ACES at Rock Bottom Ranch knows food

With its Farm to Table dinners, ACES aims to educate people about their food sources

Do you know where your food comes from? For most people in the Roaring Fork Valley, the answer is obvious: From a chain grocery store like City Market, or Clark’s or Whole Foods.

But where is their food sourced?

“If you try to trace those connections, if you look at the produce section — the potatoes are from Idaho, the oranges are from Florida, the onions from Texas,” said Aspen Center for Environmental Studies CEO Chris Lane.

“Now you go to the meat section and it gets a little harder, right? The steer that’s from South Dakota is fattened in Texas, with grain from Iowa.”

ACES at Rock Bottom Ranch is taking the guesswork out of the menus of many locavores, by growing healthy food with sustainable agricultural methods that don’t spew tons of carbon into the earth’s atmosphere.

Its Farm to Table dinners have become so popular that each of the five that ACES is hosting this summer were sold out in advance.

Lane began the June 27 Farm to Table dinner by telling diners that the source of 90 percent of the food they’d be eating could be measured in feet, not miles.

“The average meal in America travels about 2,000 miles and the average meal [produces] about seven pounds of carbon,” he said. “The meal you’re going to eat tonight [produced] less than one pound of carbon.”

Lane called the food “beyond organic,” and said that meant it was locally grown, free-range, animal welfare certified, wildlife friendly certified, non-GMO, and contained no antibiotics, no hormones, no pesticides, no preservatives, no artificial sweeteners, no color additives, no flavor enhancers, no fat replacers, no stabilizers, no thickeners, and no binders.

“It’s a sad statement on our society that I have to announce this,” he said.

Down on the farm

Rock Bottom Ranch was originally settled by the Glassier family in the early part of the 20th century, and ACES purchased it from Charlie and Sally Cole in 1999. The Cole’s put in place an agreement to protect the property’s riparian habitat. That allowed ACES to broaden its education programs that explore the complex interaction between agriculture and natural ecosystems along the Roaring Fork River.

Its 113 acres include roughly 70 acres of natural land and wildlife areas that ACES is protecting. The rest is used for agricultural purposes.

Since 2009 the ranch has been ably managed by site director Jason Smith, who originally came to the Roaring Fork Valley to be a chef at the Little Nell. He worked there under Chef Ryan Hardy, who Smith said taught the value of locally grown food.

“We’re trying to do everything as responsibly as we can — produce good food, provide good jobs, and be a part of the community,” Smith said. “What we’re trying to do here is follow the natural cycles of nature.”

Smith explained that the rich soils in the Midwestern U.S. were historically created from large herds of buffalo that grazed on the grasses and left their manure for the cowbirds to clean and distribute.

ACES has replicated that method at Rock Bottom Ranch using a herd of sheep, a flock of chickens and mobile fencing in what is known as a multi-species rotational grazing system, a method that has recently been brought to light by Virginia farmer and author Joel Salatin. (ACES is bringing Salatin to the Paepcke Auditorium for a free lecture this Friday, Aug. 7.)

“Sheep are ruminants, so they eat the grass, which is essentially free to us,” Smith said. “Then we bring the chickens behind them and they sanitize and distribute.

“On this property we are very fortunate because we’ve got good water and good sun. And these animals convert it into meat, milk and fiber for us.”

Farm to table

Because of Smith’s background in the restaurant industry, and the existence of an underutilized 3,000 square foot pole barn on the property, ACES decided that hosting dinners would be a good way to get people out to the ranch and educate them about what they do, and where their food comes from.

“In this valley people are more willing to move around for food and drink, so we put two and two together, and with my background in food that was an easy transition,” Smith said.

“So we gave it a shot and the first year went well. We’re in our third year now and every event is sold out, and we’re very humbled by that,” he said.

Vegetables rotated in eight-year blocks

The vegetable garden at the ranch includes both “indoor” and “outdoor” vegetables, and is managed using three key components — diversity, rotation, and rest.

Diversity means that about 100 varieties of vegetables are grown. The one-acre plot is divided into eight “blocks,” and the vegetables are rotated around the blocks every year, so each variety will be planted in the same soil only once every eight years, which helps break up pest and disease cycles.

“The other thing the rotational system does is, for instance, tomatoes pull zinc out of the ground, so if you planted the tomatoes in the same place every year they would pull all the zinc out and we’d have soil depravation,” Smith said. “But if we move it and put, for instance, a carrot which is a deeper rooted vegetable, it’s going to reach down and grab for different minerals and it’s going to even out that soil.”

