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Meet Max Fields and James Plate of Fields to Plate Produce in Durango

Today we’d like to introduce you to Max Fields and James Plate.

Max and James, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
James and I met in kindergarten in metro Denver. We were both born and raised in the city and attended Morey Middle and East High. When we graduated we desired a change of scenery and bolted for the mountains of Southwest Colorado, specifically Durango. We came to Durango to attend Fort Lewis College and experience a more laid back mountain lifestyle.

As is the case with most college students, we had little idea of where our college careers were to lead us. James was pursuing a degree in Agricultural Business and I was pursuing a degree in Environmental Science. We had our interests but nothing specific to direct our energy to. Our sophomore year we began taking Agriculture classes together with a professor named Beth LaShell. She peaked our interest in Ag. and we quickly became some of her most interested and engaging students. We would always sit at the front of the class and ask lots of questions.

In the midst of our academic agricultural explorations, the Agriculture program at Fort Lewis came under the gun and was removed from the school as a degree option. In spite of this James and I were determined to pursue our newfound interest. With the new occurrences, Beth was being repositioned as the coordinator of the “Old Fort Lewis” property. The Old Fort is exactly that, a site in Hesperus outside of Durango where Fort Lewis College used to be located in the 30’s/40’s, owned by the Colorado State Land Board. This property has a long embedded history in Southwest Colorado and after switching hands, many times had recently been reallocated back to Fort lewis College permanently, for Native American Education purposes.

It’s worth noting Fort Lewis College is also one of the only schools in the nation to offer free Native American tuition, paid for by the state of Colorado. Regardless, Beth was now the manager of this massive 6,600-acre property and needed to put it to use. In 2013, after years of grant writing to the USDA, she created the incubator program. The incubator program was designed to help young and or beginning farmers in the Southwest, get a leg up in the farming world. It was to provide access to land, water, education and some equipment at a reasonable rate to an up and coming ag. generation. The things that prove to be some of the most difficult obstacles for 1st generation farmers.

James and I were at the forefront of the creation of this program and were highly encouraged to apply by Dr. Lashell. We had already had a hand in its fruition by helping with infrastructure and interning with the “trial incubator” who farmed on the land a year prior to the program’s opening, in order to test its viability and work out the kinks. We were some of the first to apply and get into the program. It is then when we started Fields to Plate Produce, which came as no-brainer considering our last names. We started our business while we were still attempting to graduate college.

Because of this, it took us a little longer to graduate, we would go to school in the winter/spring semester and would take off the fall semester to finish up our farming season. Eventually, we both graduated Fort Lewis and became full-time farmers. We farmed at the Old Fort for 4 seasons and developed a name for ourselves in the community for growing high quality, organically produced root vegetables (specifically carrots and beets). Growing at 7,660 ft of elevation with a 90-day frost-free period we had limited options. We began storing vegetables in an on-site root cellar throughout the winter in order to extend the availability of our delicious produce.

To this day we continue to follow the root vegetable storage model but have come leaps and bounds from our humble beginnings. Since then we have moved the location of our farm. In 2017 we relocated to the Animas Valley north of Durango. We started in 2013 growing on a half-acre and only produced orange carrots and red beets. Although those are still our two main cash crops, we now farm almost ten acres of certified organic vegetables. We currently manage a 120-acre property and rotationally “mob-graze” around 160 heritage sheep for grass-fed lamb production. We also cut all of our own hay for over winter and do year-round greenhouse production. We grow everything you can imagine these days but are still best known for our sweeter than candy carrots, which we can provide locally for nine months out of the year.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Farming is one of the most volatile industries in the world. As a farmer, you are at the whim of mother nature and all it has to offer. We have experienced everything from massive crop failure due to weather, pest and disease to the struggle to find new land/ reasonable and supportive landowners. My go-to saying is, “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst” There are no smooth roads in agriculture but that is part of its’ draw to us. Every day is a new challenge and to us, that keeps our lives exciting.

We are constantly learning new skills and developing more efficient and innovative ways to approach conscious food production. Think about it, if you have farmed for ten years you have only done it 10 times. Decision making is critical and one wrong decision can haunt you for an entire season. Our security is the soil. As organic farmers, we consider ourselves soil farmers first and foremost. Without healthy, living soil you have nothing, so everything comes back to the basic notion of land stewardship. Using animals and cover cropping and innovative cultivation/tillage techniques you can leave a piece of land better than you found it.

So, as you know, we’re impressed with Fields to Plate Produce – tell our readers more, for example what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
As I mentioned before we specialize in storage root vegetable production. We grow vegetables in general that have an inherent storability in order to provide consistency to our customers. Vegetables such as carrots, beets, parsnip, celeriac, cabbage, winter radish are among a few. We don’t have the ability to grow vegetables year-round in our high mountain desert environment. So we must find a way to provide fresh produce year-round and storing appropriate varietals of vegetables is how we achieve that. When most farmers are shutting down their operations in October, we are just gearing up for winter.

We store all of our vegetables dirty (which keeps them more fresh) and take them out of the root cellar and wash them as we need to fill orders. The majority of our income comes in the “off-season”. This year we stored over 40 tons of vegetables for the winter, which will get us into March/April. We have already begun seeding and getting ready for the 2020 season. While most people around here are thinking about powder we are thinking about seeds. Because of this consistency, we have become known as the most reliable farming our region and our customers love doing business with us because we make it easy on them. This is something we have always prided ourselves on and sets us a mile apart from any competition that may exist.

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
We are constantly looking towards the future and new opportunities. We have our vegetable operation dialed at this point but still desire to produce more and more of the same great product every year. We can’t grow enough for our demand at this point, so expanding in that realm is always on our minds. Recently the heritage, grass-fed lamb production has become more and more of a viable income source and a fun new project for us. Working with animals is a whole new ball game but because of the new (much larger) property we manage, we must employ animals to help build soil and fertility on our land.

We look at the animal production as a means of soil health management, the delicious grass-fed meat is a subsidiary to that. That being said our meat is in high demand and we sell out very quickly. We hope to grow the flock to around 400-500 sheep and produce 200-250 lambs per year. In addition to that, the year-round greenhouse production has also become a new fun project and we have started producing microgreens and tomatoes in the dead of winter. We now have around 6000 square feet of greenhouse space and are also starting to experiment with edible flowers.

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Fields to plate produce

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