North Fork Economy: Diverse, Sustainable and Place-based

Dec 4, 2012 by     No Comments    Posted under: Economy

A diverse, sustainable economy

For the past 30 years and probably forever, people have moved to this area intentionally for its unique beauty and bounty. A large and thriving community of food producers, food appreciators, and entrepreneurs in food-based education and tourism have intentionally settled here, actively building community, and building a food-based economy. From holistic ranches to award-winning wineries, the North Fork Valley is capable of producing much of what we need to thrive.

Our economy is also based on coal mining and alternative energy, and on tourism for scenery, hunting, and recreation. Health and wellness practitioners gravitate to the valley and constitute a strong economic base. Artists, too, have been shaping the economy of this valley for decades, and their livelihoods depend upon beauty being considered an economic value.

Speaking of beauty, let’s look at the North Fork’s varied economic bases starting with tourism. If numbers bore you please skim down this post for more interesting tidbits about solar energy, fine wines, and the controversial cannabis plant.

Data from the independent non-profit research firm Headwaters Economics, gathered from the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Census Bureau, among other sources, show a significant increase in tourism-based jobs and income in Delta County in the past two decades. Travel and tourism accounted for 9.4% of total employment in Delta County in 2011. Between 1998 and 2010, in the county region (Delta, Mesa and Montrose Counties), jobs in arts, entertainment and recreation grew 66.9%, and jobs in accommodations and food services grew 26.7%.

Data collected by Headwaters Economics can be used to produce custom socioeconomic profiles for any region, and the valley’s Heart and Soul Project has compiled a mountain of statistics on our economic bases including tourism, mining, and agriculture. However, statistics by their very nature don’t show everything.

Visitors to the valley can choose from a lot of B&B’s, small hotels, farm-stays, and a couple of large guest ranches. One of these, the Smith Fork Ranch in Crawford, has crunched some impressive numbers.

Proprietor Marley Hodgson says, “Through hiring local people for positions in our hospitality operations, utilizing local tradesmen (plumbers, electricians, equipment mechanics, etc.), and purchasing meat, produce, food, wine and supplies from local growers and stores, Smith Fork Ranch pumps roughly $900,000 to $1,000,000 into the local/regional economy every year.

“We are also a job creator,” he adds. “We create roughly 5 jobs 5 months of the year, and 25 jobs 7 months of the year. Of those 25 seasonal jobs, approximately 10 are college students from all over the US. They live on the ranch, but spend money on food, supplies and services locally.”

Hodgson speaks for most if not all business people in the tourism industry when he says, “The only reason this economic contribution is possible, is because visitors from other parts of the U.S. and around the world find the surrounding area beautiful, peaceful and charming. Gas development and drilling in the North Fork Valley would surely devastate our business and that would be the end of those jobs.  If the North Fork Valley was turned into a platform for energy exploration, with all the attendant heavy construction, trucking, noise, air and water and other pollution, why would anyone want to come here? There is an emerging, budding tourism business in the valley, and that will grow, and last, and maintain the lifestyle of the area.”

Another economic and market research study of travel impacts in Colorado shows that between 1996 and 2011, travel spending in Delta County increased from $18.7 million to $33.8 million, and jobs directly related to overnight visitors increased from 390 to 530. Local tax revenue also nearly doubled, from $0.5 million to $0.9 million. The study showed that in 2010, just over $6 million was spent on lodging by visitors to Delta County, and almost $7 million was spent on food and beverages.

Perhaps most importantly to keeping the valley’s amenities intact, 23% of travelers said that they sought an agritourism experience, spending a total of about $2.7 million in that pursuit. Agritourism is a burgeoning resource for the North Fork’s place-based economy.

“It connects people back to their land, their people, their place,” said Kelli Hepler, in a Denver Post article. Hepler is the coordinator for Delta County Tourism, which has been actively promoting agritourism for seven years. The Post reports that “the Colorado Tourism Office is joining the Colorado Department of Agriculture in a new push to elevate the state’s myriad agricultural tourism opportunities.”

This new program will “model Delta County’s program around the state, by developing educational and recreational opportunities inside working ranches and farms.” The majority of Delta County’s agritourism attractions lie within the fertile lands of the North Fork Valley. From wholesome farm-to-table dinners to learning how to make cheese, to a thriving U-Pick and farm market business, the North Fork’s agricultural tourism offerings bring visitors from across the West and all over the world. Hepler adds that this year, Delta County saw an 18% increase in lodging tax over last year.

The quality products from the valley’s family-farm oriented value-added agriculture provide an increasing economic base as well. Headwaters reports show that between 1970 and 2010, farm employment in the county region grew by almost 25%, and in 2010, Delta County had the largest percent of total farm employment (9.32%) in the region, nearly nine times the state rate. Cash receipts from livestock and products grew 186.5% during the same decades, and cash receipts from crops grew from $16.2 million to $94.4 million, a 483.9% increase.

