Monroe Organic Farms near Kersey celebrates 75 years
KERSEY – It’s been a slow spring at Monroe Organic Farms, but things will pick up this fall when the farm, the oldest continuous Community Supported Agriculture operation in the state, celebrates its 75th anniversary as the oldest organic farm in Colorado.
“Jerry says this May has been more like he remembered as a kid growing up and helping his grandfather on the farm. They never had to sprinkle up the crops, they just let the rain do it,” Jacquie Monroe said of her husband, Jerry.
When he came in from the field a few minutes later, Jerry added, “It’s just been so long I’ve had to relearn how to farm again.”
But neither of the Monroes, nor any other farmer in the region, is complaining about the heavy moisture – Jerry said they had received 5 inches this spring before last week – though they would like to see some sun and warmth to get crops growing.
Community Supported Agriculture – CSA – began in Europe several years ago and moved slowly across the U.S. from the East Coast. Jerry and Jacquie started their program in 1993 on about 25 acres of land that had never had commercial fertilizer, herbicides or pesticides applied. Its organic designation is certified by the Colorado Department of Agriculture.
CSA, Jacquie said, is designed to bring the consumer back to the farm. They sell memberships, and in return those members get weekly shares of the produce the farm grows. Some of them are working members and come to the farm to help with planting, hoeing and harvesting; they get a reduced price for their membership.
“That first year we started with 37 members, which I thought was just great,” Jacquie said. “At that point, we were still trying to educate people on organic farming, which wasn’t all that common around here back then.” There are now more than 30 such farms statewide.
This year, the Monroe operation has about 650 members with about 20 of them regular working members.
“I think the price of fuel has had something to do with the working members. It just costs too much to drive out to the farm,” Jacquie said. The main operation is about five miles south of Kersey.
The program has expanded a great deal over the years, not only in the number of acreage, but in the number of organic products the farm offers.
The farm now has 175 acres at two locations with 60 acres dedicated to vegetable production. The remainder is in organic pasture and alfalfa, which is used to raise the organic beef, lamb, pork, chicken and eggs, all on free-range locations. As such, the farm has an extensive, eight- to 12-year rotation plan of crops and pasture land.
The organic meat, Jerry said, is processed at Valley Packing in La Salle and sold through the farm.
Monroe Organic produces about everything imaginable and when talking varieties, Jacquie said that runs into the hundreds. About the only thing not grown is citrus, she added.
One of the new crops is hops, which was planted last year for the first time. Some of that had to be replanted this year and it normally takes four years before a crop is produced, but the Monroes are hoping they might get a crop next year.
“There are a lot of micro-breweries who are looking to use organic hops, and we have several who want to buy ours once we start producing,” Jacquie said.
The farming begins early in the spring and does not end until mid- to late December in some years. Members have already harvested asparagus this spring, and in the late fall, early winter, members will get greens that are produced in the greenhouse. In between are all the other products.
Jerry said field planting begins in early March with root crops, late March for potatoes, then once April comes everything else starts going in. That varies year to year and with the spring to date, it’s been a little later than normal this year.
In addition to members coming to the farm, Monroe Organic has 27 distribution points around northern Colorado, offers produce at five farmers markets – four in northern Colorado and one in Cheyenne – and the farm and its members donate several thousand pounds of produce to food banks, nursing homes and homeless outlets.
One of the favorites of the farm and its members is the Same Cafe in Denver.
Jacquie said the cafe is open to everyone, including those who can’t pay for a meal but can do some odd jobs around the cafe for their meals.
“There’s no price on the menu, so there are several who come in and eat and leave a donation,” she said.
That is one of the agencies members of the Monroe CSA and the farm donate to. When members are on vacation and can’t get their weekly share, that produce goes to the Same Cafe.
About 50,000 pounds of produce from the farm goes to such agencies each year; Jerry estimates they grow about 450,000 pounds of produce on an annual basis.
“We donate 25 shares of our own to go to the needy,” Jacquie added.
The farm started another fundraiser last year when Jacquie and some members published a cookbook that has 10 recipes for every type of vegetable grown at the farm. Proceeds from the sale of the book, which costs $12 plus $3 for shipping and handling, goes to help feed the needy, Jacquie said.
The distribution centers range from Highlands Ranch in southwest Denver to Golden west of Denver and north from there. Shares are delivered at the sites all in Colorado, on a weekly or monthly basis.
“We have people who come to Golden from Steamboat Springs once a month to get shares. I think there are eight in Steamboat this year, but we’ve had as many as 12,” Jacquie said. They take turns throughout the summer making the drive to Golden to get their shares, she added. Others come to those Denver sites from Grand Lake, Bailey and Evergreen, in addition to other mountain locations.
In the past couple of years, the farm also has been selling produce to five Denver-Boulder restaurants.
“It took awhile for them to understand that the produce coming from an organic farm isn’t going to be uniform,” Jacquie said. “The peppers are going to come in different sizes. But once they understood that, all of them have become very supportive.”
That support, and the growth in membership at the farm, comes from the fact that more and more people have come to the realization that it is healthier to eat food grown in the area where they live, she added.
Jerry and Jacquie have two children who have grown up on the farm. Alaina, 22, will graduate from the University of Northern Colorado later this year and plans to attend medical school. Kyle, 20, who is attending Aims Community College, would like to take over the farm at some point.
They will all be part of the 75th anniversary this fall. Plans are to bring in a pair of Belgium working horses and mules, Jacquie said, who will give field demonstrations.
“We want to show people how Jerry’s grandfather farmed this land back when,” she said.