from the land

Beyond Horses: A young Missouri Heights farmer cultivates more than crops at her family’s ranch.

By / Photography By Draper White | June 14, 2016
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Cedar Ridge Ranch, a 67- acre spread in Missouri Heights just east of Carbondale, is buzzing with activity. It’s a far cry from the sleepy equestrian facility that it was for the better part of the last 20 years.

The ranch remains home to more than two dozen horses, where owners board their animals and train in both English and Western disciplines with co-manager Merrill Johnson and two other instructors. Her parents, Pam and Randy Johnson, started the equestrian facility after leaving demanding corporate jobs in the Chicago area.

Over the last five years Merrill, 27, has worked to diversify Cedar Ridge as owner/ founder of the ranch’s off shoot, Merrill’s Family Farm, reputed to have some of the highest-quality compost in the Roaring Fork Valley, as well as pasture-raised heritage breed pork.

The ranch is also home to a small herd of zebu cattle that are sold as breeding stock. Native to South Asia, zebus are one of the oldest domesticated breeds still in existence, and a rarity in the U.S. They’re roughly half the size of Western cattle, and thus have less impact upon the land and fencing. They’re also docile and highly resistant to heat and insects.

When I first arrive at Cedar Ridge and walk to the barn, Merrill, her parents, and longtime family friend Zach Paris have just completed their chores and are sitting around a table socializing. Together, they perform much of the ranch and farm operations—which sometimes literally means taking their work home with them.

“I wake up and walk outside,” says Merrill, “and my chicken is there, my duck is there and my cow is there. Actually, my cow was in my living room last night because she’s being bottle-fed.” The day-old zebu, Babe, had trouble standing up after birth and is being cared for independently until she’s strong enough to rejoin the herd.


Photo 1: Merrill is a longtime riding instructor at Cedar Ridge
Photo 2: Merrill with Large Black heritage pigs
Photo 3: Zac Paris in the pasture
Photo 4: The new farmstay includes a yurt.

From Compost to Creative Spaces

Merrill’s Family Farm got its name after it was clear to the Johnsons that farming was to become their shared vocation, avocation and passion. Merrill was put off at first with the idea of using her first name, but eventually came around. “‘Merrill’ is a unique name, and we thought it would stand out,” she explains. “I just want to promote family and be here on the ranch, and I want others to have the same desire.”

It only takes a few minutes of talking with the Johnson family to understand that Merrill is leading the way with her energy and vision. In addition to horses, compost, pigs and cattle, the ranch is home to two start-up ventures, Cedar Ridge Permaculture and Erin’s Acres (see sidebar, “Branching Out”). The most recent additions to the property’s portfolio are a farm stay and studio rentals for artists.

The Creative Spaces at Cedar Ridge Ranch are comprised of 10 converted horse stalls with Dutch doors. Most have been transformed by the “creative,” as they are known at Cedar Ridge, into spaces that reflect their artistic focus, which includes photography, ceramics, painting, illustration, glass and floral design.

This summer, the farm is also launching tours and workshops that include gardening, livestock management and soap- and candle-making using tallow from the pigs. The farm stay lodging consists of a yurt or a safari tent; guests can participate in riding lessons, tours and workshops, and visit with artists.

Photo 1: Zebu cattle stand at attention.
Photo 2: A rabbit kit gets cuddles

Falling into Farming

For Merrill, the farm and its related activities are her career. She likes to say she fell backwards into farming. “I was a horse person,” she explains. “I got interested in the compost because of what we were doing with our horse manure. It was a waste product we were exporting to off-site composting companies, which I thought was crazy. Compost is a much-needed amendment in our valley, because our soil has a hard clay component.”

Merrill’s Family Farm now supplies compost to local schools and community gardens. “We have good soil, good water, we’re growing great hay for horse feed and, as a result, they produce high-quality manure,” says Merrill. “We combine the manure—which is mixed with pine shavings—with water and biodynamic treatments [a holistic methodology that includes mineral- and botanical-based supplements], a lot of love and a lot of time.”

Soon after starting her compost business, Merrill started raising Large Black heritage pigs, and the next phase of her business took off. The pork is in high demand because the flavor of the meat is exceptional and the animals are raised in a humane, sustainable manner. They forage in pasture in summer and have year-round access to shelter; in winter, they’re kept in pens. They eat organic produce (Whole Foods donates some of its expired product) supplemented with spent grain from Roaring Fork Beer Company.

“The food we throw away is inherently not waste, it’s energy,” says Merrill. “So here we are with our pigs tying up the circle.” The animals are harvested on-site, which minimizes stress and results in higher-quality meat, and processed at a family-owned and -operated facility in Silt. The pork is sold direct from the farm and at the Carbondale Farmers’ Market.

Even as the Johnsons work to build a community of artists and young farmers at Cedar Ridge, they’re just as invested in the Roaring Fork Valley as a whole. They’re part of the effort to expand the Carbondale Farmers’ Market to include a weekly evening version, and work closely with Roaring Fork Beginning Farmers, which was founded to provide a platform for collaboration and advocacy among young growers in the area. Merrill’s also supplies grow-domes and compost to local schools and community gardens, in addition to providing soil education to students.

A curious Babe seeks attention.

Cedar Ridge Ranch Merrill’s Family Farm 3059 County Road 103, Carbondale 970.963.3507


Branching Out

Two new enterprises at Cedar Ridge Ranch are a permaculture operation and a small farm, both of which will sell their produce through community-supported agriculture (CSA) harvest subscription programs.

Cedar Ridge Permaculture is the brainchild of Zac Paris, a Snowmass native and certified permaculture designer. Funded by a small CSA, the operation will research the best types of shrubs, trees and high-value crops for this region.

“The property is incredible,” says Paris. “You have undulating hills, and an area where the water comes down seasonally. We’ll also be able to demonstrate management practices to distribute water and make the land more resilient and drought-tolerant.”

Erin Cuseo is a young farmer establishing herself on a one-acre plot at Cedar Ridge Ranch. Her CSA boxes will include seasonal crops like greens, peas, cucumbers, squash, potatoes, onions and raspberries.

Erin wanted to get into farming after moving here to start a family with her husband, Mike. Eager to take advantage of her education and experience working on a permaculture farm in Washington state, she found Cedar Ridge on Facebook. “Once I met Merrill and her parents, it really clicked,” she says.

To learn more about Cedar Ridge Permaculture and Erin’s Acres CSAs, visit

Erin Cuseo transferring plant starts.
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