Farmers in Focus: The Living Farm

Everywhere you look, The Living Farm is full of life. Under the care of Lynn Gillespie and her family, this fourth-generation farm in Paonia is flourishing in every sense of the word.

The Living Farm’s business model is multi-faceted. Lynn manages about 2 acres of land, which is mostly comprised of greenhouses and outdoor raised beds (a total of 20,000 square feet of actual growing space). In that space, she produces thousands of pounds of produce, runs an educational demonstration garden, and operates a farm-tour program (complete with a petting zoo). Lynn also keeps about 100 sheep on the pasture behind her greenhouses. In addition to using the sheep for meat and dairy, Lynn hand makes a full line of felted wool products like slippers, scarves, mittens, and slippers.

Lynn’s husband Tom and son Ben manage the other 200 acres, growing hay and grains, and raising cows and poultry. Her other son, Mike, runs The Living Farm Cafe in downtown Paonia, using the farm’s produce and meat, plus other local ingredients from Farm Runners and other farmer friends.

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Lynn grew up in Denver and moved to Paonia with her husband Tom about 30 years ago. Tom’s family has been farming this same piece of land at the foot of Mount Lamborn since 1938. Originally, they grew hay and grains and kept animals. When Lynn started having kids, she knew she didn’t want to send her them to daycare, so she had Tom build her a greenhouse to work in.

The “Big House,” first built in 1991, is lush with greens, bedding plants, and strawberries. this time of year. It is heated with geothermal energy, allowing Lynn to grow greens all winter long. When I walked into the house, I was shocked to see her strawberries already a deep red, ripening a good month ahead of everyone else’s around here.

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In the years since she put up her first greenhouse, Lynn has added a couple more greenhouses with innovative heating systems. “Solar has always been a passion of mine, ever since I was a kid,” says Lynn. For her second greenhouse, she uses passive solar energy to heat the soil without petroleum inputs.  Warm air trapped at the peak of the structure gets funneled down black tubes and into a gravel chamber at the base of each cinderblock raised bed. Warm air stored in the gravel radiates to the soil, which can raise the temperature by as much as 13 degrees in the winter.

In all her beds, Lynn uses what she terms a “perpetual motion system.” New beds are seeded each week, helping Lynn and her team keep a constant supply of salad greens almost all year long. In the summer, she expands her offerings to tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, beets, and a plethora of other veggies.

The Living Farm follows an organic growing philosophy closely tied to Lynn’s personal beliefs about nurturing the soil and her family’s health. “My growing philosophy is: If I can’t put it on my table, I won’t put it on yours.” Organics comes from the heart, she says, not a piece of paper, she says.

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For more information about Lynn’s online garden education program, The High Performance Garden, check out her website. Through free videos, tutorials, ebooks, and more, you can learn to have a successful garden using the same principles Lynn employs on her farm.

And finally, no trip to a farm in the spring is complete without some little lamb snuggles:

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P.S. If you want to get some lamb snuggles of your own or check out the garden, The Living Farm will be open for tours starting in May. I highly recommend it 🙂

Ajax Tavern: Farm to Après-Ski

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Located at the base of Aspen ski mountain, Ajax Tavern offers a complete menu for everything from an après-ski beer and basket of truffle fries to a fine wine and multi-course dinner. On a sunny day, the slope-side patio is a perfect place to kick back and watch other people finish their runs down the mountain. Inside, cozy booths and an intimate bar provide a perfect place to warm up and fill up after a day on the mountain or around town. Whether you’re wearing ski pants or a fur coat, you’re welcome here. And as their website says, “Don’t let the people-watching put you off your game – the food is the main event.”

Led by Chef JD Baldridge, the kitchen serves up bistro-style fare full of locally sourced ingredients. In between the bustle of lunch hour and the onslaught of après-ski traffic, Farm Runners was honored to sit down with Chef JD to see what he’s been up to with our local products.

Chef Baldridge, the chef de cuisine at Ajax since 2015, has spent several years creating food with a farm fresh focus. Growing up in Oklahoma, he was surrounded by agriculture and has fond memories of the changing seasonal flavors. As a student at the Culinary Institute of America, he was immersed in the farm-to-table movement through stints in kitchens of notable restaurants like Blue Hill at Stone Barns Center for Agriculture.

We also met Ingrid Stern, one of JD’s sous chefs, who introduced us out some of her favorite menu items featuring Farm Runners ingredients. Right out of the gate, she stunned us with her beef tartare, topped with a Dayspring Eggs egg yolk cured in coffee and South River Aquaponics “compressed” arugula. Other favorites were the Colorado Camembert cheese plate featuring Sandy Basin Farm’s lady finger popcorn and the Kale & Quinoa Caesar salad with White Mountain Farm quinoa.

