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A week in Paonia

Dear Family and Friends, 

I’d like to share a little about my time visiting the group this past week in Paonia, Colorado. The previous weekend the group had just finished a stay at the Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute near Basalt, CO that helped them develop a foundational understanding of sustainable agriculture. With their newly acquired knowledge they traveled to Paonia and the North Fork Valley where the high altitude, sunny skies, and cool nights create the perfect environment for regionally famous apples, grapes, cherries, and other produce grown on small orchards and farms. There, the group visited a variety of regenerative farms and eco friendly businesses. 

During their stay in Paonia the group was camped at Big B’s orchard. Big B’s is one of the largest orchards in the valley and is regionally famous for it’s fresh juices and ciders. When I arrived in the evening I spotted the cluster of tents in a freshly cut alfalfa field near the rows of apple trees. The students were busy preparing dinner, each cook group clearly in sync from weeks of practice as they set about discussing what to cook and preparing their meals on their small backpacking stoves with fresh picked ingredients. As dinner came to a close the moon rose above the backdrop of the mountains and students circled up to begin their evening debrief of the day’s activities and open discussion of how to refine their group systems and leadership roles. 

After a brisk morning breakfast the next day we set off to visit the West Elk Coal Mine at the nearby town of Somerset. Once the second largest underground coal mine in the state it is now closed but still emits an astonishing amount of methane gas from the miles of underground tunnels. As part of a methane gas capture project we met with Chris Casky of the Delta Brick and Climate company. Chris works with other organizations to detect and capture the free flowing methane to channel it into productive outlets. Chris also gathers the heavy clays that are quickly filling Paonia reservoir to use in production of brick and tile. Using captured methane to heat the clay, Chris converts these otherwise harmful and wasted resources into artistic tiles and much needed building materials. 

That afternoon after some much overdue laundry and showers we visited a local farmer’s market. While we enjoyed live music we loaded up on fresh produce, handmade art and jewelry, and delicious fresh cooked meals. Students were surprised to see many of the farmers and community members they had met over the past few days all gathering at the market. They were excited to see the varieties of peppers they had helped pick a few days before at Thistle Whistle Farm being sold at the farm’s booth. In just a short period of time the students were beginning to feel connected to this close knit community. 

The next day we headed over to meet with AJ to speak to us about his farm, Deer Tree Farm and Agroforest. AJ is utilizing permaculture principles to create a sustainable farm in the arid high altitude North Fork Valley. AJ showed us how he is incorporating his livestock, pigs and chickens, to help fertilize and maintain weeds and for pest control in a process known as silvopasture. He provided insights into the differences of  agriculture and permaculture while also sharing his perspective on the economics of farming and the opportunities and challenges of running a small business. We later helped him prepare his cherry trees for the winter and upcoming spring by weeding around the base of the trees to help prevent pests from eating the stalks during the winter and to maximize water saturation. 

Back at camp Jeff presented a lesson on the history of farming and the rise of industrialized farming in the United States. The instructors helped provide context for understanding the various regenerative farming techniques we learned over the past week and how we have come to accept a culture of disconnect with our food sources. 

Yesterday the group said farewell to Paonia and they are currently camped outside of Durango, Colorado. This week they will be learning about mountain ecology and how to identify edible plants in the wild. Next week they will slow things down as they head into their midcourse retreat near Mancos, Colorado. 

All the best from Colorado!