The canary yellow flag that flickers in the wind above the rustic farm buildings and golden fields of Thompson Creek Ranch is earthier than the usual “Don’t Tread on Me” emblem.
The slogan is still there, printed under an earthworm that takes the place of the customary rattlesnake. Above the worm, an ultimatum, and a motto of sorts for Sustainable Settings: “Build Soil or Die.”
Since 2003, co-founders Brook and Rose LeVan have operated the 244.5-acre nonprofit farm and educational center here as a place for experimentation and self-discovery, located under the providence of Mt. Sopris about a 10-minute drive south of Carbondale on Highway 133.
The LeVans are artists who came to the land to restore it from decades of “abuse” — “chemical, overgrazing, soil compaction, toxicity,” Brook LeVan said while making coffee in the kitchen of the 1893 ranch house on the property.
“This was an experiment to see if we could heal a piece of land still, after all that,” he said. “And the miracle — and write this down — the miracle is nature’s waiting for us to do the right thing.”
They set out to “build soil,” and now point to years of data and glowing testimony as proof that it’s possible. I wanted to know how they did it.
For the better part of an hour and a half, as we watched a farm worker milk spotted cows in the cozy, sunlit dairy and drove through open fields past grazing cattle, LeVan spoke in abstract terms and broad strokes about stewardship. He talked about flavor and nutrients, about a love and a care for the land, about forming a relationship with the earth.
We were nearing the end of our tour when our photographer looked out the window of the pickup truck and spotted a structure that didn’t look much like any of the other ones on the ranch, or on any ranch for that matter. A wood fence formed a circle several dozen yards wide, with wooden rods protruding from the perimeter; inside of it, another fence formed a hexagon.
“What happens in there?” she asked.
“That is a distribution device for metaphysical agricultural practice,” LeVan said. “You want to go in?”
I had arrived that morning with our photographer to report on what was ostensibly a story about a land sale. After nearly two decades at Thompson Creek Ranch, Sustainable Settings put the sprawling property on the market for $24.25 million in early April as a for-sale-by-owner offering. The price increases each week that the land doesn’t sell; LeVan hopes to get “ten threes,” or $33,333,333.33.
The pricing structure is part of the experiment; it’s a cultural wake-up call of sorts, LeVan said in the ranch house kitchen.
“We’re starting low in my book, and we’re going up every week to see if people are alert,” he said, snapping his fingers. “You want this? This is a special feel, special place. Wake up. And is the culture alert? This is an educational campaign, as well.”
“We’re not in a hurry,” he added. “It’s not a fire sale. Say that: ‘Not a fire sale.’”
The value of the ranch, according to the sales brochure and LeVan, is not in development or subdivision. The land is protected by a conservation easement and can only be used for agricultural and educational purposes.
Rather, the value proposition “is a profound hope to continue the preservation and regeneration of living soil, the bedrock of our health and well-being for generations to come,” sales materials state.
LeVan sees the sale in part as a mechanism of education: a way to show people that, yes, it is possible to build soil, to regenerate land, to heal a place by way of caring for the earth.
He has the data, seven years of it from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service, that quantifies growth in total biomass, fungi biomass and soil burst respiration — all metrics related to the amount of life and vitality in the soil, all included in the sales brochure.
But LeVan also has the qualifiable anecdotes: “chefs clamoring for the food,” a demand for products such that “you can’t keep our meat, eggs, milk and vegetables in the store,” testimony that food from Sustainable Settings has “terroir,” a description of characteristic flavor most often ascribed to wines that derive their taste from the environment in which the grapes grow.
“Flavor is the indicator, flavor is the fragile elegance … where all the stewardship, the water, the sun, the starlight, the animal health, everything comes together,” LeVan said later, driving a pickup truck through a field back toward the ranch house.
“It’s a fragile elegance, and that’s what we’re trying to do, and that’s what we have been able to get back to, to rebuild,” LeVan said. “That is the, in my book, value of the place.”
I asked LeVan how he cultivated that terroir at Thompson Creek Ranch. Four times in a row.
What processes does it take to instill terroir in the land? “It takes humility, and it takes respect for the life we co-create with,” he said.
What about methods or strategies? “How you address the life you co-create with. You’re in a relationship,” he said.
Maybe practices was the word I was looking for? “That’s part of the practice: That’s the conceptual underpinning, right? That humility and respect drives how you make decisions,” he said.
What’s the other part of the practice, the physical side of it? “Well, you listen through your heart and you make moves based on those ethics and principles, and you trust that, and … you’ll be finding solutions that manifest physically, but are driven through your heart,” LeVan said.
He spoke of ethics and principles, life values that staffers learn while working at Sustainable Settings, and talked about finding the right steward of the land. And about a minute later, the truck almost back to the ranch house, our photographer spotted the “distribution device.”
