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  • Jane Shellenberger

The Evolution of Desert Canyon Farm

By Jane Shellenberger:

Every year from mid April to mid June gardeners of all sorts flock to Desert Canyon Farm in Canon City. They come from Colorado and neighboring states, and as far away as North Carolina, the Dakotas and California to visit and buy plants more varied and interesting than the boxstore offerings – all certified organic. Some plan vacations to coincide with these two months of Open Farm Days, carpooling in vans big enough to hold all their picks from over 2300 herbs, heritage and heirloom fruits and vegetables, edible and old-fashioned flowers, natives, perennials, wildlife-friendly habitat plants, fairy garden plants, hardy and tender succulents, and hanging baskets.

Chris and Tammi Hartung decided to start their own farm in 1996 after many years learning to grow in various settings. Chris had managed Chatfield Arboretum (now Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield) for over 9 years, planting 16 miles of trees and windbreaks following a master plan to design and create microclimates. When he and Tammi got married they lived there together for a couple of years.

Tammi worked as a propagator at Paulino Gardens in Denver under Kelly Grummons. They had a special arrangement whereby noted Colorado plant people brought in plant material from exploration trips and challenged them to “figure out how to grow this.” Trained as a medical herbalist, Tammi was also interested in ethnobotany, how people living in the places where they were collected used the plants. She later managed an extract laboratory and traveled all over the US and Europe to help companies formulate their products. Her boss at the lab was buying 60-75 different varieties of fresh medicinal herbs that needed to be shipped within 24 hours of harvesting.

Field grown perennials and herbs
Field grown perennials and herbs

Meanwhile, things were shifting at Chatfield as developers gobbled up the land around its perimeter. It seemed a good time for Tammi and Chris to make a change so they bought 5 acres near Cañon City for field-growing and wholesaling herbs and perennials. George Ubelhart, the owner of Jalito Seed Company, knew Tammi from Paulino’s and contacted her about growing out plants for seed production. Chris built their first greenhouse to house all the starts and when they ended up with extra space they grew plants for Al Gerace at Welby Gardens.

Desert Canyon Farm
Desert Canyon Farm
Cedar Waxwing. The farm is a member of the CO Birding  & Wildlife Trails program.
Cedar Waxwing. The farm is a member of the CO Birding & Wildlife Trails program.

Tammi grew up spending a lot of time in nature and camping, and was taught by her parents “to take care of what’s around us.” So it was their priority right from the start to obtain organic certification. This didn’t make a lot of sense to Chris’ father, Dean of Agriculture at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, but he came around to seeing the value in growing specialty crops organically. For many years Desert Canyon Farm was the only organic grower at the annual ProGreen Show in Denver.

The certification process is now much more involved and expensive as the US recently upped its organic standards to match those of the EU. That’s a good thing for large growing operations (as insurance against GMOs), says Tammi, but the new system is not tailored for diverse crops or biological diversity, which makes it very difficult for smaller (and less tech savvy) growers.

After five years of field-growing herbs at Desert Canyon Farm the market changed dramatically. Big vitamin companies bought in and growing shifted overseas where labor was cheaper. They wanted dried herbs instead of fresh, which pays less to the grower and requires much more space in order to produce the quantity necessary. The Hartung’s farm income plummetted; they needed a new business model.

From the beginning Desert Canyon Farm was also a Learning Center, training students to be organic farmers and offering a 2-year apprenticeship program for herbalist certification. Groups from Colorado State University and the University of New Mexico came for a week or two, and school groups came for a few days as part of their science curriculum. The first plant sale was for students only, one day in May. That expanded to a weekend as friends, family, and neighbors heard about it, then it grew to every weekend in May.

An Open Farm Days class gathered around The Peace Tree.
An Open Farm Days class gathered around The Peace Tree.

The Learning Center closed in 2000 as Chris & Tammi shifted more toward retail growing. And as more local and regional gardeners discovered their plant sale, they embraced the current model – two months of Open Farm Days. Chris built more greenhouses of all shapes and sizes for a total of nine, to accommodate the thousands of different plants they grow and sell. “He built all the greenhouses – and everything else here,” says Tammi.

Today Desert Canyon Farm is also a Xerces Society Pollinator Habitat, a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat, a United Plant Savers Botanical Sanctuary, and a member of the Colorado Birding & Wildlife Trails program. Birders and wildlife watchers can visit the farm by appointment.

Open Farm Days this year are every day except Friday (that’s laundry day) from 9-4 from April 17 to June 11. They offer free outdoor classes on the weekends.

You can find out more and read all of Tammi’s farm blogs beginning in January 2010 by visiting Better yet, make the trip to Canyon City this spring to see for yourself all that Desert Canyon Farm has to offer.

Tammi is the author of four books on plants and herbs: The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener; Homegrown Herbs; Cattail Moonshine & Milkweed Medicine, The Curious Stories of 43 Amazing North American Native Plants; and Growing 101 Herbs That Heal.



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