Chard stems sparkle in brilliant hues of fuchsia, yellow and celadon. Beets glisten ruby red. Spinach and kale fill out the table at the Durango Farmers Market in leafy emerald splendor.
A woman walks away from Mike Jensen’s stand looking skeptically at a bag of just-bought kale. “I’ll try it,” she tells him.
Another customer shares tales of summer squash run amok in her backyard garden as she browses the beets. A line forms for the specialty of Jensen’s Homegrown Biodynamics Farm – delectable, piquant salad greens.
It’s August and it’s all in. Early vegetables such as greens and radishes are still coming on, coveted treats such as tomatoes and peppers are just starting, and green beans, garlic and basil are all going strong.
While summer’s prime time may be a cook’s paradise, it’s a farmer’s fury, when days don’t hold enough hours to finish the work that needs to be done.
Morning starts before dawn at Emily and Mike Jensen’s farm in Bayfield. Mike rises to do chores in the 2½ acre garden where they grow their 26 crops, checking on irrigation lines, the progress in the hoop house or the milking cow and her new calf. Emily attends to their son Kanan, 2, before the workers – four young women recently graduated from Fort Lewis College – arrive to help harvest.
Trained as geologists, the Jensens abandoned their careers after they fell in love with growing their own food while working on an Idaho farm. They came to Durango looking for a place to farm and people who could afford their high-quality organic produce. They found it, but seven years later – a success story for an agricultural business in La Plata County – farming still isn’t an easy row to hoe.
That farmers can grow anything in the unyielding geography of Southwest Colorado is a minor miracle. The land requires constant irrigation, high alert for spring frosts, and crop-ruining hail can happen almost any old time. Several days this spring, it was so dry that humidity levels didn’t reach 10 percent. Then the winds came, and then the rain, two solid weeks of it in August alone.
“There’s no one thing about farming that’s crushing. It’s just constant and long,” Mike said. “But it beats an office job.”
Emily takes the first shift in the field, joining the workers in cutting lettuce, spinach and chard planted in bright rows of red and green. The workers gently place the salad greens – spicy mustard, earthy tatsoi, tender red romaine – into laundry bags and cover them with a wet towel. Then they load the sacks onto a cart and haul them up the hill to an outdoor makeshift wash-dry-and-fluff station.
The mesh bags go into 100-gallon tubs where Emily swishes them through the water to remove dirt. She pops them into an old Kenmore washing machine on the lowest spin cycle for about a minute and then onto a 10-foot-long draining table. As she expertly unloads each of the eight varieties that go into her salad mix, Kanan cries to be held.
“I hear you dude,” Emily tells him. “I can’t pick you up now.”
She fluffs the immense mound of greens with her hands and then using her arms, too, begins to toss the leaves together.
Kanan persists and wins the day, persuading his mother to carry him while she finishes tossing the greens.
“It’s hard to get all my work done while I raise the baby,” she said, weariness tingeing her voice.
After the morning break, Mike instructs the young women on how to harvest patty pan squash – a quick stroke of the knife an inch from the stem, chuck anything bigger than a lunch plate over the fence. Meanwhile, he heads for the carrots, jumping on a digging fork to lift them from the soil one or two at a time.
Isabel Borman, wearing shorts and a tank top on a day that began at 43 degrees, follows after him, bending her tall frame to scoop up the harvest. It makes your back hurt just to watch the two labor.
“Hamstring stretches are the key to life,” Borman says.
Making small-acre organic farming profitable is the key to staying in business, and the Jensens work as hard on that as growing delicious, healthy food.
They’ve been farming since 2007 and have it down to as fine a science as Mother Nature will allow. You work to get a certain vegetable down just right, seeding carrots for years until you’ve found the right plot, the right amount, the right time to plant, and then one year, they just go weird on you, Mike said. It’s always something.
The Jensens grow some things such as zucchini simply because their regular customers love it, the ones who buy shares early in the season and reap the bounty later. Yet buyers at the Durango Farmers Market, where they set up every Saturday, tire of it, leaving them with leftovers they can’t sell. Ultimately, they give it to friends or donate it to local food charities.
The Jensens are just two farmers among the area’s agricultural growers, but their hardships are common to anyone earning a living off the land. Judy Rohwer of Rowher’s Farm laments the loss of her beets, carrots and greens this season. Yet everything else – deep purple eggplant, tiny sweet-tart plums, colorful potatoes – all came in abundance.
Denise Stovall of Local Brand Farms raises lamb. One of her rams got loose this year, and Stovall’s going to be birthing baby sheep earlier than she’d like. She laments the midnight hours and the public’s lack of understanding of how difficult farming in these parts can be.
“I’m going to be lambing in January whether I want to or not. If it’s minus 20, you still have to be there.”
At 1 p.m. after the beets have been picked, the potatoes weeded and the cilantro snipped, the Jensens and their young workers sit down to a work-day lunch, sharing the bounty they help harvest in an aromatic vegetable curry and delicate leafy salad washed down with glasses of golden beer. Kanan tries a green bean and rejects it.
When the help leaves an hour later, Mike will head off to deliver salad greens to a nearby farm, and Emily will put the baby down for a nap. She’ll finish washing the carrots and beets, spraying off dirt before pulling away the stray tops and binding them for tomorrow’s market. Together they’ll package the spinach and greens in plastic bags and store them in the cooler overnight.
They’ll complete their work about dark and rise before dawn to make it to the market in time. All this to earn less than a starting teacher’s salary between them. For the Jensens, organic farming in Southwest Colorado is more than just a living, it’s a labor of love.