Community Agriculture Alliance: The value of naturally raised food |

Community Agriculture Alliance: The value of naturally raised food

Kristina Tober
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

When Colby and Michelle Townsend, owners of Hayden Fresh Farm, purchased their 40-acre farm in 1996, the dirt lay bare without a single fencepost or blade of grass. After 50 years of farming wheat, the topsoil had eroded to expose alkaline hard pan clay, making it impossible to grow anything without massive amounts of fertilizers, herbicides and irrigated water.

While the family had relied on income from the local feed store they owned in Steamboat for 23 years, in 2018 they decided to sell it to make a living off their land.

“For years, I was the one selling fertilizers and herbicides,” explained Colby. “I assumed our dryland farm couldn’t grow without these inputs, that we were cursed with this legacy of poor soil and arid climate.”

After three failed wheat rotations, Colby decided there had to be a better way. He began exploring regenerative practices as a way to restore the soil on their farm and conserve what little water nature provided. Experimenting with their front yard, he top-coated grass seed with alfalfa pellets as a cover to the soil. He quickly saw that the grass responded much better than with conventional fertilizer, planting the idea that an investment in organic over conventional methods could possibly pay off in the long run.  

Introducing chickens to the farm was an easy decision – it was a scalable operation, the birds had plenty of acreage to graze and lay, and their high-nitrogen manure could help to restore the soil. Using mobile chicken wagons, the Townsends rotate their flock of broilers (chickens raised for meat) and layers (chickens who produce eggs), giving them access to fresh grass, weeds, seeds, grasshoppers and more. In the process, the birds are leaving behind a rich top dressing of nutrients that’s feeding the soil and creating a literal checkerboard of vibrant green grass in their path.

As with any transition to regenerative practices, there have been plenty of learnings and failures along the way.

“So much of this process is about changing your mindset and having persistence – moving away from prescriptions to learning how to read and manage the land,” explained Colby.

Making the transition to new practices doesn’t just require a new mindset – it also takes creativity, innovation and a whole lot of repurposing. Walking across their operation, there are literally dozens of examples where Colby has fashioned structures from used agricultural and industrial materials. Whether it’s the chicken tractor fashioned from the bottom half of a plastic water tank purchased at auction, or the steel paneled garden beds that still bear graffiti from train cars, Colby and Michelle are always looking for solutions in unexpected places. 

Raising chickens to improve the soil is great, but you’ve got to make money while you’re at it. Licensed as Hayden Fresh Farm, the Townsends sell their eggs and meat from both their poultry and small drove of grazing Mangalitsa pigs (hearty, free-roaming pigs whose pork can trade at 10 to 20 times over factory-farmed hogs) via direct deliveries, farmers markets, wholesale to local restaurants, and through the local food retail market run by the Community Agriculture Alliance.  

“We’re fortunate to live in a valley where our consumer appreciates the benefits of local food and local systems,” he explains.

As co-chair of the CAA Board, Colby is also steering the organization’s programs to create a “back the truck up” model in the Yampa Valley. The goal is to create a food hub and a diversified retail space where local producers can sell their goods in one spot – and provide consumers with a broader, year-round option of local goods.

And when it comes to the consumer, how do we educate them on the value of naturally raised food?

“Farmer activist Joel Salatin talks about how, in America in the last 35 years, we’ve gone from spending 18% of household income on food and 9% on health care to the reverse today,” Colby said. “You can choose how you want to treat your body and whether you spend your money upfront or down the road.”

Written by Kristina Tober, excerpt from article originally published by Mad Agriculture,

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