One of the eight blocks is “rested” every year, which means no vegetables are planted in that block. Instead, a cover crop such as wheat or rye is grown until just before it seeds, then it is tilled back into the soil.

“By the time we get cover cropped in we may supplement with compost, or bring the animals in, so we’re always adding organic matter into the soil,” Smith said.

Extending the growing season

Growing food in the Roaring Fork Valley is challenged by the relatively short growing season. With only about 100 frost-free days in the summer, Smith said they plant mostly cool season crops outdoors. But with two season-extension structures, they are able to extend the growing season for some vegetables to more than 10 months a year.

One of these structures, a mobile hoop house, is on a track system with wheels, and can easily be slid back and forth between two separate garden blocks.

“This year we started with our cool season crops early in the year, our kale, chard, beets and carrots,” Smith said. “As soon as the weather warmed up we moved the house down and started with our tomatoes. So we’re essentially using the house twice as much as we could.”

The other grow house is reinforced with 3 1/2 inches of rigid foam insulation, a project that was helped by a donation from the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE). The house uses a climate battery and two tubes that are air intake ducts. During the hottest part of the day, fans are turned on that take the warm air from inside the house and send it under the ground into a grid of 40, 4-inch perforated tubes — effectively storing the heat in the soil. Then at night the system reverses, pulling the warm air back out of the soil, warming the air.

“So it regulates the temperature really well,” Smith said.

ACES is using the house to grow cherry tomatoes, and two varieties of heirloom tomatoes — Cherokee Purples and Kellogg’s Breakfast.


“As far as the Roaring Fork Valley goes that’s pretty good, because a lot of people can’t get tomatoes at all,” Smith said.

“With vegetable production there’s always something starting out, there’s always something in the middle, and there’s always something finishing off,” he said. “Our spring block is on its way out, this got us started with lettuces and kale, carrots, arugula, peas, cabbages, and broccoli. We’ll get one more cutting and then we’ll transition to our fall block.”

Free range is best

In addition to vegetables, Rock Bottom Ranch also harvests its chickens, sheep and pigs, and currently produces about 50-60 dozen eggs a week. That number is about to increase. With the addition of 300 laying hens in two new chicken tractors, they will soon be producing 150-180 dozen eggs a week.

The meat chickens they breed are Poulet Rouge free range chickens that Smith said take about 12 weeks to get from chick to market weight, and the ranch’s pigs are harvested on-site.

“These pigs are born on the property, and raised on the property. They never leave the property,” he said. “All of the animals we own on the property are animal welfare approved. There’s a third party certification that comes in with a list of standards that makes sure we are grazing animals in the most responsible way — they need this much space, and can only put on this much weight.”

Living the farm lifestyle

Like most good farmers, Harper Kaufman and Christian La Bar are morning people. The two ACES agricultural assistants start a typical day early by moving the chickens into a mobile paddock that the sheep had vacated the night before. Then they do rounds — feeding and watering all the animals, including 25 to 40 pigs in various areas of the property.

“The pigs are on a rotation, so there are some in the woods, and we’ll move either them or the sows — we have a big pig breeding program as well,” Kaufman said. “We have pigs with piglets, we have pigs that are pregnant, we have pigs that need to be bred, and then we have our bore.They all need to stay separate or together, and it can be complicated planning how to move those guys.”

After rounds, it’s time to start working in the vegetable garden — watering, or the twice-a-week harvesting that Kaufman said is best done before it gets too warm.

“Before 9 o’clock is ideal,” she said. “So we get the chores done, we get the harvest done and then we’re usually trying to get things planted as quickly as possible again. We don’t want to wait until it gets too hot or the plants won’t do as well.”

After all of that, the two get started on the day’s projects.

“We really don’t get started with our day until after the first three hours of our day,” La Bar said.

Some days their projects include making deliveries to restaurants — ACES at Rock Bottom Ranch sells food to a few restaurants in the Roaring Fork Valley — but they may also include washing and packaging produce, weeding, or cultivating.

“Whatever you have on your list for the day, 90 percent of that doesn’t happen, and there is that much more added to your list that you didn’t foresee happening,” La Bar said.

On the weekends, you may see Kaufman and LaBar at the farmer’s markets in Aspen and Basalt. They enjoy spreading the word about Rock Bottom Ranch’s role as a local food provider.

“ACES is a big thing in Aspen, but there’s a lot of people who don’t understand that Rock Bottom Ranch and ACES have a big goal for producing a lot of food for the community,” La Bar said. “So we get a lot of surprise for that — positive surprises like ‘you grew all this at Rock Bottom Ranch?’”

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