In an article for Bloomberg, Paonia resident and internationally renowned author Peter Heller writes, “According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2007 census, direct sales of farm products (via farm stands, farm-to-home cooperatives, etc.) in the county, with over 90 percent coming from the North Fork Valley, are some of the highest in the rural U.S. Last summer 80 chefs came to the valley to do farm-to-table workshops. The valley produces 77 percent of the state’s apples, 71 percent of its peaches.”

The Valley Organic Growers’ Association (VOGA), founded in 1992, supports the largest concentration of organic, sustainable growers in the state. VOGA was formed to network growers, educate consumers and promote the benefits of sustainable agriculture that provides fresh, regionally unique products to the consumer. The current annual directory has 66 entries from Abundant Life Organic Farms to Zimmerman Pork Farm, and can be cross-referenced by 21 categories including USDA Certified Organic, Cheese, Fruit, Grass-fed, Honey, Meat-Poultry-Eggs, Milk shares, Vegetables, and Wine-Cider-Spirits.

The valley has long been lauded as one of the leading producers of organic fruit in the country, and VOGA membership shows, as it grows yearly to include more, and more diverse, growers and producers of organic products, that the organic economy in the valley is only getting stronger. The general manager for Rendezvous Organic Farm reported that in 2011 that her farm shipped out 25,000 pounds of organic produce. Multiply that by the dozens of farms in VOGA. A local chapter of Slow Food USA also champions our healthful economy.

An integral factor in both the tourism and agricultural facets of our economy is the valley’s extraordinary wine industry. Heller writes, “… the North Fork Valley has become one of two certified American Viticultural Areas in Colorado and is gaining an international reputation for handcrafted wines made from the highest altitude vineyards in the Northern Hemisphere. A new book, An American Provence, waxes poetic about the similarities between the North Fork and the Coulon River Valley in the south of France.”

Brent Helleckson, former rocket scientist and proprietor of Stone Cottage Cellars, wrote on behalf of the North Fork’s vintners:

For nearly half a century these companies, individuals, and their predecessors have crafted a vibrant wine industry from sagebrush, pastureland, and failing orchards. Beginning in the early 1970’s with university-sponsored test plots, through recognition by the then Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms that the region warranted the special status of American Viticultural Area, to today’s vibrant local wine and food culture, the vineyards and wineries surrounding Hotchkiss, Paonia, and Crawford have been steadfastly crafting a sustainable, locally-based industry relying on premium quality wine crafted from premium quality grapes.

Helleckson’s letter to the Montrose BLM office opposing the initial August 2012 lease offering continues:

The West Elks Winery Association comprises the following wineries, all of which are in the West Elks American Viticultural Area (AVA)

  • 5680’ Cellars
  • Alfred Eames Cellars
  • Azura Cellars
  • Black Bridge Winery
  • Fire Mountain Vineyard
  • Leroux Creek Vineyards
  • Liliputian Winery
  • Mesa Winds Winery
  • North Fork Cellars
  • S. Rhodes Vineyards
  • Stone Cottage Cellars
  • Terror Creek Winery

The West Elks AVA was granted in 2001, and comprises an area of 48,000 acres stretching from the western end of Rogers Mesa, west of Hotchkiss, eastward nearly to Somerset. Note that this is approximately the area encircled by the 22 proposed lease parcels. An AVA is granted to areas with, among other factors, unique climate, geography, geology, soils, or history. While there are 200 AVAs in the United States, the West Elks AVA is one of only two within Colorado.

Further excerpts from the letter reveal:

The twelve wineries in this AVA now account for $1.5 to 2 million annually in direct sales and an additional $5 to $10 million in indirect sales. One winery member notes that of the 3500 visitors it receives each year, more than 80% are given restaurant recommendations, and over half receive lodging recommendations.

… The wines and wineries of the area routinely receive accolades from prestigious local, regional and national sources. Wines produced by West Elks Wineries have regularly won ‘Best of the Festival’ status at the annual Colorado Wine Festival in Palisade. West Elks wines have been honored at the Colorado Governor’s mansion and in prestigious restaurants regionally and nationally. The West Elks Area, in State tourism literature, is referred to as the ‘Heart of Colorado Wine Country.’ … In the past several years a “critical mass” has been reached. The number of wineries and the reputation of those wineries, together with the burgeoning organic, local food culture of the valley, in combination with the abundant recreational opportunity afforded by nearby private and public lands, joined with the pastoral, bucolic setting in which these exist, unite to offer visitors a unique set of experiences for which they are willing to spend significant time and money.


Colorado’s North Fork Valley is already doing its part to help meet our local and national energy needs.  On the energy front, 2010 data for Delta County show that coal mining (located entirely in the North Fork) provided 365 jobs, 332 in actual coal mining and 33 in support activities for coal mining. This accounts for about 6% of employment in the county.

