Department

Bridging The Gap

For years, environmentalists and ranchers have been suspicious of each other. Fort Collins’ Sustainable Living Fair is doing a pretty darn good job of changing that.

September 2012

Humans like to compare themselves to others, and with that comparison, often, and almost without intentionality, comes judgment. Colorado, perhaps because of its diverse geography, has a long history of dichotomous groups: cowboys versus Indians; hardscrabble plains residents versus the monied mountain folk; gun lovers versus gun haters; and the aggies versus the hippies. This last contrast is of particular interest to me because, if it’s possible, I have both feet firmly planted in both camps: I grew up on a cattle ranch in Northern Colorado and still help out, and for years I’ve been proud to say that I’d rather go dumpster diving for cast-off treasures than flip on the latest buzzy TV show.

But these two groups don’t always coexist peacefully. Wear Tevas into a cattle barn, or cowboy boots at some conservation gig, and you’re likely to get some looks. Not only do the two groups judge each other, but they also do it within their own ranks. (So-and-so flies without offsetting their carbon footprint! That dude can’t ride a horse!) It may seem like a frivolous chasm with all we’ve got going on in this election year—this understanding gap yawns wide between the ranchers and the environmentalists—and yet there are consequences for all of us who live in this beautiful state. I have rancher friends who think environmentalists are extremist liberals. And I have conservationist friends who say ranchers are nothing more than a bunch of stubborn, mean, old right-wingers. What both of these groups refuse to acknowledge is that they share many of the same conservation goals, and if they could simply work together, they could actually get something done on this front.

Enter the Sustainable Living Fair. The SLF was founded in 1999 (this year it will take place at Fort Collins’ Legacy Park September 15 and 16) with the mission of growing environmentally sound jobs, fostering energy independence, and advocating for clean air and water. “Living a sustainable lifestyle ensures that social, environmental, and economic systems are viable, and offer a healthy and meaningful life for our citizens and future generations,” the Sustainable Living Association, which puts on the fair, says on its website. It’s pretty serious hippie-enviro stuff, and I mean that in the best possible way. Want to try raising a chicken or two, if for no other reason than to occupy your kids? This is the place to learn how not to kill them. Been meaning to set up a small box garden and grow 5 percent of what you eat? The SLF will show you how to grow, and prepare, that kale just right.

One of the most compelling aspects of the SLF, though, may be that over the years it’s evolved into a two-day forum at which you can see cowboy boots and Tevas, or big belt buckles and multiple body piercings, all ambling amicably side by side. (On top of everything else, there’s great people watching at the SLF, which includes 10-seat pedicabs and the whirling dervishes who dance among the tents.) When it comes to sustainable living—and everything that entails—it seems as if a lot of the superficial divisions between the environmentalists and ranchers melt away. SLF director Ray Aberle points out that “aggies” have always been a critical component of the fair, but their presence has grown more recently. Thanks largely to the organic and local food movements, beef is no longer bad. “In the last 10 years, that antagonism toward beef is gone because of the huge interest in natural grass-fed beef,” he says. Five years ago, Aberle says, the “Eat Local” tent was mostly vegetarian; today it features an increasing number of meats—and for good reason. “We are an economy of sun and meat,” Aberle says. “We can’t grow exotic fruits here, so it can be tricky to eat a well-balanced vegan diet. Sustainability looks different in each locale.”

In our cities, this want—and need—for sustainable living has manifest itself in what’s become known as “urban homesteading,” the process of growing vegetables, raising animals, and preserving and preparing one’s own food. It can be a tricky endeavor for novices who didn’t grow up on a ranch or farm. (Even if they did, they might not have absorbed the pickle-making lesson their mom tried to instill. At least I didn’t.) It’s in this movement where the cross-pollination of aggies and hippies is really taking root. At this year’s fair, a large-animal veterinarian will talk about the 10 big mistakes people make when they bring home meat animals. (“Nothing’s worse than bringing home five chickens and having four of them dead the next morning,” Aberle jokes. “That sends people back to buying from the store pretty quick.”) Other speakers include Rachel Kaplan, author of “Urban Homesteading,” the de facto bible of the practice; and Alexandra Cousteau, granddaughter of Jacques Cousteau and a renowned water expert in her own right. There are also many traditional ag people—dairy owners, farmers, and ranchers—who will give presentations or host booths.

All of which means that each year there are a few more cowboy boots in the crowd, which can be nothing but a good thing. And in this regard, I have high hopes that the human race is evolving. “It hits all our insecurities when we feel like we’re being judged,” Aberle says. “And that cripples us into not doing anything. For this fair, we want people to come and feel welcomed. Just do what they can at the moment to lead a more sustainable lifestyle. Pick one thing that makes sense in your life, then see if you want to add something else later. Plant a tomato. Who knows, maybe next year you’ll want chickens and kale, too.”

As someone who’s spent much of her life with one foot in the ag crowd and the other in the enviro crowd, I no longer feel like I’m doing the splits. The two sides have united in both surprising and predictable ways. Gone are the days of “Cow free by ’93” (a slogan once used by enviros to get cattle off public lands) and the vitriolic mutual hatred. These diverse groups have come together in Colorado to improve watersheds, water use, and the overall health of the land. Although there might always be wariness, human nature being what it is, events like the SLF can help break down those barriers. Everyone needs to eat, and many of us want to do it with awareness and responsibility. The same goes for green building, renewable energy, natural health, social responsibility, transportation issues—and yes, good old-fashioned entertainment.

That’s why I’m looking forward to this year’s fair. I’ll be watching for whirling dervishes and cowboy boots, checking to see how they interact. Enough with the differences, I say. Embrace all of wacky Colorado. Land. Food. Water. Air. Animals. Community. That’s what matters, and it’s why a little cross-pollination between these long-opposed camps might someday, I hope, flower into a bumper crop of goodwill and inspired conservation.

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IF YOU GO

The Sustainable Living Fair (the largest event of its kind in the Rocky Mountain region) will be held in Fort Collins on September 15 and 16 at Legacy Park. The featured speaker is Alexandra Cousteau, National Geographic emerging explorer and water advocate. There will be 200-plus exhibitors, 75 workshops, hands-on experiences, and live music and entertainment. One suggestion? Come early to go to the farmers’ market in Old Town, walk north through Old Town’s shops, and end up at the fair.