South River Aquaponics

Dominic Renda, 7, got to visit Western Slope farms this past summer, including South River Aquaponics (pictured), with his Aunt Vicki of Vicki’s Fresh Food Movement. (Photo courtesy of Vicki Renda)

If you know local Tara Kelley, you know that Kelley and her family eat, well, … really, really well. All winter, the talented cook routinely serves up dishes composed of regionally sourced proteins and fresh vegetables.

Super Bowl Sunday was no exception. Kelley made pork carnitas with arugula and microgreens sourced by Vicki Renda of Vicki’s Fresh Food Movement from, respectively, Colorado Pastured Pork and South River Aquaponics, both near Montrose, and Brushcreek Microgreens of Hotchkiss.

Then there’s The Butcher and The Baker, with a menu, even in February, that features a wild mushroom breakfast sandwich with mushrooms — also from South River Aquaponics and delivered by Renda — as well as onions, kale and eggs on an English muffin, all regional and sustainably produced.

And yet, Telluride and the surrounding region are midway through a winter of epic proportions. As of Friday morning, the season-to-date snowfall total on the Telluride Ski Resort stood at 201 inches after a season-long parade of storms that has kept powder days coming with dizzying regularity.

Images of skiers and boarders whoopin’ and hollerin’ their way through waist-deep powder doesn’t normally bring to mind fresh, regional and sustainably grown mushrooms and greens, so what gives? How is fresh produce, sustainably produced by regional farms and ranches, landing on tables in a veritable snow globe?

Turns out it’s a mix of good planning, the use of greenhouses and other techniques, and a healthy dose of patience.

For instance, South River Aquaponics, located outside Montrose, uses a 14,000-square-foot greenhouse and hydroponics, a technique in which plants are grown in water, to grow throughout winter. They are one of a network of Western Slope growers that Renda’s enterprise sources from for delivery to residential and commercial customers in the Telluride area.

Renda said that while availability is starting to wind down on hardy produce stored in cellars for months after harvest — vegetables like kohlrabi, potatoes, onions and winter squash, and certain varieties of apples — she can continue to supply her clientele with microgreens, salad mixes, arugula, buttercrunch lettuce and basil, as well as oyster and trumpet mushrooms.

Despite the inclement winter weather, Renda added, Western Slope ranchers have been able to continuously provide her clients with meats and poultry, milk, cheese and pasture-raised eggs.

“For the most part, the snowy weather is not affecting the growers in the region,” Renda said, pointing out that most of her suppliers are just relieved that this winter’s copious snowfall is making up for the recent drought.

Still, she acknowledged, there are some challenges.

“One farmer, Mark at Thistle Whistle in Hotchkiss, is at a standstill in terms of being able to harvest some root crops until the ground thaws a bit,” Renda said. “Another that struggles with winter weather is a dairy farmer, John at Rocking W Cheese in Olathe. He spoke to me about cow comfort being compromised by snow followed by warmer, sunnier days. This creates mucky fields for the cows. Since they only get about three to four weeks of frozen tundra in Olathe, the temperature swings they see there make them work harder to keep the cows comfortable.”

Renda said that travelling from farm to farm this winter hasn’t been without its challenges, too. The need for extra time to clear snow off her delivery truck, slower going on the roads, frozen-over gates and other winter hazards have led to some headaches.

“Regarding my actual time on the road picking up and delivering, I just need to go slower and be patient,” Renda said. “Even with four-wheel drive, I have gotten the truck stuck. It’s heavy, and once it’s stuck or the tires are spinning, it’s tough to get out.”

Winter requires extra effort for Renda, and for Megan Ossola, owner of The Butcher and The Baker. The restaurant incorporates into its menu as much regional and sustainable food as possible, using a number of growers and suppliers.

“It’s a big effort for us to keep as many things as we can regional and sustainable,” Ossola said, citing time, expense and logistics. “I think it’s important for environmental reasons, but also economic reasons. It’s good for us to help the farmers all year round and maintain our relationships with them ... and it feels good. We love it and our staff loves it.”

Ossola added that she enjoys when customers at the popular Main Street spot ask where their food comes from.

“There’s not room on the menu to explain things like that,” Ossola said. “I have had people say that they wished that they had known that every egg we use is local, so we have put a board up in the restaurant with where we get things from. We want people to ask where their food comes from.”

Kelley echoed many of Ossola’s reasons for sourcing regional, sustainable food, and emphasized the freshness — even in winter — of the produce.

“We’re constantly, even though it’s winter, eating fresh salad,” Kelley said. “And, because everything’s picked that day, they’re so fresh and they last forever. It’s crazy.”

She added that she also appreciates the way Renda operates Vicki’s Fresh Food Movement, which is a grocery service that sources from multiple farms, ranches and producers along the Western Slope, and where customer orders are placed on a weekly basis.

“With Vicki you can decide on Saturday what you’re doing for the week and she’ll deliver on Tuesday,” Kelley said. “Being a cook, what I like most is it challenges me to try new things that I normally wouldn’t have tried. It gets me out of my comfort zone.

“Winter’s hard, but to come home from work and have a box waiting … it’s exciting.”