Food, it seems like it’s everywhere and in abundance in the Denver metro area. Walk into any grocery store and the produce section is filled with fruits and vegetables, some from local growers and others from far-away lands (think Chile, New Zealand, etc.). For the most part, city slickers like me and my family don’t take a lot of time to think about where this food comes from, who picked it and how it got to the neighborhood grocer. Sure, we have our backyard garden that produces more zucchini than one family can possibly eat and yummy tomatoes and cucumbers, but that hardly relates the picture of what it takes to feed the masses fresh fruits and vegetables. Having had the opportunity to meet a handful of Colorado’s rural farmers and ranchers through my previous work, and in particular, my good friend John Knapp from Rocky Ford, CO, I decided it was high time to take a fieldtrip to learn about running a farm and the process it takes to feed those of us who live in the city.
Growing up in Colorado and now raising my own family here, one highlight of summer has always been, and hopefully will continue to be, Rocky Ford cantaloupe. It’s the best I’ve ever tasted and grown right here in our “backyard.” I recently loaded the kids in the car and we headed south, then east and less than three hours later we arrived in Rocky Ford. The always smiling John, and his equally gregarious wife Laurie, met us with open truck doors and told us to hop in so we could head to the fields. Although John and Laurie are not the chief operators of Knapp Farms (John’s brother Brian is the man in charge these days, the Knapp family has farmed in Rocky Ford since 1902), the entire family still helps, especially this time of year when harvest is in full swing. John’s full-time job is with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Like many others in farming communities, he burns the candle at both ends this time of year, working his “regular” job and helping with the farm business as well. Even with incredible machinery, it still takes a lot of hands to harvest melons and other crops.
A short drive and we arrived at the field that was being harvested this particular morning. With the hot sun now glaring down (it was over 100 degrees this day), the workers – covered head to toe to protect their skin – looked hot and tired but were moving steadily along. I really had no idea what we would see when we got to the field; individuals filling buckets, big machinery? What we saw was an interesting sight. One large tractor pulling a large dumpster-like receptacle and a second smaller tractor pulling a conveyor belt. The pickers walked behind the conveyor belt and placed the hand-picked cantaloupe on the belt which moved the cantaloupe up a ramp and into the large receptacle. It was amazing to me to see how the rows of crops were precisely planted with sufficient spacing to allow the tractors to move up and down the field without running over any plants. Equally interesting was the method used for irrigation and fertilization – a very sophisticated, computerized underground irrigation system that had been installed a few years back. This underground system is much more efficient on water usage (a very precious commodity in Colorado) and it allows fertilizer to be applied during a watering cycle in very exact measures.
With the harvesting of this field done for the day, the big tractor with its very full “dumpster” headed to a near-by processing plant where the melons were cooled, washed, packed in crates and loaded on semi-trucks which then head to grocery stores in Denver and other metro cities. It’s pretty amazing to me that we get our Rocky Ford cantaloupe in about a day from the time it was picked in the field.
As we ended our day at the Knapp Family Market, it was fun to see the large variety of produce grown in the area. Unlike cantaloupe and watermelon, these crops – onions, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, etc. – are not typically sold in front range grocery stores. If you want to enjoy this produce, you either need to find a local farmer’s market or take a fieldtrip to Rocky Ford yourself, I highly recommend it! Our day trip to Rocky Ford was a great experience for us all. I certainly learned a lot as did my kids. It’s great to get out and spread our wings and think about the things we take for granted. We are all a bit wiser for it with the extra benefit of bringing home great, fresh, Colorado-grown fruits and veggies.