Overcoming growing pains
La Boca Farms looks toward sustainable future

SideStory: Celebrating the local harvest

Gabe Eggers carries what is known as a Navajo black watermelon out of the patch at La Boca Farms, near Ignacio, on Monday afternoon. Eggers, along with Mike Nolan and Erin Jolley, run the 180-acre farm as well as the La Boca Center for Sustainability. Gabe and Mike took over the project from the originators more than a year ago, and using a personal loan, they have begun restructuring the farm’s goals and business­./Photo by David Halterman

by Stew Mosberg

A one-time railway stop, located 7 miles south of Ignacio, is now a collection of shabby buildings on the edge of Southern Ute land. It is also home to La Boca Farms, which quite possibly represents the future of crop farming in the southwestern United States.

Adjacent to the Pine River, La Boca Farms is a small patch of lush, verdant and vibrant land that has already yielded a track record for locally grown produce. The farm’s booth is a sought-after destination at the Durango Farmers Market as well as a resource for upscale restaurants. Managed by former college roommates Gabe Eggers and Mike Nolan, along with community outreach assistant Erin Jolley, La Boca is a model for growing tasty, high-altitude produce.

Eggers, a Durango native, and Nolan, originally from Australia, met while studying at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, in Santa Cruz, Calif. Eggers later continued his studies in Durango at Fort Lewis College, and worked at Durango Natural Foods, where he eventually became a board member. After graduating from FLC, an opportunity to revitalize La Boca Farms presented itself, and he called on Nolan to join him in the venture. Their collaboration is showing great promise, and the two share an infectious enthusiasm and upbeat approach to the joint undertaking.

Nolan and Eggers started their garden on land originally owned by Roy Craig. A former Manhattan Project manager, Craig ultimately became disillusioned with the use of atomic force and returned to his Colorado roots, reclaiming the land that is now the site of the farm.

Eggers speaks respectfully about Craig and how he bequeathed the 180 acres of land before his death. The stipulation was that it could not be subdivided or further developed and would be used instead for the future Center for Sustainability. Following Craig’s death, a group of people came to La Boca with the hopes of meeting the spiritual and environmental goals of sustainability. Unfortunately, the group lacked cohesiveness and organization, and the effort failed.

Gabe and Mike took over the project from the originators, floated a personal loan, and began to restructure the farm’s goals and procedures and build a business from what remained.

Assisted by volunteers and a student intern program, they toil in the soil; manage the growing, harvesting and distribution; and do anything else required to make the farm a success and repay their loan.

The afternoon sun shines through the trees as goats and sheep graze at La Boca. In addiition to seeking and sharing  practical farming solutions for the Southwest, La Boca is also hoping to provide a model for more sustainble living./Photo by David Halterman

La Boca Farm is an adjunct to the La Boca Center for Sustainability, a 5-year-old nonprofit group dedicated to sustainable living systems. The Center itself has five “growing partners:” the Southern Ute Community Action Program; Garden Project of Southwest Colorado; La Boca Center for Sustainability; Southwest Marketing Network; and Turtle Lake Refuge, where Eggers was once a manager.

La Boca is now in its first full year under the stewardship of Nolan and Eggers, and as Nolan points out, “We’re just getting a grasp on it.” One major issue they contend with is the short growing season, which can be as little as 90 days for some crops. In addition to determining the best methods for producing hearty, high-altitude vegetables, the two men are also seeking an effective system for storing crops to allow for business beyond the limited season. “That’s really what it’s about,” says Nolan, “how we can extend our market through the winter.”

The knowledge they gain from their enterprising experiments is just one focus of the farming activity, while the overall intention is to research, educate and feed. Getting to the heart of the matter, Eggers suggests, “Every single thing in La Plata County is coming from somewhere else for six months a year.”

In the long run, providing food to schools, restaurants, markets and other local institutions, without the need to truck it in, is a definition of sustainability itself. What is learned here can and will be shared with other farmers and is the basis for study and teaching. Classes are scheduled at the farm to teach about sustainable agribusiness. Through recent efforts by Jolley, an outreach program with Durango Nature Studies has also been established.

Together, Eggers, Nolan and Jolley hope to continue building relationships with schools in Durango, Ignacio and the Southern Ute community in order to provide nature studies. Jolley speaks encouragingly about the farm study curriculum and how La Boca Farms relates to students’ health, how food choices relate to the environment, and about what organic farming is.

Nolan reiterates that another major goal is to, “Develop an academically accredited apprenticeship program where we can teach people integrated farming – grow cropping, animal husbandry, draft horses – and how it all works together.”

They also hope to create a “how to” manual on high-altitude growing and the marketing that would be available to academic institutions.

A community food assessment survey was conducted last year with partial funding from the USDA and equal contributions from the four partners of the Center for Sustainability. The assessment responses led to a further request to the USDA for funds to help implement some of the suggested programs. One such idea was that of a seed bank, which is considered essential to any flourishing sustainability farming program. However, the funding request was denied because, as Nolan remarks, “Our project was too ambitious and also because of federal farm bill budget cuts.” They have since reapplied and are currently awaiting a response.

Meanwhile, Eggers strongly believes in the commitment he and Nolan have signed on for. “The community needs to know that ultimately this is for them, that it is not to benefit any individual,” he says. “We are a nonprofit organization trying to benefit the masses.” •



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