With a $50,000 grant in hand, the local tourism folks set out to establish a whole new genre for travelers – agri-tourism.
Families looking to educate their children about the real world could find no better venue than the Great Sage Plain region of Colorado, the southwestern corner of the state known more for its ancestral Puebloan ruins than sunflower farms.
Yes, you must visit Mesa Verde National Park, and perhaps Hovenweep National Monument and the Anasazi Heritage Center. You might want to spend a day at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. You could even add a tour at the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park.
But if you’ve been there and done those, think about seeing a flock of Churro sheep, brought back from extinction by local breeders. Consider stopping by an alpaca farm, to be greeted by these sweet fiber-bearing creatures. Make plans to join a cattle drive. Live on a farm/ranch for a week and pick your own produce, gather your own eggs and eat locally raised beef and chicken.
“The first agriculture in Colorado was here,” says Lynn Dyer, tourism director for Mesa Verde Country, the marketing arm for this corner of the state. “The Puebloans who settled here in the 1200s grew corn, squash and beans. They raised turkeys. This (agri-tourism) seemed like a natural thing to do here.”
Dyer started educating local farmers, growers and ranchers about the concept last year, and more than 40 of them signed on.
A glossy brochure now helps visitors find the yaks and daylily farms, the restaurants and sheep shearing. There’s a map and phone numbers to call for appointments, in some cases.
“These aren’t tourist attractions,” Dyer says. “They’re people’s lives. This is real. They’re not going to drive cattle from one pasture to another for your entertainment, but if you get lucky and that’s what they’re doing, you can join in.”
Many of the sites offer free tours. Others take donations to help their operations survive. Some sell their products on site – wool or alpaca yarn or goods, fruit or flowers, wine or beer. Others, of course, charge for the pleasure of the experience – such as farm stays or ranch stays.
Some of their goods can be purchased locally at such places as the Notah Dineh trading post and museum in Cortez, or at the Cortez Farmer’s Market.
But all give insight into a way of life that is in danger of disappearing in the West – and in the country.
Here is a sampler of what you might find on a visit to the area:
At Shadow Ranch Alpacas, a herd of the dainty, llama-like creatures will dash over to the fence with curious eyes, checking out the visitors. They’ll turn away when you enter their pen, but come back and eat out of your hand when they see you have some of their favorite feed. Lynda Maul, who owns the place with her husband, got interested in fiber arts when she visited a fair and started with angora rabbits and goats. But alpacas are way less trouble, she says. She sells the fiber and alpaca woven goods at the Shadow Ranch Fiber Hut in nearby Cortez. Call 970-882-1296 or go to alpacanatio.com.
Betsy Harrison retired from the business world in San Diego to live on her Crabapple Tree Farm near Mancos. She fell in love with the Navajo breed of Churro sheep (remnants of early Spanish visitors), discovered they were becoming extinct and started raising them. She now sells the wool primarily to Navajo weavers who use it to make their signature rugs. She also sells lamb to local restaurants. Call 970-739-1172.
Garry and Ming Adams of Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch grow an enormous (1½ acres) plot of vegetables that feeds the residents and guests of the ranch and have lots left over for the Cortez Farmer’s Market. They also raise chickens and cattle. Visitors can pick their own produce (as do guests) and buy fresh, free-range eggs. Visitors also can arrange a petroglyph tour of some ancient findings on the ranch. The ranch has three refurbished houses for overnight guests. Call 970-565-4288 or go to canyonoftheancients.com.
The Heaton family runs the East Pines Ranch near Dove Creek. The accommodations are rustic (a tiny unheated hut or tents, and an outhouse), but the experience is authentic. Guest wranglers may mend fences one day, drive cattle the next. Horses are around for riding, and LaVonne Heaton serves up three ranch-style meals daily. Nothing fancy here, but the stars are great at night. Call 970-565-6439 or go to eastpines.com.
The Guy Drew Vineyardsin Cortez provide a flower-banked patio and some nice shade to enjoy a wine-tasting on a warm day. Free wine-tastings are offered most afternoons and some wines are organic. They also experiment with unique blends. 970-565-4958 or guydrewvineyards.com.
The Dolores River Brewery in Dolores is famous for its wood-fired pizzas (several choices of crusts with an arm-length list of toppings) and for its micro-brews. Talk to owner and brewmeister Marc Youngquist and you’ll get an earful about how much he loves the area and his job. It’s not bottled and sold in stores, but you can drink it there and buy some to go. They hope to can and sell it off-site soon. Call 970-882-4677 or go to doloresriverbrewery.com.
The Metate Room at Far View Lodge on Mesa Verde serves the same ingredients so treasured by the ancient tribe who lived here – corn, squash and beans – but in a very upscale fashion. Try the grilled quail on chipotle polenta or the buffalo prime rib for a real treat. They buy locally grown and raised products for the restaurant and the chef offers creative ways to eat them. Call 602.331.5210 or go to visitmesaverde.com/dining/metate-room.aspx.
The Farm is a tiny eatery in downtown Cortez that serves only lunch and pretty much goes organic. Vegetarians and vegans will find this an oasis of flavor in a sea of steakhouses, and meat-eaters who want organic chicken and beef can find it here, too. Mostly super-fresh salads, soups and sandwiches reflect the owner’s own greenhouse crops and locally available foods. Call 970-565-3834 or go to sevenmeadowsfarm.com/SevenMeadowsFarm/The_Farm_Bistro.html.
If you’re visiting during the growing season, don’t miss the Cortez, Mancos or Dolores farmer’s markets for flowers and lovely produce. In the fall, hit the local apple orchards, where you can pick your own fruit. Some folks swear the McElmo Canyon peaches are the best in the world.
You’ll also find baked goods, fresh-roasted coffee, honey, plants for sale, herbs in pots, gourd art and handmade aprons, plus you’ll get a little live music in the bargain.
But to see where all this comes from, pick up the brochure, “Touch the Past, Touch the Plenty,” at the visitors’ center or elsewhere in town.
Take the kids to a ranch or farm and let them see where their food and clothing comes from. Be a cowboy for a day, or a week. Pet an alpaca. Other members of the agri-tourism coalition here include a tractor museum, garden and greenhouse operations where you can pick your own fruit and vegetables, a turkey farm, reindeer and camel ranch, and other restaurants and breweries.
Seriously, this place will grow on you.
If You Go
For more information, go to mesaverdecountry.com and click on Activities, then Agricultural Adventures.
Linda DuVal is a freelance writer in Colorado Springs.