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