In 1874, seven gold miners from San Francisco found themselves knee-deep in the tall grass of the Mancos Valley. After beholding the bowl-shaped symmetry of Mesa Verde’s jutting claw and the dioramic perfection of the La Platas, they collectively declared the expanse of grass and marsh their new home. Established officially in 1881, Mancos wasn’t so much a boomtown as a steadily burgeoning community of homesteaders, farmers, ranchers and families.
One hundred and forty years later, there’s an element of pause in the air, like the frozen moment of a Winslow Homer painting. Down Weber Canyon, past the cemeteries and before County Road 41 turns to dirt, you hit Montezuma County Road G. Turn right at the yard of Jurassic Volkswagen carcasses and Mesa Verde smacks you in the lens. Bent before you, a runner of dust, gravel and marsh is home and farm to a handful of talented young growers making a hearty contribution in the local food system.
To the east, Mountain Roots Produce, owned by Mike Nolan. Down yonder a bit, the lady of the bunch, Kellie Pettyjohn, runs the Wily Carrot. Then there’s Miles Gallagher of Food For All and Dave Banga of Banga’s Farm. Good people these farmers. Hard workers. Dreamers. Travelers.
Banga started the migration to G six years ago from Durango. Originally from Florida, farming didn’t register for him until moving to Chicago where he worked for The City Farm, a one-acre heirloom tomato operation adjacent to the Cabrini-Green Projects. “I liked it more than anything else in my life, and decided that farming was it. It met my social and political needs, as well as being outdoors and providing something of value. I figured if I liked farming in Chicago with sirens, pollution, crackheads, the subway under the farm and people throwing rocks at my head, then I could probably do it anywhere.”
Banga began leasing land up the Florida River Valley near Durango in 2006. “That first year was rough and most of what I know I learned from trial and error,” he says. In 2009, he moved to Mancos and bought a swamp at the bottom of the valley. “People in Florida joke about idiots who buy swampland,” says Banga, but with water an increasingly hot topic, his swamp has proved a blessing. “Around here, water is full on until it’s gone. To make a living in this you have to do a lot in a short amount of time. It’s hard on the body, hard on the mind and you have to be organized.” Now in his eighth year of food production, Banga is pleased with the influx of new farmers to his neighborhood and the amount of food they are cranking out for both Montezuma and La Plata counties. Six years ago he was a lone wolf on this isolated strip of backcountry road. “Now I can’t go a day without someone stopping by to visit or borrow something.”
Kellie Pettyjohn grew up a military brat, bouncing around the US before heading to colleget in Virginia. After graduating, she bought a Willing Workers on Organic Farms catalog on a whim and the first farmer she contacted was Banga in Mancos. That year, she became his 2010 farm intern, living in a refurbished chicken coop on his property. When the season ended, she traveled to Afghanistan, working in schools and hospitals until Miles Gallagher offered her a portion of his property on G to start The Wily Carrot. “That first year was challenging because it was raw land. I had to start from scratch with no infrastructure, hauling water and washing greens in a small salad spinner.”
Now entering her fourth season, Pettyjohn is focusing on a higher volume of fewer crops for local restaurants and grocery stores and is excited to learn tractor-farming techniques from Mike Nolan. “There’s a lot of collaboration on Road G,” she says. “We’re always borrowing tools from each other or stopping by to complain about flea beetles. The community and the friendships make it all worth it.” When asked, “Why farming?” Pettyjohn responds with, “I love being outside with my hands in the dirt. I get bored easily and with farming there’s a new challenge every single day whether I want it or not!”
This lot is a pack of travelers. In the winter of 2012, Pettyjohn lit off to spend the season in Antarctica, while this past winter, Banga escaped to Morocco. Miles Gallagher, owner of Food For All Farm, was unavailable for an interview while gallivanting about India and China. Gallagher is another Banga farmhand turned farm owner and his farm was created around the premise of producing food to serve those in need within the community. Each season, he donates one-third of his harvest to local soup kitchens in Durango and Cortez while the other three farmers contribute food donations throughout the community as well.
Mike Nolan breaks ground on his first Road G season this year. Born and raised in Australia until moving to California when he was eight years old, Nolan got the farm itch while attending school at UC Davis where he worked at a community garden. After graduating, he helped run a small CSA amidst the expanse of Big Ag farming operations. “I realized that I really liked farming but I wanted a more technical understanding of it so I applied for the Santa Cruz Apprenticeship in Agro Ecology and Sustainability,” he explains. During this six-month apprenticeship, he met farmer Gabe Eggers of Twin Buttes Farm, who would later introduce him to Durango.
Nolan spent the next few years traveling and working on a farm in Las Trampas, New Mexico, cultivating 10 acres with draft mule before moving to La Boca Center for Sustainability, south of Ignacio. He later helped lay the foundation for the Old Fort Market Garden Incubator Program in Hesperus, alongside Beth LaShell, of Fort Lewis College. It was there he began Mountain Roots Produce, growing beets, turnips and rutabaga. “Farming for me has never been a hobby. I look at it as a profession and a business. It’s hard work and can be profitable if done well and it’s all about systems management and problem solving.”
Now on G, Nolan is tractor farming and focusing on storage crops that will carry through the winter. “In general, I focus on root and storage crop varieties, minimizing a high water need and seasonal extension.” He’s fired up about his new country road community. “Everyone on the whole span of Road G is cool. I can’t think of another place within 100 miles of Durango where four farmers doing such different things in such different ways are in this close a proximity. I think being here is going to be really fun.”
The common thread linking these four farmers together on this gem of a road is that they’re all good friends. The competition between them is healthy and playful, and like the early pioneers of this hidden valley pocket, they help each other out. There’s constant heckling, borrowing, building and laughing. Their contribution to the local food system is commendable, as is their stubborn passion for raising produce at 7,000 feet.