Updated: September 2, 2014 at 8:55 am
Looks like the small family farm is not dead.
I recently visited Heritage Belle Farms, a 40-acre farm in Calhan run by 29-year-old Katie Belle Miller. She raises Texas longhorn cattle, heritage breed pigs and a variety of poultry, plus she recently started raising tilapia.
Even as some lament the corporatization of American farming, she believes there's still a role for small-scale agriculture. In fact, she believes it is the future of agriculture.
"People want to know what's in their food," she says. "They don't want to be eating chemicals; they want to be eating clean, organic."
Katie was born and raised in Colorado Springs; when she was 13, her family moved to a town in northern Colorado where they had a horse and a couple of chickens. At age 16, she interned with the U.S. Department of Agriculture - and a passion was ignited. She worked with researchers studying nutrients and soil for potato crops; what grabbed her was the field work, being outdoors and talking with farmers and ranchers.
Later, at Colorado College, she created her own major in sustainable agriculture. (That's also the focus of my daughter Hope's studies at the University of Montana. I figure Hope will be interested in visiting with Katie when she's back home for Christmas break.)
Through Heritage Belle Farms (heritagebellefarms.com) and her consulting business, Integrated Holistic Agriculture, Katie touts holistic management.
The basic philosophy, she says, "is imitating nature - managing our livestock so that they perform or act in a way that they would if they were a natural (wild) animal. So my cattle, for example, I run almost as if they were wild bison."
Katie has 15 head of cattle - soon to be 16, as one cow is pregnant. Watching the cattle, with their massive horns, follow Katie through a field like a group of baby ducks trailing after their momma was something to see.
"I chose longhorn because my great-great-grandfather was the head cowboy for the Goodnight-Loving Trail, and it's kind of my heritage to continue longhorn on a ranch." (The Goodnight-Loving Trail was used to drive longhorn cattle from Texas to New Mexico and Colorado.)
During a visit to the farm, I also got to see Katie's hogs. It was a hot day and they clearly enjoyed a shower from the hose and the resulting mud. They live high off the hog, so to speak: They feast on "premium" pig slop from a company called Future Pointe, which processes food from food banks that can't be used for people for various reasons, such as damaged canned food that could pose the threat of botulism. (Pigs are resistant to botulism.) By thinking outside the box in such ways - and having her pigs dine on, for example, Chef Boyardee - Katie has been able to save on the cost of feed.
Her latest endeavor, the tilapia, might seem like an odd addition to the farm, but fits into her holistic, natural approach. She is using aquaponics, which combines raising fish with cultivating plants "in a symbiotic environment." The setup for now includes two indoor aquariums; it will take about a year for the fish to mature to the point that she can start selling them.
"I really like eating fish," Katie says. "And I really hate weeds out in my garden and bugs and hail damage. So this is just the most awesome way to grow food indoors."
Katie and her husband, Josh, don't make a living off the farm, "but that's our goal that we're working toward," she says. Josh works for a local excavation company.
"He absolutely loves the country life," she says. "He spends his evenings and his weekends making hay."
Some ranchers may regard her as a "hippie rancher," she says. "Other people think it's really cool." Those people include her neighbors, who have let her cattle graze on their property at no cost.
A report issued last year by the U.N. Commission on Trade and Development, titled "Wake Up Before it is Too Late," urged a holistic approach to agricultural management and more support for small-scale farmers rather than "industrial, monoculture agriculture."
People interested in knowing where their food comes from can follow her example in at least small ways, Katie says: "just growing a little tray of lettuce or raising a couple of backyard chickens."
"People are realizing you can fend for yourself, you can grow your own food."
Bill Radford and his wife live in the country east of Colorado Springs with a menagerie that includes a horse, a mule, two goats, two dogs, two cats, a half-dozen chickens, two rabbits and two parrots. Contact him: Twitter @billradfordiii, gazettebillradford on Facebook..