Chef News

Growing Pains: Chefs and Farmers Talk About This Year's Wild Weather

If there’s one conversation everyone in Denver has had this summer, it’s about the weather. Overcast skies and persistent downpours meant an atypically soggy spring — and now we’re into monsoon season, with blazingly beautiful days punctuated by fast-moving afternoon storms that build over the mountains and race across the Front Range on a near-daily basis. While hail and flooding play havoc with residential gardens, they do far worse to farms and restaurateurs. Many local restaurants rely on local farms — sometimes their own — to supplement plates with beets and carrots so fresh that you can almost smell the earth they were pulled from and greens that still glisten with dew. For them, Colorado weather is more than just a clichéd conversation starter: It shapes what they serve to guests every day.

“Just when I thought I had a handle on farming, I’m learning a whole bunch of stuff based on the weather,” says Eric Skokan, Colorado’s quintessential farmer-chef. In the mornings, a call to his cell phone may find him walking the rows at his Black Cat Farm, calling out in Spanish to his farm crew to point out what’s ready for harvest among the tangle of weeds that have been especially abundant this year. Since Skokan doesn’t use herbicides at his farm, plenty of rain followed by hot, sunny days means everything’s growing — and not just the vegetables. “We’ve got all of our stuff in, but we can’t find it because of all the weeds,” he explains.

The early, critical weeks of the growing season were the most difficult, though. “We had 29 days of rain in a row up here,” Skokan says of his Boulder County acreage. “And then three more days after a day off. “You can’t get into the fields because it compacts the soil,” he continues, pointing out that the earth closer to the foothills is very heavy with clay and absorbs moisture, unlike the sandy soil farther east. “Our soil plus water and compaction equals adobe.” Even with the delays, Skokan says, the crops are now looking great — but he and his crew are having to do two months of work in one to make up for lost time.

Variety is one of the keys to successful organic farming, since certain plants do better when grown together or in a series to keep the soil fertile and minimize pests. That variety will show up at Black Cat Bistro and Bramble and Hare, Skokan’s two Boulder restaurants. In the last week, he’s harvested mizuna, arugula, tat soi, romaine lettuce and baby carrots, along with 800 onions, leeks, young garlic, fava beans, beets, turnips and the first summer squash of the year. His expectation for the rest of the growing season is upbeat. “We’re barely holding on to this roller coaster,” he notes. “You focus on the positive. We should be all caught up just in time for the first frost.”

At Fruition Farms, located at 7,200 feet in the foothills between Larkspur and the Palmer Divide, the season is about a month shorter than at lower elevations along the Front Range, according to farmer Ilse Meyer, who provides produce for restaurateur Alex Seidel’s two eateries, Fruition and Mercantile Dining & Provision (a small amount also goes to Beast + Bottle). Meyer has been with Fruition Farms for two years, but has been farming in Colorado much longer. “The main thing I’m dealing with is that everything is ready at the same time,” she says. Over April and May, Meyer planted four sets of beets and carrots, spread out every two weeks. But because of a combination of the rain, cool weather and then sunnier June, all of the sets matured at the same time.

Bugs have also been a particular problem this year, especially aphids, weevils and potato and cucumber beetles. “They start out in the trees and flow into the lettuces in the greenhouses and the tomatoes in the hoop houses,” Meyer notes. Like Black Cat Farm, Fruition Farms doesn’t use chemicals to control bugs or weeds — but fortunately, the proliferation of insects includes ladybugs, natural predators of aphids and other pests. “I gathered a bag of ladybugs from the fields and brought them into the greenhouses,” she says.

The steady rains of spring meant that soil nutrients were being washed away, as well, so more compost was needed. Since Fruition Farms also raises sheep and pigs, Meyer builds her own compost using a gentle method that keeps nitrogen levels in check so that seedlings can actually grow right in the compost without the roots burning. It’s an ongoing process even now, when the days are mostly sunny. Just last week, one of the most violent storms of the year hit the farm, flooding all of the fields and sending a river of runoff through the middle of the large hoop house. “My schedule is very dependent on rain and hail,” Meyer explains. “If the forecast is for hail, I harvest flowers, squash and zucchini first thing in the morning so they don’t get damaged.”

