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,”
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
“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.”