On a recent sunny Wednesday, a suntanned farmer kneels to the ground and firmly pulls a carrot out of the moist, musky soil. Upon closer examination it becomes clear this is no ordinary orange vegetable. Its exterior is beet purple.
The carrot is a “Purple Haze,” said Frank Stonaker, director of the Specialty Crops Program at CSU.
The purple carrot can be found with a host of other organic vegetables being grown at the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) research farm, an 80-acre spread where organic produce is grown for research and to feed a select portion of the local community.
The CSA project is Stonaker’s brainchild.
“I think my main interest [in initiating the CSU CSA] was my experience as a small farmer,” Stonaker said. “We didn’t really have someone to go to. CSU was focusing on larger crop programs. There wasn’t a whole lot being acquired in vegetables and food that would benefit small organic farmers. So, this is an outreach to them.”
The CSA, known as the Rocky Mountain Small Organic Farm Project is contained on an eight-acre plot of land while the remaining 72 acres are filled with luscious trees, shrubs and other greenery.
Daily, suntanned interns evaluate and note growth of the food. On a walking tour of the site, it is easy to forget that I-25 and the Budweiser brewery are only several hundred feet away.
The farmland has a rich history. Dana Christensen, the farm manager, said the land was bought shortly after World War II, possibly around 1946, by CSU’s Horticulture Department. It is the main research facility for the department, although there are more sites.
The University uses the land to conduct research on turf grass breeding, ornamental trees and shrubs and vegetable entomology, to name a few areas of study.
The land has been certified organic for six years, and pesticide free for nine years. While synthetic, chemical pesticides used on large, conventional farms are prohibited, some organic pesticides are OK to use. However, the organic pesticides are made from natural resources, for example, to clear bugs from crops.
The farm utilizes a share-purchasing system in which a small portion of people associated with CSU can buy either full or half shares. Only a handful of people associated with CSU can purchase a “share” of the farm’s harvest for the season. Each share feeds a family of four. The full price of the (more or less) 22 weeks of produce is $500. Half shares are available for $275. Separate fruit and flower shares are $50 each but must be purchased in addition to a vegetable share.
There is already a waiting list for next year. This year 52 half shares and 29 full shares were sold.
The farm, the food, the people
More people than ever are interested in attempting to put fruits and vegetables back in their diets, lessening pesticide use and in helping the environment. So, sales of organic foods have been on the rise.
The farming experience is one that is embraced by some CSU Horticulture students. Currently, 14 student interns are enrolled in the program and each received a $1,000 scholarship from the Aurora Dairy.
Matt Clifford, a senior soil and crop sciences major, is an intern at the farm and said he enjoys watching people who own shares pick up their produce each Thursday at the Plant Environmental Research Center (PERC).
“When CSA members come pick up [their shares], they are so excited,” Clifford said. “Seeing where all our work is going is so cool.”
Members get to try new foods each week. Some weeks they get butterhead and Iceberg lettuce. Sometimes zucchini blossoms and yellow squash.
Stonaker said buying a share shows a commitment to student farmers who help offer locally grown food. It does not guarantee members anything.
“Nature is unpredictable and there is no guarantee to the amount of produce,” Stonaker said.
Grace Wilson, a programmer at the Development and Advanced Information Services (DAIS) office has a full share and said she enjoys the opportunity to eat different vegetables each week with her family.
“I love to find different recipes,” Wilson said. “My kids love crispy kale. They eat it like potato chips.”
Wilson said to make crispy kale she simply tears the kale into pieces, tosses with salt and olive oil, and then puts it into an oven until its crispy (about 10-15 minutes).
The debatable side of organics
The farm is a research facility, and some of the experiments test different varieties of the same type of produce.
Recently the Horticulture Department found that some organic produce might be healthier than conventionally grown produce. Researchers tested melons of the same cultivar (type) and found they were not equal in the amount of vitamin C. The organic melons had almost double the amount of vitamin C compared to the non-organic. This type of research is important because it could lead to whether or not organic foods are actually healthier than conventionally grown foods.
Garry Auld, professor of community nutrition education, said the nutritional aspect of organic foods is a highly controversial topic because no one really knows if the varying amounts of anti-oxidants really make a difference.
“Research shows organic produce in a good aspect, but the overall impact on health is unknown,” Auld said. “Is the higher antioxidant or vitamin C amount enough to make a difference?”
Regardless of the hurdles, Stonaker and others firmly believe in organic foods. For example, some of the controversies organic farmers face include questionable sustainability (in terms of labor use), how much carbon organic farms use and produce compared to conventional farms (the organic footprint), and the large food industry trying to break into the business, making it difficult for small, local farms to survive.
Contributing factors to the high demand for organic produce include the freshness of the product, small, local family farms the food is grown on and the fact that the produce does not have to be trucked halfway across the country, using expensive gas.
“Small farms are really important in our society,” Stonaker said. “Our children need to know where our food comes from, and small local farms allow for it. “Wal-Martization” of anything, we’ve seen, drops prices. For the grower, this is not sustainable and makes it difficult to sell anything at a reasonable price in other markets. We lose a lot of farmers because they can’t afford to sell the produce for the same price as Wal-Mart.”
Auld provided a different view of the organic food boom.
“Demand is high,” Auld said. “That is why Wal-Mart is now selling organic food. But as big as they are, they cannot deal with many small family farms. They need big farms. So we import, but then the question arises of whether or not the countries providing abide by the same rigorous standards of the US.”
Staff writer Nikki Cristello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.