I draw the car to a stop in the gravel drive, eyes wide as I take in my surroundings. The Colorado sun shines down as I pitch my tent. Little waves crash where Thompson Creek meets the irrigation ditch. The breeze whistles through the willow trees, blowing over the open fields. Brook calls the other volunteers and me over. It’s time to bring the calves in from the knee deep alfalfa in the paddocks. My two weeks of volunteering at Sustainable Settings has begun.
There’s no doubt that sustainability is a critical consideration in agriculture. Our resources are limited and precious. Colorado’s water laws allocate the yearly snowmelt, each landowner taking only one’s designated amount to bring life to his fields, prosperity to his herd, and a flow to his kitchen sink. Some farms opt for state of the art irrigation systems, but at Sustainable Settings I was able to observe a series of ditches, using only manpower to move water across a hundred acres of hay fields. This approach is more sustainable, as sprinkler systems deplete the aquifer. One evening we settled in the outdoor kitchen after a powerful lesson in the importance of composting. Brook begins a lesson on biodynamics. We stirred a concoction of crushed quartz, compost, and other material in a handcrafted bucket, preparing the mixture to be spread on the fields. As night fell the tractor came out, its metal arms spreading streams of the preparation across the fields with the moon on our shoulders. We drove around ditches and grazing cows, spreading the preparation and good intentions.
Morning begins with everyone in the kitchen. Animals fed, eggs gathered and cracked into a frying pan, fresh honey spread across crispy toast, and glasses of cold raw milk on the table. The cows meander in from the fields, mooing, insistent on being milked. They walk into the dairy barn one by one and stand as their creamy crop is collected and jarred for the farm share customers. Once done, they saunter out to join the other Guernseys and Jerseys that chew their cud in the shade by the ditch. The kefir beans are added to one jar. Volunteers gather at the garden gate, a hazy Mount Sopris visible over the cherry trees. One volunteer carries a hori hori and plastic tub to the hoop house, ready to weed the mallow that is starting its invasion on the tomato patch and feed it to the rabbits. The others are braiding bunches of garlic to be dried, washing bull’s blood beets, and drying the kale that has been brought in from the rows for washing. Chard is bagged and ready to go; the rainbow stems hide among thick green leaves. These crops are free of pesticides, lacking of chemical treatments, and full of nutrients, flavor, and a sense of teamwork. The remnants of the weeding are distributed among the animals, which in turn provide the foundation of the compost that feeds the plants.
There will always be barren fields, empty plates, and rumbling stomachs somewhere in the world. In an exercise in sustainability, Brook led us to the buckwheat, where the plants withered along the edges. “We are not hungry, so we have overlooked the importance of irrigation for these wilted plants.” Living where food sources are days away from consumption, and the image of edible items includes the plastic packaging, we become disconnected from the source. My visit to Sustainable Settings allowed for experimentation with the importance of self-reliance. I tasted local food grown for its quality, experienced a community focused on land stewardship and green development. I learned a science to growing food that’s a little outside what some would consider ordinary and in doing so became immersed in the “art of daily life.” The complex cycle of energy at Sustainable Settings made me aware of the beautiful interactions between human, plant, and animal.
Learn more about the LeVan family and their mission at www.sustainablesettings.org.