I recently found myself spending several days in the beautiful town of Westcliffe, Colorado. What a lovely spot to visit with spectacular scenery and very friendly people. Since I was in town on a Thursday I happened upon the weekly Westcliffe Farmer’s Market.
Where I live in Seattle I am a regular at my local farmer’s market and because of my serious interest in food and cooking I’m always on the lookout for wonderful local organic produce. I was pleasantly surprised to find an abundance of beautiful organic produce, plus an array of other vendors selling cheeses, homemade breads and pastries, grass-fed beef, jams and jellies, herbal teas, lotions and even some local singers performing for the market shoppers.
I was delighted by the assortment and quality of the produce and my only challenge was to try to spend the $20 I had in my wallet. I was amazed at how cheap the prices were for great produce. I never did spend all of my $20 and now back in Seattle where I spend triple that amount for organic produce I look back fondly at the Westcliffe Farmer’s Market and wish I had the opportunity to shop there more often.
Back in 2004, Mary O’Connor was awakened by a late-night phone call from the Salida post office demanding she come pick up her boxes of bees. The insects were flying around the post office and scaring the workers. She calmly refused, explaining that there may be a few extra bees outside of the box that belonged with the queen inside, and that the stragglers would happily accompany the box to Westcliffe when they delivered it in the morning. This would not be the last time Mary would find the courage to follow her own good judgment when it came to bees.
Mary was drawn to beekeeping through her passion for plants. She was already an experienced gardener and herbalist, and saw bees as an integral part of the whole system. Her eyes light up when she talks about her “girls.” While male bees mostly sit around until it is time to mate with the queen, the “girls,” as Mary calls them, are the worker bees. They build the comb, tend the brood, collect nectar and pollen from one flower at a time, fill the honey comb and then fan the nectar with their wings to dehydrate it and turn it into honey.
When Mary began beekeeping eight years ago, conventional wisdom said bees should be treated with chemicals to avert mite infestations and given antibiotics to prevent disease. She was also instructed to use pre-fabricated plastic combs and to harvest most of the honey from the hive supplementing the bees’ diet with sugar water. Mary knew there had to be another way. She sought out a more natural approach to caring for bees, and finally found a teacher in New Mexico practicing top-bar hive beekeeping, a method in which bees build their own custom combs and eat nothing but their own honey, which naturally supports a healthy and resilient bee population. While a top-bar hive requires more tending and yields less honey, Mary is dedicated to this enchanting process.
Honey truly is a miracle product. Beyond the delight of its sweetness, honey is naturally anti-microbial and it literally never goes bad. It contains vitamins, minerals and nutrients that support the immune system. It is full of enzymes that aid in digestion, and eating local honey can even alleviate seasonal allergies.
In addition to selling delicious raw honey, Mary also crafts soaps and lotions made with honey, and healing salves made with beeswax. To learn more about beekeeping or to try out some truly amazing products visit Rosita Mary at the Westcliffe Farmers Market on any Thursday afternoon through September.
Weeds. We spend countless hours attempting to remove these pesky plants from our yards, gardens or fields, but isn’t it funny how they seem to persevere?
Perhaps we should look at weeds in a new light — some are in fact among the most wholesome sources of food and medicine available to us. Knowing this might stop us dead in our weed-stalking tracks!
Below I’ve listed three types of rascally weeds and some of their nutritional and medicinal uses. Each type offers much more than what I’ve shared here, so I encourage you to look them up in your favorite herb or botanical book and learn more. Please note, if you have sprayed them or if they have been in close proximity to a road where they have been exposed to car exhaust and fumes, then please do not consume! Please also be sure to positively identify the plant before consuming.
Lambs-Quarter (Chenopodium album): More nutritious than spinach, grab this delicious green before it goes to seed as it will become bitter. Offering a slightly nutty flavor, you can add it to your pesto, make a tincture with it, or add it to your salad mix. It is loaded with calcium and iron, as well as vitamins A and C, and other delightful and essential nutrients.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale): Besides making wishes with the seed heads, dandelion leaf and root is very supportive for cleansing your liver and gall bladder and ridding your body of any unwanted toxins. Slightly diuretic, dandelion is also very nutritious and tastes delicious in salads or your favorite herbal tea.
Plantain (Plantago major): a very low-growing perennial weed, plantain leaves are edible and can be enjoyed steamed, in your salad, or brewed into tea. The leaves get bitter as the plant matures, so grab the early shoots for your calcium and other essential vitamins. Plantain is also fantastic for treating any skin disorders such as mosquito bites, cuts and irritations. Crush the leaves between your fingers and rub the juice from the leaves over the injured area.
If you are interested in learning more about these weeds or other herbs and their uses, stop by the Westcliffe Farmers Market every Thursday from 2-5 p.m. where herbalists selling products that include some of our favorite weeds can share more with you.
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.
The 2011 Westcliffe Farmers Market kicks off next week with a brand new frequent shopper reward program. Spend $100 or more at the market and receive a FREE farmers market tote bag. It’s easy to participate! Simply stop in at the welcome booth at the Farmers Market any Thursday between 2-5 p.m. and pick up your reward card. Each time you make a purchase at the market your reward card will be updated accordingly until you reach the $100 mark when you will receive a new Westcliffe Farmers Market tote bag! Want the bag but don’t want to bother with the rewards program? No problem, we will have tote bags for sale, too! See you at the market!
A huge thanks to one of our sponsors, Preferred Partners, for their generous support of our 2011 Westcliffe Farmers Market. The donation will be used to cover insurance for this summer’s markets. Pictured here (left to right) are Lucy and Buffy Lenth of the WFM and Grant Lewinsky of Preferred Partners.