worth the trip

The Evolution of Gunnison River Farms

By / Photography By Matt Kroll | March 10, 2017
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The lay of the land.

Jan Herrick remembers cresting the dirt road off of Highway 92, near the North Fork Valley, and dropping down to the Gunnison River for the first time, and seeing rows of orchards—and nothing else.

“There was no grass, and just gravity irrigation,” she recalls. “Other than the orchards, everything was dirt. There was broken-down farm equipment, chicken coops and fences. It was a windy, cold February day, and I thought ‘I can’t imagine that we’ll spend that much time here.’”

That was in 1998, and today the Herrick family—Jan, her husband, Todd, and their three grown children, Jack, Teddy and Jenny—live at Gunnison River Farms in the summer, in addition to part of the spring and fall, to escape the off-season lulls in their hometown of Telluride.

Herrick credits Todd for seeing that a run-down property between Delta and Hotchkiss had the potential to become an agricultural and recreational oasis. They purchased the 1,000-plus-acre farm from the Ferganchick family, who worked for over a century to transform the fertile land into an abundant peach orchard.

The Herricks continued to evolve the property. They bought it to serve as a home base for their fly-fishing company, Black Canyon Anglers, which is still the primary reason their guests book visits (they also own Telluride Helitrax, a heli-ski operation, among other businesses). The farm has six guest cabins, three of which were relocated from the former Blue Jay Café in Placerville, near Telluride, and a central communal space and dining room dubbed The Cantina. Additional outbuildings include the family home, a “glamping” tent perched over the river, and a guesthouse.

Lambs graze in a lush pasture nestled above three irrigation ponds, which also function as swimming holes and paddleboarding spots. The ponds are flanked by 16 acres of hop yards and apple, apricot, cherry and peach orchards. Todd’s father, Ted, is an avid fisherman and lives on the property, as does Jan’s mother, Roxanne, who helps with farm chores and guest services. His paternal aunt, Kate Herrick, is the farm manager.

“We really thought we’d just buy a peach farm, and everyone would want to buy them,” says Herrick. “But in Colorado, a lot of farmers have peaches to sell at the same time.”

The family quickly recognized the need to diversify. In 2002, they started the three-year process to become a certified organic farm, and by 2005 most of what guests were eating came from their land.

In 2014, Bill Frantz was hired as the farm manager and chef, and his wife, Carin, as field manager. Their employ immediately expanded the farm’s possibilities.

“We wanted to be as self-sustaining as possible,” says Bill. “That meant stripping the guest menus and removing convenience foods. We tried to take that factor out and help our guests understand where the food they’re eating comes from.”

Bill built a 1,200-square-foot greenouse to grow vegetables and herbs eight months of the year and a chicken coop made from an old shipping container was dropped into the middle of a peach orchard, where the farm’s five dozen birds have free range.

“We’re trying to produce everything inhouse,” he explains. “We smoke duck, roast the chickens and butcher whole lambs.”

In addition, the farm grows more than 300 types of vegetables, and Bill dabbles in everything from microgreens to kombucha production.

Thanks to the Frantzes’ hard work, Gunnison River Farms made its debut as a CSA last summer, selling 20 memberships that included prepared foods, homemade cheese and cured meats, to Telluride residents. Called the Heirloom program, it includes overnight stays for participants, so they can experience the farm’s agriculture in action.

“My favorite part is definitely sharing the farm with people who visit,” says Herrick. “I like to walk them through the orchards and then we harvest the vegetables for dinner that night. But we can’t get everyone down there, so to be able to bring what we’re cultivating to people feels really great.” The Herricks hope to expand their weekly food-box delivery to the Aspen area, as well.

Today, descending the same road Herrick drove almost two decades ago offers a definitively different sight. Between the parched, sagebrush-covered canyon walls sits a verdant, sustainable, family-run operation. And just like a true oasis, it offers sustenance for those who make the journey.

Gunnison River Farms
7904 Shea Rd., Austin

Black Canyon Anglers

Photo 1: Some of the guest cabins were relocated from a lodge near Telluride
Photo 2: Jan Herrick takes time out to enjoy the river
Todd Herrick tours the property with Heirloom CSA members
The region is famed for its flavorful peaches.
Article from Edible Aspen at http://edibleaspen.ediblecommunities.com/food-thought/evolution-gunnison-river-farms
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