Who knew there was a vineyard producing wine grapes in Burlington, that some of the state's best Pueblo green chiles come from Colorado Springs, or that sweet and earthy beets grow at 7,600 feet just outside of Durango? Colorado Proud -- the marketing branch of the Colorado Division of Agriculture -- has been highlighting these products and more all month with its Choose Colorado tour, which gathered produce from seventeen stops in eleven cities across the state, culminating in a lunch at the History Colorado Center attended by Governor John Hickenlooper and Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture John Salazar.
Colorado Proud's focus on the state's farmers and ranchers is part of the reason why agriculture has grown so much in recent years. According to Salazar, who spoke briefly before yesterday's lunch, "Colorado agriculture exports have doubled since 2010," and Hickenlooper credits farmers and ranchers as "a huge part of the state's ability to weather the recession" and rebound quickly.
In addition to state dignitaries, a few of the food producers were on hand to enjoy the lunch. Among them were Max Fields and James Plate, two Fort Lewis College students (Plate recently graduated while Fields is still enrolled) taking advantage of a grant program to set up a root vegetable farm in nearby Hesperus, on the Old Fort Lewis Field Station Hesperus Trust land.
Plate and Fields have been selling beets, carrots and other root vegetables under the aptly named Fields to Plate Produce moniker for the past two years. Starting with a half-acre, they expanded to a full acre this year, aiming for production of one pound of produce per square foot of soil. Because they are dedicated to organic growing practices, they say that the hardest part of selling vegetables is pricing them so that they can make some money and not scare away customers.
The two were inspired to grow beets after seeing historic photos of the land showing the original gardens on the Field Station that supplied produce for either the military or the college. The land they farm is part of an incubator program through the college; they are allowed to lease their plot at a very low rate but can only stay in the program for four years before buying or leasing their own land.
Eventually they plan to move their farming operation, and hope to find a lease-to-own situation with a dozen acres or more, according to Plate. In the meantime, they'll be figuring out how to up their production over the next couple of years to help provide the local community with a steady supply of root vegetables. "This region is a food desert," says Fields of the area surrounding Durango. "Most of the food is brought in from somewhere else." His concern is that winter storms can shut down access routes, so he and Plate are focusing on vegetables that are good fresh but that can also be stored through the cold months.
In addition to selling produce directly to customers and stores, Fields to Plate beets are featured in a Durango ice cream and on a pizza at Fired Up Pizzeria. Fields says they've also sold some beets to Carver Brewing Co., where a beet and garam masala IPA is in the works.
Chefs Jason Morse and Kurt Boucher featured Field to Plate beets in an appetizer of roasted beets and honey-stewed onions with a Pueblo green chile vinaigrette. The two farmers, who eat beets almost every day, say they were blown away by the presentation and flavors.
Other dishes at the lunch included Colorado lamb in a gastrique made from grapes grown on Worden Farm in Burlington, a Colorado beef salad topped with charred scallions from Fort Collins, and a Palisade peach and rhubarb crisp with caramelized Rocky Ford cantaloupe.
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