Hyper-local Soldiers

By on July 20, 2016

160720DiningGuideBannerHow a local greenhouse is helping cut down the valley’s dependence on imported food.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – When Alex Feher first set eyes on the Huidekoper Ranch, a 139-acre parcel of land nestled on the Wilson side of Teton Pass, he was looking for a Bernie Sanders rally. But the small hoop-style greenhouse and lovingly tended garden caught his attention. Soon he was sitting down to have a beer with Brent Tyc who was making a go of hobby farming a small portion of this family-owned parcel, protected by the Jackson Hole Land Trust since the 1980s.

Together Feher and Tyc started talking about how the land could be used to grow food on a larger scale. Feher had been putting his background in innovative farming in New York and Vermont to work helping the Aspens Market build a small garden to supply greens for their salad bar. Entrenched in the daily business of sourcing local produce for the grocery store, Feher had an idea, “a pipe dream really,” he says, about finding one farm to grow food for his produce department.

(Photo: Annie Fenn, MD)

(Photo: Annie Fenn, MD)

Fast forward about a year, and the Huidekoper Ranch farm is supplying a few select restaurants and stocking the shelves of the Aspens and Pearl Street Markets with 10 pounds of arugula, 10 pounds of mesclun mix, and five pounds of oak leaf lettuce, as well as spinach, butter lettuce, Hakurei turnips, French breakfast radishes, and herbs. And that’s just in the last week. “On May 30 we harvested our first red saladette tomato,” Tyc said. With a greenhouse full of tomato plants, the farmers hope to harvest as many as 3,000 pounds of tomatoes by the end of the season.

The über-fresh greens and produce, competitively priced and simply packaged, have been well received by locals, some of whom first discovered them back in January. Now a month into the busy summer season, the greens are flying off the shelves as fast as they can grow them.

“Having a farm supply a grocery store has inherent risks from a store owner’s perspective,” Feher admitted, but “this is the model we are going for.” As far as he can tell, theirs is the possibly the only exclusive farm-to-grocery store food delivery system of its size in the country, certainly in the Rockies. “It took a huge commitment on the part of owners,” he said of Mike and Karen Reid, and Brandon and Katrina Ryan, co-owners of the Aspens Market, “to give capital to expand the greenhouse and make it work for nine months out of the year.”

Last winter, Feher and Tyc hauled an old wood-burning stove into the greenhouse to keep the temperature from dipping below 50ºF. Chef Matty Melehes of Q Roadhouse, who sourced Huidekoper Ranch greens for his menu all of last winter, calls this a “massive breakthrough” in sourcing local food for his restaurant. “It’s the epitome of progression,” Melehes said. “These guys are feeding a wood fire and risking basically frostbite to just see if they could keep some greens alive all winter long. It’s a story of personal sacrifice that fits way more with the rugged Wyoming I know than what anyone else is doing.”

Melehes’ Aspens Market Salad, now a menu fixture, is created from whatever greens the farm is harvesting that week. It’s an example of how an enlightened farm-to-table restaurant should operate — by making something delicious from what the farmer supplies rather than expecting the same product each week. Feher and Tyc wish more grocery shoppers adopted that same mentality. As Tyc puts it: “We would love to have people plan their meals at the grocery store.”

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True to that Wyoming spirit, Feher admits that the challenge of growing at altitude is part of its allure. “If we can do it in the Rockies, we can do it anywhere,” he said. Feher and Tyc are deep into planning an expansion that will enable them to grow produce year round up on Teton Pass. Next they hope to put in a pit style greenhouse, basically an 8-foot deep hole in the ground below the thermal frost line that could be up to 200 feet long. “We don’t want to get bigger than what two to three people can manage,” Tyc said. “We hope to grow smarter, not bigger, by choosing how the land is utilized carefully. But maybe livestock like pigs, goats, and lamb will fit into the future.”

Feher says he feels fortunate that we have a smattering of competent farms and local food for even three to four months out of the year. “But you can’t have enough competition for local food here,” he said. “For us, it’s not just a functional farm but a model for what a place can be come. How can we make this land the most resilient, most productive, most beautiful place possible?

“It’s about constantly feeding the land that is feeding you and feeding your soul,” says Feher continued. “What kind of footprint do we want to leave behind? I want to have a successful business, but always at the heart, it’s about how can I make a lasting impression both on the landscape and on people’s minds.” PJH

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About Annie Fenn, MD

After delivering babies and practicing gynecology for 20 years in Jackson, Annie traded her life as a doctor to pursue her other passion: writing about food, health, sustainability and the local food scene. Follow her snippets of mountain life, with recipes, at www.jacksonholefoodie.com and on Instagram @jacksonholefoodie.

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