We may think of green as the overwhelming color of the James Ranch in the Animas Valley, but Jennifer James Wheeling does her best to vary the palette, adding her own array of color with her business, The Gardens at James Ranch.
Wheeling is one of five siblings who has returned to Durango to raise herchildren on the family ranch. She chose to till the soil and plant the seeds that provide a bounty of vegetables, berries and flowers. Marketing to schools, restaurants, grocers and directly to her customers, James has developed an important complement to her family's enterprise.
Childhood experiences influenced her decision to farm. In 4-H, she learned the basics of crop sciences, record keeping and marketing.
She recalls a formative day selling her romaine lettuce and white onions from her garden project to RV travelers at the old Hermosa Camper Park. Customers were excited to get garden-fresh produce, and Wheeling experienced the satisfaction of bringing pleasure to people with food she had grown herself.
She also recalls learning entrepreneurship at the ranch's fish ponds, where she and her siblings placed worms on the hook and later gutted the fish caught by delighted tourists.
Wheeling left the ranch to study interior design at CSU, where she laments she never took any agricultural classes. It was while living in Dallas, where her husband, Joe, was working, when she began soul searching and contemplating a healthy upbringing for their children. She remembered the joy she had felt sharing her food, and they decided to return to Durango to farm.
James has spent the last 13 years in what she describes as the University of Life Agricultural Program, learning the climate of her 4-acre farm, soil requirements, irrigation construction, pest control and organic growing methods; all while homeschooling her two daughters. Her infrastructure includes a greenhouse for seed germination and three moveable hoophouses, built on skids, which allow crop rotation and season extension. After a plant reaches a specific maturity, this unheated structure of poly film can be moved to allow another plant variety to receive the benefit of higher temperatures and a controlled environment. It is with this system that she hopes to offer lettuce into December.
An active Farm to School advocate, Wheeling contracts with Durango School District 9-R and Fort Lewis College to provide fresh produce.
"Getting healthy foods into the schools and educating kids regarding food choices to are some of my primary goals," Wheeling said.
Agritourism has also been her niche, giving Wheeling the opportunity to educate folks about her style of farming. She offers tours showcasing the different systems employed in making farming sustainable for the land, animals and the families involved. Her joy comes from developing personal, trusting relationships with her customers.
"I hope I can continue to learn and challenge myself, and eventually help others become confident to grow their own food," she said.
Find produce from The Gardens at James Ranch at area farmers markets, school cafeterias, restaurants and groceries. E-mail Wheeling at www.jamesranch.net.
Marje Cristol owns Linnaea Farm in Durango and sells cut flowers and goat-milk cheeses. She also serves on the Durango Farmers Market board. Reach her at 946-2712 or marje@LinnaeaFarm.com.