As rural land is acquired for urban development throughout Colorado, some ranches are exploring alternative sources of income while sustaining local agriculture. For Western Slope Resources Reporting, KDNK's Raleigh Burleigh has more...
The Colorado State Demography Office predicts a population increase of 8.5 million people by 2050. Along with the state's rapidly growing population, arable land is increasingly being developed to accommodate for new homes, both modest and extravagant, as well as shopping centers, parking lots, and transportation infrastructure.
Individuals with large landholdings, such as historic ranches on the Western Slope, have a special responsibility to guide the course of this development.
Merrill- “Um, my name is Merrill Johnson. Um, I'm, uhh... haha ha... I don't know.”
Pam- “You're the visionary!”
Merrill- “I guess I'm the visionary.”
Merrill's mother Pam refers to her daughter as ''The Visionary' because Merrill has been hard at work for years to diversify her parent's property.
Like many others, Pam and Randy Johnson moved West to escape the bustle of urban life. Prior of purchasing Cedar Ridge Ranch in 1999, they lived outside of Chicago and worked for major corporations like Family Circle and Gamon International.
Pam- “We just kind of changed everything and came out here very suddenly and when we bought the ranch it was an exclusive horse ranch.”
The ranch is located Northeast of Carbondale, Colorado, and was until recently operated exclusively as a horse boarding facility. After graduating from the Sustainable Studies program at Colorado Mountain College, Merrill was inspired to apply her education at home.
Merrill- “We started composting. So from the horse manure and hay and sawdust from the horse boarding we made compost and then from the compost we started working with local farmers and gardeners and then at that time we learned about the whole food movement and realizing the necessity of having respect for the landscape and respect for the water and respect therefore for food and life.”
Shortly after beginning to sell compost, the Johnsons were raising large black heritage pigs fed with food waste from local grocery stores and spent grain from local breweries. Next, a portion of the horse stables were converted into artist studio space. Cedar Ridge Ranch now has chickens and zebu cattle, grows organic vegetables and recently began to explore glamping.
Pam- “Glamping has been all over the world, Italy and Europe for a long long long time but it is just hitting the United States. And I like to say that I'm the G-L-A part of the A-M-P-I-N-G... the glamorous part...”
In addition to further diversifying their income from the property, The Johnsons view this as an opportunity to educate others about sustainability.
Merrill- “So once somebody comes to see the property, understands how the water flows and creates life on this property and how that life then extends to them through chicken eggs, pork, vegetables, that life force is something that needs to be protected and respected and they have the ability to do that through their consumer behavior, their water use ...”
To accommodate for these many new land uses, the Johnsons had to change their water usage code from agricultural to commercial, a decision they feel saves Cedar Ridge Ranch from becoming another subdivision.
Pam- “We're really trying to keep the landscape looking the way it is.”
Ultimately, the Johnsons view this adventure of economic diversification as a means for preserving the vitality of their land while furthering people's understanding of local food systems.
Merrill- “So in order for us to have a social impact and environmental impact, we need to be economically sustainable. And so, we as a farm have also ventured into these different diversifications because it allows us to become a resilient business. When you have only one stream of income, that makes you very very vulnerable. Y'know let's say we just had cows and the cattle market drops... that's a huge huge vulnerability and that's been seen. That hardship has been taken on by a lot of farmers and ranchers and then that property is lost. So through diversification, just like any environmental system that is healthy is very very diverse, right? Things can happen to that environment but it is resilient enough, because it has enough factors at play, to bounce back.”
The Johnsons continue to explore new opportunities, opening the Ranch to weddings, workshops, alpaca picnics and more. Meanwhile, partnerships within the surroundings communities grow and the property remains viable for food production.
For WSRR, I'm Raleigh Burleigh.
This story is part of Western Slope Resources Reporting, a collaboration between KDNK, KSJD and three other radio stations in rural Colorado, made possible with support from the Gates Family Foundation.