Rachel Huber came to Southwest Colorado looking for the active ingredient she wanted when she switched her major from engineering to natural resources and environmental science at Purdue University in 2009.
She found it at Heartwood Cohousing, a tight community of residents with common goals who own 360 acres of varied landscapes near Gem Village. Huber lives there and leases 2½ acres to grow vegetables in 2,000 square feet of greenhouses and to raise chickens and pigs.
Requiring her daily attention now are 150 black Australorp chickens, an Australian layer bred for egg production, that feed on organic pastureland and non-GMO roasted-soybean grain from Montrose.
The introduction of pigs and the arrival of garden vegetables will diversify Huber’s production. Relying on eggs alone places Huber into direct competition with large-scale egg operations as well as with patio producers who have a half-dozen hens.
“I love farming because it’s active environmentalism,” Huber said in introducing herself. “I found I knew little about our environment – the soil, water and air – when I interned at the Heartwood farm when I graduated in 2011.”
After the growing season, Huber kicked around for a couple of years before she returned to Heartwood to join farm manager Cameron Duhaime. But now she’s on her own, as Duhaime is leaving to explore interests in the East.
Huber, 26, named her farming operation Grace Gardens.
“Now, I participate in my ecosystem every day, and I work with the Big Mama (Mother Nature).” Huber said. “I nourish the soil, and it nourishes me.”
The soil at Heartwood needs a lot of improvement, which will be an ongoing process, Huber said. But building soil is part of farming, she said.
“A friend told me once that people who give back to the soil are farmers,” Huber said. “People who simply grow food and take the nutrients are miners.”
Chickens and pigs improve the soil by aerating and fertilizing it every day, Huber said.
“Animals are meant to scratch and root and peck and roam,” Huber said. “As long as you keep chickens and pigs moved often, they’ll do wonders for the soil and, therefore, the health of the farm ecosystem.”
She shared a bit of chicken lore: Chickens evolved from African jungle fowl, and the early domesticated birds didn’t lay eggs in the winter. It took breeding to bring year-round egg laying.
Huber gets about seven dozen eggs a day, which she sells at the Bayfield farmers market and in the Smiley Building lobby in Durango every Wednesday.
She’ll be so busy soon that she’ll have an intern, Michelle Hemler, a junior at University of Purdue, helping from mid-May to mid-August. She’ll need help into the fall, Huber said.
Still, farming doesn’t pay all the bills, she said. She sells greenhouse and garden produce to neighbors, does house cleaning and yard work and models for figure-drawing classes twice a month at Durango Arts Center.
But farming remains her true love.
“I try to model what I do off the permaculture principles and work of Joel Salatin (a third-generation alternative farmer, author and lecturer) in Virginia,” Huber said.