Renewing the Countryside: Four Corners Region

Learning to create abundance
in the rough shadow of the Rockies

Chuck Barry and Rosie Carter make a living on three acres in the high desert at Stone Free Farm.

By Rachel Turiel Hinds
Excerpted by permission from A New Plateau:
Sustaining the lands and peoples of Canyon Country.

Posted November 23, 2004

Farm at a Glance

Chuck Barry and Rosie Carter
Stone Free Farm

Location: Arriola, Colorado; about 50 miles west of Durango

Operation: 3 acres organic mixed vegetables

Marketing: Cortez and Durango farmers' markets

For more information

A New Plateau: Sustaining the lands and peoples of Canyon Country profiles 38 "modern pioneers" in the Four Corners region who have found ways to make a living while improving the health and well being of their families, communities, and lands.

A joint effort of the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University, the Museum of Northern Arizona, and Renewing the Countryside, Inc., A New Plateau is the latest title in the Renewing the Countryside series, a national project highlighting sustainable land stewardship and rural development initiatives across the United States.

To learn more, or to purchase books, contact:
Renewing the Countryside, 2105 First Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55404

Rosie Carter and Chuck Barry

In winter, farmers sink into worn couches, sip tea, and tell stories about summers past. After a decade of farming the high desert outside of Cortez, Colorado, Chuck Barry and Rosie Carter have stories. This winter the story begins with water: for the first time in many years, their three-acre farm has been draped in a deep coat of snow.

Last summer the stories were of hail – violent downpours that ruined the pepper and tomato crops. The summer before that it was severe drought – the driest year on record in Colorado. While many other farmers put their tools away for good, the drought brought lasting lessons to Stone Free Farm, shaping the way the farm has evolved.

“The drought taught us what works for a small farm business,” Rosie shares from their just-big-enough-for-two, original homestead house. “We realized it’s not worth it financially to put water into crops that take all season to grow, like winter squash or cabbage. Instead, we plant intensively, a new row each week, with high crop turnover. Every week we’re pulling and planting carrots, radishes, cilantro, and salad greens.”

In front of Rosie are scattered photos of the farm’s bounty in summer, showing tidy rows bursting with color and life. There’s an aesthetic to the farm: neat, symmetrical, and not a weed in sight.

Rosie, tall and lean, is up and down, retrieving photos, pouring tea, and answering the phone while Chuck lounges on the couch, Mississippi drawl and salty language melting all pretense. The two will talk fondly of vegetables for hours, but their love for growing food doesn’t eclipse their business sense: if an heirloom broccoli seed produces small heads, they don't hesitate to scrap it for one that performs. “We grow what works in the big picture,” Chuck explains. “This is a business. We could sell the [heck] out of green beans but the labor involved isn’t worth it.”

Chuck and Rosie don’t have a 401(k) plan, but they make enough money in the summer to spend the winters sipping tea, telling stories, and reclining into couches, as well as enjoying their other diversions: powder skiing, rock climbing, playing thrash-country music, and writing about rural life. “We make a pretty comfortable living,” Rosie says. They just bought an additional 59 acres adjoining their property. They started with three acres and a rototiller bought on loan.

On the sage plains in the arid shadows of the Rocky Mountains, temperature fluctuations cause tomatoes to sing in the daytime sun, then shiver by nightfall; rain is scarce and wind is plentiful; and the luscious mountain wilderness beckons all summer while the weeds grow. It takes quite a commitment, then, to be a successful farmer. It takes consistency, presentation, an ability to be good at many different things, and the discipline always to choose the weeds over the mountains.

Rosie and Chuck have made these choices at Stone Free Farm. They sell their harvest primarily at two local farmers' markets: Rosie takes Cortez, while Chuck makes the trip to Durango. In nine years, Chuck hasn’t missed one Saturday market. By 7:30 he’s set up, kicking back with coffee and newspaper, taking his first breather since 4:30 that morning. That consistency of presence and product has led to a tradition.

Although Chuck and Rosie sell more volume in the affluent community of Durango, they appreciate the working-class, unpretentious nature of Cortez.

A line of people, money in hand, forms at both Stone Free market stands before the official opening at 8 AM. Recognizing that people these days are used to picking their produce sparkling clean from supermarket aisles, Chuck and Rosie go the extra mile in presentation. Carrot tops are cut and the orange roots cleaned until they shine. Potatoes, radishes, beets, and onions are doused in water until all the dirt is removed. Greens and herbs are washed and spun and then bagged for sale.

The market stand is art, a still life with vegetables. Its colors, shapes, and textures reflect the artistry of Chuck and Rosie's fields and the vitality of their land. As the eager customers line up, it is difficult to imagine the hours of work that go into such an offering. Summer workdays begin when the sun rises over the La Plata Mountains to the east and go on until it sinks behind the Abajo Range in Utah, also visible from the farm. “We work six days a week, seventy to eighty hours a week,” Rosie says. “We make ourselves take Sundays off.” But even Sundays are not given to play in the mountains. “We stay inside with the blinds drawn and just sit. We don’t even go to parties all summer,” she laughs.

Every year the farm is visited by people who just moved to the area, bought some land, and want to start an organic farm. Chuck and Rosie are generous with information in the belief that more local, organic farms will keep the farmers' markets alive and prosperous. But many of these newcomers are never seen again. “People have romantic delusions of farming. They have no idea of the work involved,” Chuck says. “If we added up what we make per hour we’d moan and cry. Why does a lawyer make $200 an hour when the farmer feeding people is always poor? It’s a crazy-assed system.”

“But we’re happy with our lifestyle,” Rosie inserts. “We don’t even want to get bigger. If we could continue like this forever, we’d be happy.”

Despite the challenges of farming in the Southwest, Chuck and Rosie love it here. Chuck laughs about the fact that his family “can garden the hell out of an acre of land in the Southeast, without ever having to think about irrigation. But the bugs will eat you and your crops alive.”

Although Chuck and Rosie sell more volume in the affluent community of Durango, they appreciate the working-class, unpretentious nature of Cortez. “You might not want to talk religion or politics with some of the locals,” Chuck warns, “but they’ll go out of their way to help you every time.”

The farm has always been organic. “We’d never think of using chemicals on the land we love,” Rosie says. “I wouldn’t eat food that was full of poisons and I wouldn’t want anyone else to eat it either.” The payoff for being organic has also been a balance in the ecosystem. Instead of chemicals, their defense is based on “herds” of preying mantises, scores of ladybugs, and armies of earthworms.

It doesn’t necessarily take a lot of money to start up; what it does take is an unwavering commitment to stick with it until things begin to pay off.

Rosie and Chuck believe that most anyone who is willing to work for it can have a successful farm here. It doesn’t necessarily take a lot of money to start up; what it does take is an unwavering commitment to stick with it until things begin to pay off. It also helps if you’re good at bookkeeping, irrigation installation, marketing, soil science, greenhouse construction, and entomology.

Rosie says that she’d like to balance out the annual workload some, instead of overload in summer and standstill in winter.

“Maybe we’ll get some cows,” Chuck muses. “I don’t mind cows too much.”