Did we want to go in? Well, yeah.
Biodynamic agriculture involves a lot of physical practices that you could expect to see on any organic farm: Sustainable Settings uses natural fertilizers, like manure from the dairy cows on the property and compost from plants like dandelion and nettle; the ranch doesn’t spray pesticides or herbicides.
Farmers here rotate the crops, which helps ensure the soil doesn’t get sapped of any one nutrient, and plant fields with no-till methods. (Tilling can disrupt soil structure and disturb microorganisms in the earth.)
It can also get metaphysical, incorporating abstract concepts about energy and spirituality and intent and, say, a “distribution device” that sends out fertilizer ethereally rather than physically.
LeVan calls it the “superorganism,” and we stood in the middle of it while he explained how fertilizers “are stirred and sprayed at particular cosmic rhythms when certain planets are aligned in certain ways, to stimulate the life and to thank the life. It really gets back to the life.”
A biodynamic planting calendar, published annually, as well as some Farmer’s Almanac entries and “agricultural lore” offer guidance on those “cosmic rhythms,” LeVan wrote later in an email attachment.
The outer perimeter, a circle, represents “ancient Saturn,” a few dozen yards wide and with angled wooden rods protruding from the fence. Inside that, a hexagonal fence is “ancient sun.” Two crescent shapes, one dug into the earth and the other formed with a raised mound of soil, represent “ancient moon.” At the center, a rhomboid represents “ancient earth.”
Here, buried in the ground, are what LeVan calls “biodynamic preparations”: hundreds of cow horns filled with manure, others filled with crushed-up gem-quality crystals; fertilizers (he also calls them “homeopathic agricultural amendments”) prepared in an underground root cellar (“an apothecary for the land”) accessed via a trap door in the floor of the ranch house.
LeVan said he used copper dowsing rods — some people believe they can help determine the site of underground water sources — to find the location of the distribution device on the property.
Outside the building that houses crystal “preparations,” he had us try them out. With a rod in each hand, I walked in a line and asked the universe to “show me my yes” (the rods crossed) then pivoted and had it “show me my no” (the rods pointed straight ahead). Were I to choose my own site for a distribution device for metaphysical agriculture, I could walk around, asking yes or no questions, and let the rods tell me whether I was on the right path.
Sustainable Settings herdsman Jared Minori, who interned at the ranch in 2016 and 2017 and returned in 2020, said that the kind of metaphysical farming that happens here is like “another leg of biodynamics.”
He acknowledged that it can be “esoteric” — likely to be understood by only a small group of people with an interest or knowledge of the subject — but said that not everything is so abstract.
You can apply a methodology to the philosophy, he said, and there are measured ways to answer the fundamental questions at hand: “Does it work, or does it not work? Do your vegetables grow better? Are your cows healthier? Does the milk taste better? Do the carrots taste better?” he said in a phone call.
”I’m not just going to believe everything,” Minori said. “I want to test things and try things out for myself, right?”
And what do the results tell Minori? Based on his own testing at the ranch, he said he has reason to believe that the answer is yes, that it does work, and that people can try it at home, too.
“I encourage anyone to do this, right, like, don’t take my word for it,” Minori said. “But if you start a seed tray, and you don’t do anything special to it, and you start a seed tray… (at) a favorable time in an astronomical or a biodynamic calendar, see the difference for yourself.
“That’s kind of just one layer to it, and then there’s like a larger esoteric, ethereal side of it as well, where you’re kind of evoking things out of the seed,” he added. “And this is as ancient as human beings have been on this earth. Praying to seeds is not new, right?”
PUSHING THE ENVELOPE
LeVan recognizes that this is not a typical farm operation, and that outsiders may find it a little “spooky.”
“Biodynamics is, you know, gonna push your envelope a little bit,” he said. “It’s metaphysical and physical — so is the world.”
LeVan is willing and ready to push that envelope through education and outreach, which could be promoted and funded through the sale of Thompson Creek Ranch.
He is writing a book, aims to publish the results of nearly two decades of soil experimentation at the ranch, and wants to replicate the experiment somewhere else — funding the land purchase at a new site and an endowment with the funds from the sale of the ranch. Consulting is picking up too, LeVan said.
There is an appetite for this kind of work, according to LeVan and Minori.
“Especially in this day and age, everyone is looking for meaning, you know?” Minori said. “The physical material world is not necessarily enough, right? Like, things work in tandem, so I think it’s very easy for people to get there.”
So too are people hungry for what LeVan calls “cosmic nutrition” — foodstuff that is dense in nutrients that fuel the physical body as well as the etheric body, the soul and the spirit, he said.