Alternative energy also plays a big role in the North Fork’s economy. Solar Energy International (SEI) near Paonia is one of the largest and oldest renewable energy schools in the country. Interim executive director Kathy Swartz says, “Each year we bring in 500-700 people who come to Paonia specifically for renewable energy training, and they bring in somewhere around $700,000 to $900,000 in revenue to the county. When students come here they spend money on lodging, on food, gifts, tuition. It’s money from outside of the county that comes in because they’ve come to take trainings.

“We also get a lot of grants. We just got a relatively large grant from the State Department to do photovoltaic training down in Central America. We’re one of the Department of Energy’s ‘Train the Trainers;’ there are eight of them across the country. Our job is to train community college instructors through 14 states in the Rocky Mountain West who are implementing solar programs at their colleges. We also got a $190,000 grant from Colorado Department of Labor last year to train unemployed and underemployed people in Colorado.”

With over 21,000 alumni from its 21 year history (they moved from Carbondale to Paonia 7 years ago), this school is having an international impact. SEI is currently in contract negotiations with the government of Kuwait to start up SEI Kuwait. Swartz says the Kuwaiti government contacted SEI after googling solar training, “and we came up first! They see the need to 1, extend their oil reserves, and 2, that renewables are the way to go.”

Another low-impact, renewable economic resource in the valley is recreation. People come from around the world to hike, bike, hunt, fish, raft, photograph, and eat great food. All these activities and many more count as recreation. Between mountain biking, the BMW bike rally, the Colorado Grand, lots of wheeled recreation brings lots of money to the valley. Even more money comes in from hunters.

Of the 17 counties in the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Southwest Region, Delta County ranks fourth highest in the amount of revenue and number of jobs generated by hunting and fishing, following only Gunnision, La Plata, and Montrose Counties. In Delta County, the economic impact totals $27.8 million annually, and provides support for 297 jobs.

It is reasonable to assume that there is some overflow of benefits from hunting and fishing activity in Gunnison and Montrose Counties to the North Fork Valley, since it has the closest towns and services to many wild parts of these adjacent counties.

And finally, back to agriculture.  Colorado voters recent decision to legalize adult use of marijuana also allows for the cultivation of hemp—the supremely useful plant. Many entrepreneurs in the North Fork Valley have the skill and technology to make a generous legal contribution to the region’s economy with jobs in hemp cultivation.

The California-based Business Alliance for Commerce in Hemp conservatively estimates the profit potential for commercial hemp production to surpass $500 billion per year, and create tens of thousands of new jobs, once trade barriers are removed and this useful cash crop is again allowed to compete. The study concludes, “Restoring hemp to its traditional role as the primary source of food, clothing, shelter, fuel, paper, fiber, medicine and other consumer goods will put money into local communities for an ecologically and financially stable economy.”

Whatever a person’s beliefs about cannabis, hemp—the type that doesn’t get you high—is more economically valuable than cotton and paper combined. LEAP, or Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, is “a group of police, judges, prosecutors, corrections officials and federal agents who, after witnessing the harms of the drug war firsthand, are now devoted to ending that war.” Last week LEAP delivered a letter signed by 73 current and former police officers, judges, prosecutors and federal agents to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder urging him not to interfere with the wishes of the voters of Colorado and Washington State to legalize and regulate marijuana. Now that voters have concurred on making cannabis legal in Colorado, the western slope is sure to be on the front line of cannabis cultivation and innovation.

From 1970 to 2010, Delta County’s population grew from 15,295 people to 30,889, a 102% increase. Between 1983 and 2010, US Census data show that employment in Delta County grew from less than 10,000 to more than 15,000, a better than 50% increase; and that personal income grew from less than $500,000 to almost a million dollars, a nearly 100% increase, half of that since 2000 alone. Make of this what you will, but it is clear that our economy is substantially different now than when the most recent Resource Management Plan was written by the BLM in the 1980s.

Drilling for gas and oil is incompatible with the essence of this valley. As long as this issue is seen in terms of corporate and government ledgers, the landscape in human terms may seem an impediment. But consider the perspective that looks at landscapes in term of households and sustainable communities, the small businesses, families, and individuals that make their livings off the fertility of the land, from the fruits and vines and trees, the eggs of backyard hens, the art inspired here, the beeves on the hoof, the visitors who come to eat, drink, hunt, and take home memories of a unique place. This economy is sustainable.

This place is unique in the world. Those who live here full time know this. It is incomprehensible that the profits made by a few on an industry of known hazard and environmental damage can trump the quality of life, the needs, the heartfelt desires, of more than 10,000 people, three entire and diverse communities with a thriving, diverse, sustainable, place-based economy.


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