Wednesday Aug 27 2008
Bringing history to life
By: Gloria Beverage
Colfax couple developing organic farm in the city
Will Stockwin and B.J. Armando have a vision and their landlord, Sue Ghilotti, is hoping to get some veggies out of it. The Colfax couple recently received approval from the Colfax Planning Commission to establish a small-scale urban organic farm on 14 acres of land they are leasing from Ghilotti. They have had their eyes on the property, which contains the remnants of the last pear orchard inside the city limits, for years. The acreage dates back to the early 1900s when it known as the Paoli Ranch. The original house burned down 30 years ago, Stockwin said. Since then, transients and dirt bikers frequent the land tucked at the end of Pine Street above downtown Colfax. “We have tried to buy the property, but we haven’t been able to,” he said. Instead, Ghilotti offered the couple a long-term lease earlier this year. Originally from Sonoma, Ghilotti settled in Colfax in 1999. In addition to the Pine Street property being leased to Stockwin and Armando, Ghilotti owns 34 acres of land fronting the Bear River off Highway 174. She left Sonoma because tourists had taken over the small town she had grown to love. “This is my fear for Colfax,” she said. “I understand what the businesses have to do to stay afloat. But I saw the quality of Sonoma totally overrun.” Perhaps that’s why she wants to preserve the old Paoli Ranch land. The original plan for the acreage, she continued, was to develop a subdivision for 50 mobile homes. “The Colfax Partners (as they called themselves) thought they were buying 16 acres,” she said. “But the railroad owns 2 acres. The bank said it didn’t pencil out, so they sat on the property for years.” Now Ghilotti is delighted to share Stockwin’s and Armando’s vision — if only vicariously. “It’s such a beautiful piece of property. I would not want to develop it like the former city fathers wanted. I just could not see it destroyed.” Stockwin and Armando plan to live in a 30-foot yurt placed on a non-permanent pier deck to one side of the orchard. According to Pacific Yurts, Inc., a yurt is a “circular structure that consists of a durable fabric cover, tension band and a wood frame that includes a lattice wall, radial rafters, central compression ring and a framed door.” Plumbing and electricity are easily installed. A small wood stove keeps it pleasant during the summer and open windows during the summer help cool it in the hot months, Stockwin explained. Typically, yurts are a lightweight, low-cost form of housing. They have minimal impact on the land and can be easily removed, Stockwin pointed out. While preparations for placing the yurt started earlier this month, Armando has already started farming the land. “I know this is very tough work. We’ve had this discussion many times,” said Stockwin, who has written for agriculture journals for 25 years. “This is something we should have been doing in our 20s.” Armando, who is already hard at work in the vegetable garden, counters with “the trees are stand up work.” The whole idea, they say, is to bring a piece of agricultural history back to life. In addition to nurturing the 100-year-old heritage pear trees, Armando envisions harvesting black mulberry and fig trees. She is already harvesting several different varieties of tomatoes and will be developing a 75-by-100 foot market garden for heirloom tomatoes, specialty garlic, snow peas and fresh herbs. “I have been planting milkweed in hopes of eventually attracting Monarch butterflies,” said Armando, a former business owner who has lived in Colfax since 1972. “With all the development in the state even milkweed is losing ground and it’s the primary food for Monarch caterpillars.” The property is already home to coyotes, an occasional bear, mountain lions and quail, Armando said, adding they’re delighted to have them for neighbors. Their marketing plan is to sell the organically grown produce at Farmers’ Markets or to retail markets, restaurants and specialty food processors. “The farm will be open to people to walk through,” Armando said. “We want to bring school children out to the farm. It’s amazing to see kids who have never seen how food grows.” Stockwin expects the yurt will also become a teaching tool. “What we’re trying to do is show a different way of life. We don’t need a 25,000-square-foot mansion. You can live smaller and still be happy.” Their landlord, in the meantime, can hardly wait for the first harvest. For more information on the progress of Colfax’s first urban farm, visit www.downtownfarm.com.