The Middle Distance 9.28.12

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Photo by Sean Cayton

Before the term locavore was coined, southern Colorado had its own brand of local agricultural heroes, toiling in the mineral rich soils of the Lower Arkansas Valley to create a locally sourced food supply for Colorado Springs and Pueblo. Among the pig farmers and melon growers, the ranchers and multi-generational family farmers, was Dan Hobbs.

A Coloradan by birth and lineage and a developer of cooperatives for the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union by profession. Hobbs’s vision for the future of farming in a state rapidly losing valuable farm and ranch land to runaway development meshed with his old-fashioned wish for a clean and local food supply. Next week, Hobbs will be honored by the Palmer Land Trust with their Innovation in Conservation Award for his many efforts to conserve water, land, tradition, and community in southern Colorado.

I met Dan Hobbs back in the day when he pioneered the Colorado Farm and Art Market in the Springs, developed the Tres Rios Agricultural Cooperative that brought great produce to innovative chefs in town, and was just beginning to venture into organic vegetable and seed production on his 30-acre Hobbs Family Farm near Avondale. He was all about organics before organics were cool. He was, and is, one of the smartest guys you’d ever want to talk to about what we eat, how it’s produced, and what it takes to bring good food from healthy, well cared for fields, to tables in the city.

The last time I saw Dan was this July in the blessed air-conditioning of a Colorado Springs supermarket. He was in town with his kids mid-day because with 112-degree days down in the valley, harvesting was limited to early morning and late afternoon hours. He was suntanned to the shade of an acorn. This week I talked to him by phone about his work, the conservation award, and how the locally produced food scene has changed in Colorado Springs over the last ten years.

“When I first started working in the Colorado Springs area at the end of the 1990s, we worked on the assumption that this was a fairly large city and that there would be a pretty good demand for locally produced food,” says Hobbs. “But there wasn’t much demand. It was a slow process for about five years. We were constantly disappointed, then things really shifted about five years ago.”

As a national movement for locally produced foods mushroomed, so did opportunities for consumers and growers in southern Colorado. At the same time, Hobbs and his family had planted their feet and their futures in the Lower Arkansas Valley.

“In the late ‘90s, we began looking for good water, a long growing season, and nearby access markets and discovered Pueblo County is about as good as it gets,” he says. “With a 150-day growing season; soil that’s low in organic matter but high in mineral content; good clean irrigation water; and Avondale, the third oldest agricultural settlement in the state, it became clear to me that this was the place to settle.”

Hobbs Family Farm’s cash crop is garlic, nine organically grown varieties of the flavorful bulb for the table, and seeds for farmers interested in maintaining the heritage and integrity of the plant. Seed growing, the foundation of agriculture, is a nearly lost art, says Hobbs. Selecting and growing seed to better compete with weeds and to adapt to local climate and soils was an essential part of American farming until the 1920s, the advent of the first hybrid corn crop, the rise of corporate interests and, now, genetically modified organisms or GMOs.

Hobbs’s farm is small and his dream is big — creating cooperatives that can pool resources to increase production and get fresh food to local markets more efficiently; opening a service center in Pueblo where farmers can store and process specialty items like roasted chiles, sauces, and dried tomatoes; developing financial strategies for the fastest growing segment in agriculture, young families entering farming with the intention of growing healthy food on a small, manageable scale; creating new markets through institutional partnerships with school districts, hospitals and nursing homes.

With hard work and innovative thinking, he’s living the dream alongside his fellow southern Colorado farmers.

“The supply and demand of local food, a local food system,” he says, “almost every component of this system has changed, developed and improved in the last ten years.”

Think about that the next time you make a sauce of organic heirloom tomatoes, sweet Colorado peppers, and locally grown onion and garlic. And give a nod to people like Dan Hobbs, who make it possible.

Dan Hobbs and Hobbs Family Farm will receive the Innovation in Conservation Award from the Palmer Land Trust on Wednesday, Oct. 3 at the Cheyenne Mountain Conference Resort in Colorado Springs. Cocktails at 5 p.m.; dinner at 6; $60 cost includes a farm-to-table dinner featuring local foods. For more information, visit www.palmerlandtrust.org.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.

 

2 Responses to The Middle Distance, 9/28/12: A Hand for Farmer Dan

  1. rose enyeart says:

    Thanks for the “heads up” for locally grown produce. It is wonderful to see such an award being given to someone who walks the talk.

  2. suesun says:

    Dan Hobbs ROCKS! In addition to all the work he does, he has also taken time out of his busy schedule to host students from The Little School on Vermijo, teach them about seed saving and allow them to work on his farm. It’s nice to see people get recognition who truly deserve it.

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