By Buffy Lenth
At the turn of the 19th Century Westcliffe was on the map, so to speak, when it came to producing vegetables. During this era Grand Junction, Denver, and Westcliffe were the top three agricultural producers in the state of Colorado. In fact, the old train depot at the west end of Main Street served as the center of commerce for the Western Seed Company, once the largest shipper of vegetables in Colorado. During the heat of summer Westcliffe could produce lettuce and other cool season crops while farms at lower altitudes could not. Local farmers also shipped potatoes, peas, cauliflower, cabbage, oats, wheat, barley and rye on the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. This bounty of vegetables and grains helped supply shops, restaurants, and families all over the state with fresh produce. After a decline in both the agricultural and mining industries, the Westcliffe train depot closed in 1938 and the Wet Mountain Valley waned as a commercial vegetable producer. Today there is a resurgent interest in vegetable gardening here in the valley, and we are blessed with a wealth of local knowledge to help us get back to our roots.
At first it may seem difficult to grow vegetables here, but there are actually many advantages to gardening in a high mountain valley. While soils of the Rocky Mountain west are generally thought to be rather poor for most types of agriculture, the soils of high mountain valleys like ours are the exception. The Wet Mountain Valley and others like it hold pockets of rich soils that have washed down from the surrounding mountains and are suitable for growing many types of produce. Yes, we have a short growing season, and cool nights, but there are far more vegetables that prefer cooler temperatures and grow well here than there are warm season vegetables that are difficult to grow here. Some even say that our high altitude growing environment produces heartier, more flavorful and nutritious fruits and vegetables.
If you still need convincing, just stop by our local farmers market any Thursday through September and check out some of the tasty offerings. Fresh greens, herbs, carrots, radishes, and turnips are already available, and the selection of locally grown produce will expand throughout the season. Better yet, pick up some seeds or young vegetable starts to take home and plant in your own garden. We will even have free seed potatoes available that you can take home and dig right into the ground, re-joining a long tradition of growing vegetables in the mountains.