“Each of those bodies, or levels of our being, need nourishment… and the food that’s being produced industrially and cut corners and all that other stuff, right, it’s barely physical,” LeVan said. “It’s hardly etheric, and soul and spirit are gone. … So we’re not fueling our entire being.”
LeVan emphasized, time and again over the course of the nearly three hours we spent on the farm, that an investment in good food now would yield long-term savings in well-being, and that soil health (or lack thereof) can translate to human health too. Whatever people think of the means, LeVan believes the ends are worth sharing.
“I don’t care. I’m 66 this year and I know this s—t works. … That’s what I’m writing about,” LeVan said. “We have put together a practice, it’s not like we invented it. We just brought in good ideas from other places.”
I wondered, though, how much of the success came from the metaphysical practices, like spraying fertilizer at “cosmic rhythms,” and how much of it came from physical ones like the use of natural fertilizer and no-till seed drilling.
The press release about the Thompson Creek Ranch sale includes a quote from Derrick Wyle identifying “positively trending results” in the soil vitality that he observed over several years tracking soil data Sustainable Settings as a soil conservationist in the Natural Resource Conservation Service Glenwood Springs office. (He became a district conservationist with the NRCS in Fort Meyers, Florida in 2020.)
The 2018, 2019 and 2020 soil test results were the highest Wyle had seen in any farm he covered in Pitkin, Garfield and Eagle counties, he said in the release. I figured he might be able to help me parse out the “why,” so I called him up.
Wyle said that he tracked nearly 40 different metrics for soil vitality, and that the test results were “exceedingly high for that area.” He used the Haney Test, which measures biological characteristics in the soil rather than just chemical ones.
Sustainable Settings abides by several principles that foster soil health, like limiting the amount of disturbance in the soil, planting for diversity rather than monoculture, planting perennial crops rather than annual ones, making sure the soil is covered, incorporating animals into the system, Wyle said.
And “the degree to which (LeVan) was implementing them was extremely high,” Wyle said. The intent and the principle — to “manage for soil life,” as Wyle put it — well, “doing that showed up in the test results.”
As for the metaphysics, Wyle — a self-described “very science-minded kind of individual” — said he wondered, too.
“What I saw out there did show some kinds of improvements that maybe I couldn’t explain,” Wyle said.
The data tracking at Sustainable Settings was more of an “anecdotal testing” strategy, not a “research experiment” set up with controls for an apples-to-apples comparison.
“What’s going on at Sustainable settings is hard to explain or necessarily prove with what we did there,” in terms of data and testing that the NRCS conducted, he said.
Then again: “With the metaphysical stuff, I guess, it’s hard for anyone to prove,” he said.
But replication is part of the experimental process too, and LeVan believes it’s time to look toward the next piece, some new iteration of the medium where they can repeat the process.
The LeVans don’t know where that will happen yet, nor do they know at this point who will take over at Thompson Creek Ranch.
Caring for the land is at the very core of the Sustainable Settings philosophy; LeVan signs his emails with “in stewardship” where others might write “sincerely” or “best,” and the Sustainable Settings team hopes that the next owner of Thompson Creek Ranch will carry on that ethos, continue to work to instill vitality into the soil.
Brook LeVan also insists that “agriculture doesn’t pay,” that “it’s people that have a heart and want to do it, or people who are willing to take that risk” who get into farming, he said.
How will the LeVans ensure that the next owner of the ranch has that heart or risk tolerance? That’s also to be determined.
Brook LeVan claimed he has already gotten interest from “folks from Burbank and Hollywood,” and that some prospective buyers have asked whether the LeVans might stay on to advise for a year or two; that’s something they’d consider to ensure the stewardship of the land, he said.
But to sell it for what they bought it for in 2003 — or anything close to that figure — to guarantee the right steward would be like giving it away, he said. “Radical,” yes, but not economically viable; the ranch is Sustainable Settings’ only asset, and if they wish to heal another piece of land, they’ll have to sell what’s here to move on, he said.
“We’re not sitting on millions of dollars in the bank or an endowment, so the move here is to preserve the organization and the research,” LeVan said.
“To do that we sell it at the market rate, whatever it is, and we turn some of it into an endowment” — he said about half of the sales price could go there — “and then we have enough to buy a piece and do a little bit of build out and try it again, and report and publish.”
Still, they might consider a bit less for someone whose heart is in the game.
“These days, people have been bidding wars on land, right? So if we have that choice, that moral choice, we might take less,” LeVan said. “In the bidding war, we might say, ‘Hey, what are your intentions?’ ‘Well, I want to do a polo field.’ ‘And I want to keep going and doing what you’re doing here and providing food for the community, and I want to keep healing this place and maintain the hard work you’ve done.’ I’ll take ($500,000 less) or whatever.”
And if there isn’t a bidding war?
“We get one offer, we have to make our call, we have to decide,” LeVan said. “But we have work to do.”