The current crops are plentiful, though, and Meyer has been doubling the amounts of produce she sends to the restaurants each week. In a three-week period, the Persian cucumber harvest went from four to eight to more than sixteen pounds, and Meyer also sent out fifteen pounds of lettuces, twenty pounds of arugula, ten pounds of young yellow squash and twenty dozen each of beets and carrots.

Jimmy Warren runs the meat-and-dairy side of Fruition Farms. The weather’s been great for him, he says, except that “it’s a pain in the ass when it comes to feeding the pigs.” The farm maintains 125 to 150 animals, including lambs, and the moisture meant that hay and alfalfa were early and abundant this year, so Warren could buy more of the feed at a better price from local producers.

The Squeaky Bean grows produce at its Bean Acre Farm in Lakewood, at a small plot near the restaurant’s original location in lower Highland, and at Warren Tech, a career and technical high school in Jefferson County, where students learn about organic farming and pitch in with labor. Squeaky Bean partner Josh Olsen oversees the production of produce; he agrees that all of the rain has made things more difficult. “We had some washout right after our soil became tillable,” he says, so some early plantings were lost. “We did some sheet mulch, with layers of cardboard and organic matter to combat weeds,” he continues. The process helped with the weeds, but the mulch was too wet and spongy for most of the spring, making working around the applied areas messy.

“Our carrots and beets didn’t pop at first,” he adds, estimating that the growing season is about a month behind. Summer squash is just now starting to produce, when in years past, Olsen would have been harvesting the first batches around Father’s Day. But he doesn’t complain. “Your head’s down, looking at the ground,” is how Olsen puts it. With all the rain, he hasn’t needed to do much additional irrigation, and “the plants are getting huge,” he says, predicting a great end of summer into fall.

Squeaky Bean chef Chris MacGillivray says the veggies are really beginning to come in. Over the past month or so, about 30 percent of the restaurant’s produce has been from Olsen’s plots, and that will shoot up to 60 or 70 percent this month and for the rest of the season.

According to chef-owner Justin Brunson, Old Major uses produce from 10,000 square feet of land maintained by Tim Engel next to Infinite Monkey Theorem in River North. “We try to cook seasonally to Colorado instead of other states,” Brunson says, so Engel’s crops help him keep tabs on the progression of the season and what will be best on the plate, bounty that includes “tomatoes, herbs, garlic, chiles, flowers, cucumbers, sweet corn and lettuces.”

“Our little farm has been pretty fortunate,” Engel says. “The hail that came to the rest of Denver passed over us. But the excess of water has been a little weird. Everything has been about a month behind, and we’re seeing a bump in the population of bugs. We’ve seen a grasshopper explosion, which is frustrating because they eat so much. I had a whole bed of beans that came up and were gone two days later.”

But like Meyer at Fruition Farms, Engel runs a chemical-free operation and relies on good insects to help keep the destructive ones in check. “I’ve never seen so many dragonflies,” he notes. He’s also thinking of bringing in some of his chickens to eat bugs, but he’d have to keep an eye on them, as they love fresh produce as much as do Old Major’s customers.

“We should have a huge fall; I really think we’re going to have a bumper crop,” Engel concludes. Even now, he’s growing enough to send greens and vegetables to Rioja as well as Old Major, and also donating some of his crop to the Denver Rescue Mission. He’ll soon set up a weekend stall at the winery next door, where he lets customers pay on a sliding scale.

Most restaurants that feature seasonal plating and Colorado produce don’t operate their own farms or gardens. At Panzano, chef Elise Wiggins has built a reputation on the quality of ingredients that go onto her menus, which shift with the seasons and focus on regional, organic and sustainable produce. “We’ve been impacted…because we had so much rain and hail during the entire spring and still into summer,” she notes. “Local farmers had to start a lot of their crops over, and then once they got started, there is almost too much rain for some products such as tomatoes. I expect a lot of them will be watered down this year.”

But there is an upside to the rain. “Some crops do well with the extra moisture, such as the Colorado wheat,” Wiggins points out. “Those farmers actually get to cut their watering bill back. There is always an upside to all weather.” And an upside for people who enjoy Panzano’s housemade breads and pastas.

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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation