Farmers in Focus: Oogie McGuire of Desert Weyr Sheep Farm

Perched high above Paonia on Garvin Mesa, Oogie and Ken McGuire raise a flock of grass-fed Black Welsh Mountain sheep on the pasture beneath the family’s heritage apple orchard. Oogie grew up on the farm, where her mother raised sheep and other animals. She fell in love with shepherding when she decided to learn to spin and weave wool in order to make herself a traditional Medieval cloak. She not only ended up with a cloak, but also with a passion for the Black Welsh Mountain breed.

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The Black Welsh Mountain breed originates from the hills of Britain. They are ideal for sustainable sheep production because they are good grazers and excellent mothers. They are also small in size and have a good temperament, which makes it easier for Ken and Oogie to manage the flock by themselves. Desert Weyr’s flock is especially sweet. “We breed for disposition,” Oogie says, “The mean ones become dinner.”

Unlike many sheep farmers around here, Oogie sells mostly mutton, not lamb. Even though the meat is of excellent quality, this can be an uphill battle. Mutton was once considered a prime meat, but after World War II, it fell out of favor in the U.S. Traumatized by gamey tinned rations made of tough, old sheep, soldiers returning from war swore off the stuff. This decimated the American sheep industry for decades. More than half a century later, lamb has made a comeback as a choice protein, but mutton  still has a ways to go.

P1840875Oogie is doing her best to change the perception of mutton being gamey, tough, or old. In fact, when it comes from sheep bred for mutton, the meat is tender and rich. Black Welsh Mountain sheep are particularly known as being superior for mutton. Like lamb, it has a distinct flavor, but it should never be strong or off-putting. Oogie uses the comparison of veal versus a well aged steak. Lamb, like veal, is from very young animals and has a delicate and sweet flavor. Mutton, on the other hand, is from a mature animal, making it’s meat richer and darker.

I ask if there’s another word we can call it–a rebranding, so to speak, for this up and coming meat–but she says she’s bound by law to call it mutton. In the U.S., any sheep slaughtered after one year of age must be sold as mutton. So instead, she’s changing people’s views by raising top quality meat with excellent flavor and giving them a risk free way to give it a try: she offers a 100% satisfaction guarantee.

Tips for Cooking Mutton:

You can cook mutton just about the same as you would cook lamb. Most of the cuts will look the same, but be a bit larger than their lamb equivalent. Braise larger cuts like shoulder and leg roasts. Quickly sear steaks and chops. Classic flavors that pair well with mutton are rosemary, mint, garlic, and mustard seed. Or go the moroccan route with paprika, cumin, garlic, and cinnamon.

For a quick-cooking cut great for the grill, Oogie recommends trying the Pave steak. This uncommon cut comes from the hindquarter and is often lumped together with a leg roast. However, when it is separated out, it is both lean and tender.

Another cut we’re looking forward to trying is the breast. As Darina Allen, author of Forgotten Skills of Cooking (my favorite British cookbook) writes, the breast of lamb or mutton “is the sweet and delicious equivalent of pork belly, and is a very inexpensive cut of meat. Lean layers are interspersed with layers of fat, which renders out and gives the meat a sweet, succulent flavor.” Desert Weyr mutton breast comes rolled into a nice roast, so cooking is simple.

Try this easy recipe from Darina:

  • 1 rolled breast of mutton from Desert Weyr
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons coriander seeds
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons sea salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roast the coriander seeds over medium heat for 3-4 minutes, until they begin to smell aromatic. Transfer to a mortar and pestle or spice grinder and grind into a coarse powder. Mix coriander with salt and spread out in a dish. Roll the roast around in the salt and coriander mixture so that it is coated on all sides. Place in a roasting pan or baking dish and roast until it reaches an internal temperature of 145 degrees (cooking times will depend on size, but start checking around 45 minutes to 1 hr).

 

 

 

Farmers in Focus: Dayspring Eggs

Rosie and David Nunz operate Dayspring Eggs in Olathe, CO. They bought the business about three years ago after David retired from his career as a builder. In addition to raising about 1500 birds of their own, they source eggs from three other local farmers to sell under the Dayspring name. At their small facility, they wash and package up to 30,000 eggs in a week.

Using a color-coded system, they keep track of which eggs come from what farm on what date. While eggs from giant chicken houses can sit up to a month or more before they make it to the grocery store shelf, David and Rosie rarely have eggs for more than about a week.

When eggs come in fresh from the farm, they can be stored unrefrigerated because the shell has a protective coating. Washing the eggs removes this protection, at which point they must be refrigerated. To begin the washing process, eggs are sprayed with a light sanitizing solution before they are rolled on a conveyer belt past the “candling station.” Every single egg is checked for cracks by shining a light onto the shell before it moves through to be rinsed and graded. While Dayspring can lose up to eight percent of their eggs through their strict grading process, they believe in setting high standards for themselves and their other farmers. “If it’s not a good egg, we don’t pay ourselves for it.”

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David and Rosie are committed to providing quality, fresh eggs to their customers. “We go out of our way to get a good product,” says David and it all starts with the health of the hens. If the farmers keep their hens health and feed them a well balanced diet, the number of broken shells goes down dramatically. By adjusting the protein content of the feed, the farmer can influence the size of eggs. Adding supplements like calcium-rich oyster shells helps to strengthen the shells.

All of the chickens that lay eggs for Dayspring are fed a diet of non-GMO grain from West Slope Ag-Center.  Dayspring Eggs are also considered “free range,” which means the hens are never kept in cages, but rather, allowed to roam around their home. At David and Rosie’s, the hens spend most of their time in a shaded hoop-house structure with open floors and free access to food and water. Every couple of days, they are let out into a larger fenced yard to peck around in the grass.

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Terminology in the egg industry can be confusing and misleading. The terms “cage free” and “free range” are unregulated, so it’s important to understand exactly what a producer means when they use these words. In many large chicken houses, free range can mean that the hens only have limited access to a small dirt patch through a tiny door in their dark barn. “It’s a mockery,” says David.

None of the Dayspring hens are ever given antibiotics, and David says there’s really no reason to. He rarely has disease problems with his birds. He attributes it to the fact that the chicken house is exposed to the natural sanitizing effect of UV rays from the sun. Plus, the birds have plenty of room to move around and plenty of ventilation from the open air.

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While David and Rosie give their other farmers freedom to make choices about how their hens are raised, they are all kept to a high standard of a free roaming living environment, access to the outdoors, no antibiotics, and non-GMO feed. When demand outstrips their ability to supply enough eggs, Dayspring also reaches out to some larger egg producers in Olathe and Montrose. When they resort to this, they also only purchase non-GMO, free range eggs (often from certified organic barns).

When asked if they’ve ever considered going in the direction of certified organic eggs, David says it’s not what really matters to him. Though they can fill orders of specifically organically-raised eggs if a customer requests it, providing eggs that are super fresh and from hens that were raised healthfully and humanely is most important.

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Field Trip!

Last week we kicked off the 2017 Spring and Summer Season with what we hope will become an annual tradition–the Farm Runners Field Trip.With more than 25 people, representing over 10 restaurants, this was the largest tour we’ve hosted yet. Thank you so much to all the chefs who took the time to come meet their farmers and get a taste of our valley. We hope it was a day of fun and inspiration.

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After what’s been a volatile spring, we were stunned by a gorgeous day full of sun, puffy clouds, a gentle breeze, and vibrant green views of the valley. Everywhere we went, snow-capped Mount Lamborn provided a stunning backdrop.

Our tour started in Paonia at Rain Crow Farm. Kerry Noonan shared with the whole crew her infectious enthusiasm for her beautiful farm on the banks of the North Fork River. When we arrived, Kerry and her crew were transforming blank canvases of tilled earth into new beds of cooking greens. Kerry’s farm is an edible landscape, with cultivated rows of veggies tucked between wild patches of perennials and stands of wildlife-attracting shrubs and trees. Chickens scratch beneath a small grove of fruit trees. Greenhouses overflow with early season mustards, chois, and flowers.

 

Next stop: Delicious Orchards for a bite to eat and tour of their organic orchard. Delicious is home of Big B’s juice and hard cider, as well as a farm-stand cafe, u-pick orchard, and campground. Lil not only managed to get all the mob of us fed and full of cider, but also taught us about organic orchard management and how to keep delicate fruit blossoms warm when it freezes.

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Last but not least, we wrapped up the tour with a trip to Zimmerman Pork Farm in Hotchkiss. Rick Zimmerman raises berkshire hogs, known to produce some of the best flavored pork around. He and his wife Jeanne also raise several vegetable crops from seed. His greenhouse was bursting with plants like Shishito peppers, okra, and tomatillos ready to get out in the ground. Rick’s down-to-earth style and wealth of information on farming were a perfect way to end the day. Plus, there were baby pigs. And who can doesn’t love a baby pig?

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A big thank you to all of our farmers for taking the time out of their busy schedule to tromp us around. We couldn’t do what we do without you. Here’s to a prolific, successful, and happy season!

Farmers in Focus: The Living Farm

Everywhere you look, The Living Farm is full of life. Under the care of Lynn Gillespie and her family, this fourth-generation farm in Paonia is flourishing in every sense of the word.

The Living Farm’s business model is multi-faceted. Lynn manages about 2 acres of land, which is mostly comprised of greenhouses and outdoor raised beds (a total of 20,000 square feet of actual growing space). In that space, she produces thousands of pounds of produce, runs an educational demonstration garden, and operates a farm-tour program (complete with a petting zoo). Lynn also keeps about 100 sheep on the pasture behind her greenhouses. In addition to using the sheep for meat and dairy, Lynn hand makes a full line of felted wool products like slippers, scarves, mittens, and slippers.

Lynn’s husband Tom and son Ben manage the other 200 acres, growing hay and grains, and raising cows and poultry. Her other son, Mike, runs The Living Farm Cafe in downtown Paonia, using the farm’s produce and meat, plus other local ingredients from Farm Runners and other farmer friends.

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Lynn grew up in Denver and moved to Paonia with her husband Tom about 30 years ago. Tom’s family has been farming this same piece of land at the foot of Mount Lamborn since 1938. Originally, they grew hay and grains and kept animals. When Lynn started having kids, she knew she didn’t want to send her them to daycare, so she had Tom build her a greenhouse to work in.

The “Big House,” first built in 1991, is lush with greens, bedding plants, and strawberries. this time of year. It is heated with geothermal energy, allowing Lynn to grow greens all winter long. When I walked into the house, I was shocked to see her strawberries already a deep red, ripening a good month ahead of everyone else’s around here.

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In the years since she put up her first greenhouse, Lynn has added a couple more greenhouses with innovative heating systems. “Solar has always been a passion of mine, ever since I was a kid,” says Lynn. For her second greenhouse, she uses passive solar energy to heat the soil without petroleum inputs.  Warm air trapped at the peak of the structure gets funneled down black tubes and into a gravel chamber at the base of each cinderblock raised bed. Warm air stored in the gravel radiates to the soil, which can raise the temperature by as much as 13 degrees in the winter.

In all her beds, Lynn uses what she terms a “perpetual motion system.” New beds are seeded each week, helping Lynn and her team keep a constant supply of salad greens almost all year long. In the summer, she expands her offerings to tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, beets, and a plethora of other veggies.

The Living Farm follows an organic growing philosophy closely tied to Lynn’s personal beliefs about nurturing the soil and her family’s health. “My growing philosophy is: If I can’t put it on my table, I won’t put it on yours.” Organics comes from the heart, she says, not a piece of paper, she says.

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For more information about Lynn’s online garden education program, The High Performance Garden, check out her website. Through free videos, tutorials, ebooks, and more, you can learn to have a successful garden using the same principles Lynn employs on her farm.

And finally, no trip to a farm in the spring is complete without some little lamb snuggles:

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P.S. If you want to get some lamb snuggles of your own or check out the garden, The Living Farm will be open for tours starting in May. I highly recommend it 🙂

Ajax Tavern: Farm to Après-Ski

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Located at the base of Aspen ski mountain, Ajax Tavern offers a complete menu for everything from an après-ski beer and basket of truffle fries to a fine wine and multi-course dinner. On a sunny day, the slope-side patio is a perfect place to kick back and watch other people finish their runs down the mountain. Inside, cozy booths and an intimate bar provide a perfect place to warm up and fill up after a day on the mountain or around town. Whether you’re wearing ski pants or a fur coat, you’re welcome here. And as their website says, “Don’t let the people-watching put you off your game – the food is the main event.”

Led by Chef JD Baldridge, the kitchen serves up bistro-style fare full of locally sourced ingredients. In between the bustle of lunch hour and the onslaught of après-ski traffic, Farm Runners was honored to sit down with Chef JD to see what he’s been up to with our local products.

Chef Baldridge, the chef de cuisine at Ajax since 2015, has spent several years creating food with a farm fresh focus. Growing up in Oklahoma, he was surrounded by agriculture and has fond memories of the changing seasonal flavors. As a student at the Culinary Institute of America, he was immersed in the farm-to-table movement through stints in kitchens of notable restaurants like Blue Hill at Stone Barns Center for Agriculture.

We also met Ingrid Stern, one of JD’s sous chefs, who introduced us out some of her favorite menu items featuring Farm Runners ingredients. Right out of the gate, she stunned us with her beef tartare, topped with a Dayspring Eggs egg yolk cured in coffee and South River Aquaponics “compressed” arugula. Other favorites were the Colorado Camembert cheese plate featuring Sandy Basin Farm’s lady finger popcorn and the Kale & Quinoa Caesar salad with White Mountain Farm quinoa.

Baldridge has designed his menu so as not set up any roadblocks for creativity in the future. Allowing for flexibility in the menu makes it easy to introduce new local products and experiment with new flavors. For example, the roasted chicken dish with winter vegetable hash (amazing, by the way) has featured a variety of different root vegetables from Farm Runners this season. “I like to order things and see how they come in. It’s fun to see the different ingredients straight from the farm.”

JD also brings local farm flavor to his winter menu by preserving ingredients at the height of summer growing season. The popular artisan charcuterie board features housemade pickles made in the dog days of summer. The jalapeno jam on the cheese board was also a fantastic way to highlight the flavors of our region all through the winter.

As the ski season wraps up in Aspen, the kitchen at Ajax is still busy creating. During their mud season break, they will finalize their spring and summer menus. JD is looking forward to the days of imperfectly perfect heirloom tomatoes and bright summer fruits. He’s also got us licking our lips for fun events like the BBQ cookoff. We can’t wait to see what they dream up next with Farm Runners produce. Thanks, Chef JD and Ajax for supporting local farms with your delicious dishes!

Farmers in Focus: Twisted Root Organic Farm

Kristin Gross and Eric Just own and operate Twisted Root Organic Farm in Paonia, CO. With Lamborn Mountain as a sweeping backdrop, they grow beautiful Certified Organic vegetables all year long.

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At first glance, there’s not much to see on a vegetable farm in early March. Like the rest of the landscape that surrounds them, Twisted Root Organic Farm is a palette of tans, muted browns, and patches of snow on the day I visit. But with a closer eye to detail, signs of life are all around. Inside a large greenhouse, the smell of warm dirt makes you forget that the ground outside is frozen. Rows of salad greens and baby kale, planted way back in September, lie close to the ground, soaking up the passive solar energy. Outside, more greens are tucked in tight underneath white row cover to protect them from the cold. And beneath what appears to be just dead leaves, glowing orange gems of carrots wait patiently to be dug from the ground.

Now in their third year of operation, Kristin and Eric have transformed their little piece of land into a highly productive farm. Even though they own about six acres, they prefer to keep their vegetable plot to just about two acres. That size allows them to do most of the work by hand (although Eric is pretty excited about his new Kubota tractor) and not have to rely on much outside labor. In addition to produce, Twisted Root is also home to a flock of laying hens and resident farm dog Elko.

Twisted Root draws on several different sustainable agriculture philosophies to manage their land ecologically. Unlike a lot of new farmers, Kristin and Eric decided to get their organic certification right away. “I think it is good to have someone looking over your shoulder… I know of some ‘uncertified organic’ farms that claim to use all organic practices, yet really have no understanding of what this entails,” said Kristin. The certification comes at an extra cost, but Kristin says it’s worth it. “The USDA Organic logo gives our customers peace of mind in knowing that our growing practices are benefitting both their health and the environment.”

As the snow melts and signs of spring return, Kristin and Eric are busy inside planning for the season to come. Underneath grow lights in their laundry room-turned-plant nursery, tomato seedlings sprout from trays of potting soil. Underneath the cover of a recently moved greenhouse, a new patch of ground gets dried out, warm, and ready for the next succession of salad mix. Eric eagerly awaits the return of pepper season–his favorite crop to grow and harvest.

In every season, look for Twisted Root products on the Farm Runners list. When summer farmers market season comes, you can also find their veggies and eggs at the Crested Butte Farmers Market.

Farmers in Focus: Alpenglow Mushrooms

 

From the minute you meet Joel Rayes, his passion for all things mycelium is clear. What started as a casual interest while working in kitchens several years ago soon had Joel foraging wild mushrooms in the forest and growing cultivated varieties on a small scale for friends and family. As he taught himself the ins and outs of mushroom growing, his hobby evolved into a profession. Eventually, his passion grew into a full-blown mushroom farm.

Now, Joel runs Alpenglow Mushrooms on a beautiful property between Montrose and Ridgway, overlooking the peaks of the Cimarron Mountains. There, he grows several varieties of oyster mushrooms through all four seasons. Although Joel has grown many types of mushrooms, he favors Oysters for their flavor, versatility, nutrient content, and medicinal properties. They have the highest protein content of any cultivated mushroom and are a great source of vitamin D. They also have the ability to promote white T-cell growth, support immune function, and are an anti-carcinogen. Oh, and they are gorgeous.

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As I head into the Alpenglow property, I don’t immediately peg the place as a farm, but a pile of straw bales and a walk-in cooler tell me I’m in the right place. Joel greets me with an enthusiastic smile and gives me a rundown of how his farm works. The way mushrooms grow is totally different than vegetables and remains a mystery to many people–including myself. Giving me a tour of his setup, Joel helps demystify the process.

At Alpenglow, it starts with locally grown straw. Joel first pasteurizes chopped straw in large drums of water hot enough to destroy possible contaminants and encourage the growth of beneficial organisms. Once pasteurized, the straw is mixed with a “spawn” –in Joel’s case, rye berries that have been inoculated with oyster mushroom spores–and packed tightly into long plastic bags. The spawn acts kind of like the starter in a sourdough bread–providing the initial cultures that will eventually colonize the whole bag. The straw provides the nutrients and space for mycelium (the mushroom “roots”) to spread.

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The inoculated bags are then transferred to the mushroom house. What looks like a large shed from the outside is the core of Joel’s mushroom production. Equipped with HEPA filters, intake fans, efficient florescent lights, and humidity controls, the simple structure has been transformed into a mushroom factory.  Inside, about 90 sacks hang like punching bags from chains on the ceiling. Inside the sacks, the mycelium begins quietly metabolizing the carbon in the straw. As it grows, a white spongy structure takes over the bag.

Between nine and twenty days after inoculation, mushrooms develop. Mushrooms are the fruit of the mycelium organism, and they only emerge when exposed to just the right combination of light, temperature change, air, and moisture. Joel monitors the conditions closely and tries to emulate nature in order to encourage the bags to fruit. For example, fans blow air in from the outside, imitating a storm coming in by creating a positive pressure environment.

Tiny dark pin pricks emerge from slits in the plastic. Soon enough, those pins blossom into gorgeous blooms of delicate mushroom clusters. Joel, with help from his family, harvest the mushrooms twice a day, seven days a week, to catch them at their peak freshness and shape. Each bag will go through about five flushes of mushrooms and will produce about 6 pounds of mushrooms per flush. That’s an incredible amount of protein-rich food in a very small space.

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Joel is equal parts pragmatist and dreamer. He recognizes that sustainable food production has to be both ecologically responsible and economically viable. Some might see this as a tall order, but Joel knows it is possible. He sees mushrooms as a vital component in a resilient local food system. Alpenglow Mushrooms is just the first phase in a dream to create an edible forest on the property. He hopes to grow berries, vegetables, and perennial crops to compliment the mushrooms. Doing so will help him recycle byproducts from the mushroom growing process (excess CO2 from the mushroom house will be pumped into a vegetable greenhouse. “Spent straw” from old mushroom bags will be composted and used in the garden) and provide more mountain-grown food to the Western Slope.

In his spare time, Joel can be found lending a hand at South River Aquaponics, enjoying the mountains, or playing music in his band. You can find his mushrooms year round through Farm Runners and at the Montrose and Telluride farmers markets in the summer.