Digging in the dirt

As the staff of the Telegraph celebrated its first anniversary, a friend approached me, offered congratulations and asked, "So, what's next? Do you have your eye on the big time?"

For him, the "big time" involved the expansion of our Durango base, the beginning of similar operations in other towns and eventually the status of Southwest Colorado media mini-moguls. Briefly my mind flashed on the grandeur of William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon castle, and for a fleeting moment, I tasted greed. But aided by the realities of the checkbook ledger, I resurfaced in the real world instantly.

In response to his question, I said there was no immediate danger of the "big time" and instead related my actual life ambition, quietly answering, "Someday, I really just want to become a farmer."

Call it strange, I told him, but my highest aspiration is to someday live off the land and grow things for a living. With a romantic urge, my thoughts turned back to early March, when Rachael and I first separated the seeds, made selections and planted starts. For weeks, we scanned the soil for any sign of life and watched awe-struck when plants like tomatillos and marrow sprang from the soil and stretched their delicate leaves skyward. Peruvian peppers, relleno chilies, stupice tomatoes all appeared in quick succession, each bringing a sense of renewal with it. Eventually our sun room was filled with hundreds of tiny starts, ranging from pumpkins and cucumbers to sweet corn and watermelon. Outside, the snow was still falling.

As months passed, the promise of the crop became so enticing that I devoted most of my days off to working the soil and preparing our little farm. Then, not without warning, the first tragedy struck. Barely 3 inches tall, our cucumber and squash starts were hammered by a fungus that eventually destroyed them. A couple weeks later, frost hit and wiped out our apricot blooms. Our apple and peach trees were blighted not long after by insect larva.

But there was hope. The soil appeared to be in fine shape, and when we got the remaining starts in the ground in early May, the survivors eased comfortably into their new environs. Ladybugs and earthworms flocked into the garden and started working their charms.

For the first time in nearly a decade, we exercised an experimental urge, abandoning rows and instead planting a mixed community of dozens of types of greens, along with radishes and carrots. We also underseeded a crop of clover, hoping the short stems would hold moisture in, keep weeds out and fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and naturally fertilize our crop.

With corn growing head high, zucchinis the size of my forearm, an abundant pepper and tomato crop and even some small watermelons surviving, the experiment appeared to be working. In fact, it was working so well and rainfall was so consistent that we grew lazy and starting spending days off in the pursuit of leisure. For the last three weeks, we let nature run the show in the garden.

However, I was shocked back to consciousness recently when I spotted a hulking, black animal moving through our little farm. Armed only with a work boot, I leaped up the hillside over the terrace only to stand a few steps away from a good-sized black bear making a quick meal of several spaghetti squash, plants we'd been nurturing for six months. Now airborne, the boot got the bear's attention and in seconds he was over our fence and into the neighbor's property.

It was then that I noticed the true extent of the damage, and nearly none of it was bear related. Instead, I saw evidence of our three-week vacation. Bindweed, my least favorite invader, was everywhere and in full bloom. In a few cases, it had twirled all the way around tomatoes, climbed their full height and started squeezing the life out of them. The musk thistle we'd spent the prior three months pulling looked unscathed and was living happily alongside mallow and chickweed. To make matters worse, all of the weeds were soaking up the benefits of my cover crop and had grown to obscene sizes.

The dream was temporarily dashed, months of hard work were undone and, consequently, I happily rolled back into my newspaper office the following morning, content to leave the weeds at home.

But farming was still at the front of my mind a few days later at that celebration, when my friend uttered these fateful words: "These are sad times when you have to make your fortune and then start your farm."

I agreed, noting the irony of an age when only the wealthy can indulge in back-breaking, honest work. In particular, I thought of the one legitimate, agricultural operation I had worked on in San Miguel County. Several months ago, I drove past the old ranch to see one 500-acre chunk now subdivided. None of the lots had sold. A little farther down the road, I spotted the ranch house I'd lived it. It had burned to the ground and only a few charred remains sat atop the foundation. "Insurance settlement" was the first thing that popped into my head.

Still it is refreshing to know that the people of Durango and La Plata County are trying to solve the agriculture riddle and realize a dream of local growers feeding local people. Hopefully, this weekend's Small Farms Conference will bring some more answers to the surface. Hopefully, some day local farmers and ranchers will be able to not merely survive but profit in one of the noblest of all trades.

For my part, I know that there's no danger of me trading in my pen for a spade in the near future. I've still got way too many bugs to work out in the broccoli crop.

-Will Sands




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