 minutes north of Durango, Colorado.
“Vegetable farming is very extractive in nature; every day you’re taking nutrients off your farm,” Max Fields (Environmental Studies, '15) said. “We’re constantly thinking about how we not only maintain soil nutrient balance but also build it. Animals are the biggest part of that for us.”
Farmers typically bring in outside products, like fertilizer, to their growing fields. Originally, Fields to Plate did the same, but, as Fields put plainly, it just made more sense to bring in sheep. Utilizing this ethos of rotational growing and grazing, the farm is not just a stand-out among regional producers, it’s stand-alone.
“Vegetable farming is very extractive in nature; every day you’re taking nutrients off your farm. We’re constantly thinking about how we not only maintain soil nutrient balance but also build it. Animals are the biggest part of that for us.”
— Max Fields (Environmental Studies, '15)
“We’re the only farm in the Animas Valley, region, and possibly the state using these methods,” James Plate (Business Administration, '14) said. “I truly believe you’re getting the most nutrients possible out of our crops because of the soil we grow them in.”
Seeds of knowledge
Fields and Plate—yes, they happen to have awesomely apt names—began farming in 2013. They were some of the first farmers to lease land at the Old Fort through the Farmer Training program, which concentrates on high-elevation food production. Farmers in the program are provided access to land, irrigation, harvest sheds, coolers, root cellars, educational classes, and even marketing assistance.
Nearly 80% of previous Old Fort trainees are still farming or are involved in the food industry, working in careers such as farm inspectors or nursery managers.
“We wouldn’t be farming today if we didn’t have the access and immense support that we did through the Old Fort,” Plate said. “If people want food to continue to be grown, they have to support programs like the Old Fort and the producers at farmers markets.”
Beth LaShell, coordinator of the Old Fort, said the premise of the Farmer Training program is simple—learn to grow food—but the environmental variables of the Southwest make things a bit more complex.
“We’re high-elevation, arid, and irrigation-dependent,” LaShell said. “That’s what makes our program unique and what we do best is teach farmers how to grow in those conditions. I just tell them, ‘put your head down and grow.’”
Fields to Plate did just that as beginner farmers, and according to LaShell, they did it right. They took classes at FLC, including over the summer, and were two of the first students enrolled in Colorado Building Farmers, an experiential and classroom-based program that helps farmers across the state build business and crop management plans. When LaShell saw them sitting in the front row of her Animal Science class, she realized they were going to be more than just farmers. They were setting their course to be holistic stewards of a food ecosystem, not working against but with the land.
Growing a business
Fields to Plate leased land at the Old Fort for four years, growing their business and name through farmers markets and wholesales to restaurants and grocers around the Four Corners. In 2017, they had the opportunity to put down roots in the fertile, glaciated Animas Valley just north of Durango. On a 120-acre ranch beneath the red cliffs of Missionary Ridge, they grow 10 acres of certified-organic vegetables and tend to hay and sheep on the remaining 110 acres.
Raising a sheep breed adapted to the regional environment with palatable meat is essential to the farmers—and is in line with their philosophy of working with the land. Fields to Plate raises a heritage breed of sheep called the Navajo Churro, a hearty breed Navajo people have traditionally raised in the Southwest since the early 1500s. A few years into their operations, they chanced upon a small herd for purchase and have now more than doubled their herd size. Since the lambs are accustomed to high-elevation conditions, Fields to Plate can butcher in the spring, which means more helping hooves in the gardens over the winter.
Fields to Plate will produce 200,000 pounds of vegetables in a typical growing season, selling most of their product to a wholesaler that distributes to a 350-member CSA (community-supported agriculture), restaurants, and grocers across the Western Slope. Their signature crops are carrots and beets, each possessing a pop of sweetness born from the unique soil profile. Root vegetables can be grown anywhere, but good soil means great flavor.
“The micronutrients and minerals in the soil play a huge factor in taste,” Plate said. “You could grow the same variety in different soils and get a totally different flavor profile.”
The root vegetables are biannual, producing flowers or going to seed every two years. Part of the plant’s life cycle includes wintering, which means growing a taproot all summer long for a nutrient source to use over the winter. Fields to Plate will seed carrots in June. As the plants convert their taproots' starches into sugar in preparation for winter, harvest begins.
“We’re basically eating that plant’s energy pack,” Plate said. “We’ll start to harvest in August, and if you shop with us at the farmers market, you’ll notice the flavor profile getting sweeter on a weekly basis.”
The root of it all
Farming at elevation means Fields to Plate has a limited frost-free window of only 90 days for growing produce. To sustain their business year-round, most of their fall harvest is kept in a cold-storage root cellar and sold throughout the winter. The cold storage mimics what root vegetables would experience over the winter—high humidity, moisture, and very low temperatures—and is a generations-old method.
“Using a root cellar is the keystone of our business structure,” Plate said. “When we moved to the Animas Valley, we went knocking door-to-door, asking landowners if we could use their root cellars.”
The Animas Valley has many historic root cellars, traditionally used to store potatoes for miners. A neighbor just down the road from the ranch happened to have the perfect, slightly dilapidated cellar for Fields to Plate to use.
From their start at the Old Fort to securing land and a cellar in the Animas Valley, from building a thriving produce business to taking on sheep, timing their opportunities right is also a keystone of success for Fields to Plate.
“A lot of ag is time and place,” Plate said. That and a foundation of healthy soil stomped by sheep.
Putting knowledge into practice
Fields to Plate is more than just an alumni-run farm, it’s backed by two of Fort Lewis College’s best experiential learning opportunities: the Old Fort Farmer Training program and Hawk Tank Business Plan Competition.
In 2016, Fields to Plate competed in the School of Business Administration’s inaugural Hawk Tank. The competition helps alumni and student entrepreneurs take their business idea from concept to storefront—or farmstand—and awards startup cash. Fields to Plate placed second, coming away with a cash prize to invest in their budding business.
Within a year of the competition, Fields to Plate successfully coupled their Hawk Tank achievement and Old Fort farmer training and established a prosperous produce business rooted in the Animas Valley.
Learn more about Fields to Plate—and purchase produce or meat—at fieldstoplateproduce.com.