Baldridge has designed his menu so as not set up any roadblocks for creativity in the future. Allowing for flexibility in the menu makes it easy to introduce new local products and experiment with new flavors. For example, the roasted chicken dish with winter vegetable hash (amazing, by the way) has featured a variety of different root vegetables from Farm Runners this season. “I like to order things and see how they come in. It’s fun to see the different ingredients straight from the farm.”

JD also brings local farm flavor to his winter menu by preserving ingredients at the height of summer growing season. The popular artisan charcuterie board features housemade pickles made in the dog days of summer. The jalapeno jam on the cheese board was also a fantastic way to highlight the flavors of our region all through the winter.

As the ski season wraps up in Aspen, the kitchen at Ajax is still busy creating. During their mud season break, they will finalize their spring and summer menus. JD is looking forward to the days of imperfectly perfect heirloom tomatoes and bright summer fruits. He’s also got us licking our lips for fun events like the BBQ cookoff. We can’t wait to see what they dream up next with Farm Runners produce. Thanks, Chef JD and Ajax for supporting local farms with your delicious dishes!

Farmers in Focus: Twisted Root Organic Farm

Kristin Gross and Eric Just own and operate Twisted Root Organic Farm in Paonia, CO. With Lamborn Mountain as a sweeping backdrop, they grow beautiful Certified Organic vegetables all year long.

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At first glance, there’s not much to see on a vegetable farm in early March. Like the rest of the landscape that surrounds them, Twisted Root Organic Farm is a palette of tans, muted browns, and patches of snow on the day I visit. But with a closer eye to detail, signs of life are all around. Inside a large greenhouse, the smell of warm dirt makes you forget that the ground outside is frozen. Rows of salad greens and baby kale, planted way back in September, lie close to the ground, soaking up the passive solar energy. Outside, more greens are tucked in tight underneath white row cover to protect them from the cold. And beneath what appears to be just dead leaves, glowing orange gems of carrots wait patiently to be dug from the ground.

Now in their third year of operation, Kristin and Eric have transformed their little piece of land into a highly productive farm. Even though they own about six acres, they prefer to keep their vegetable plot to just about two acres. That size allows them to do most of the work by hand (although Eric is pretty excited about his new Kubota tractor) and not have to rely on much outside labor. In addition to produce, Twisted Root is also home to a flock of laying hens and resident farm dog Elko.

Twisted Root draws on several different sustainable agriculture philosophies to manage their land ecologically. Unlike a lot of new farmers, Kristin and Eric decided to get their organic certification right away. “I think it is good to have someone looking over your shoulder… I know of some ‘uncertified organic’ farms that claim to use all organic practices, yet really have no understanding of what this entails,” said Kristin. The certification comes at an extra cost, but Kristin says it’s worth it. “The USDA Organic logo gives our customers peace of mind in knowing that our growing practices are benefitting both their health and the environment.”

As the snow melts and signs of spring return, Kristin and Eric are busy inside planning for the season to come. Underneath grow lights in their laundry room-turned-plant nursery, tomato seedlings sprout from trays of potting soil. Underneath the cover of a recently moved greenhouse, a new patch of ground gets dried out, warm, and ready for the next succession of salad mix. Eric eagerly awaits the return of pepper season–his favorite crop to grow and harvest.

In every season, look for Twisted Root products on the Farm Runners list. When summer farmers market season comes, you can also find their veggies and eggs at the Crested Butte Farmers Market.

Farmers in Focus: Alpenglow Mushrooms

 

From the minute you meet Joel Rayes, his passion for all things mycelium is clear. What started as a casual interest while working in kitchens several years ago soon had Joel foraging wild mushrooms in the forest and growing cultivated varieties on a small scale for friends and family. As he taught himself the ins and outs of mushroom growing, his hobby evolved into a profession. Eventually, his passion grew into a full-blown mushroom farm.

Now, Joel runs Alpenglow Mushrooms on a beautiful property between Montrose and Ridgway, overlooking the peaks of the Cimarron Mountains. There, he grows several varieties of oyster mushrooms through all four seasons. Although Joel has grown many types of mushrooms, he favors Oysters for their flavor, versatility, nutrient content, and medicinal properties. They have the highest protein content of any cultivated mushroom and are a great source of vitamin D. They also have the ability to promote white T-cell growth, support immune function, and are an anti-carcinogen. Oh, and they are gorgeous.

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As I head into the Alpenglow property, I don’t immediately peg the place as a farm, but a pile of straw bales and a walk-in cooler tell me I’m in the right place. Joel greets me with an enthusiastic smile and gives me a rundown of how his farm works. The way mushrooms grow is totally different than vegetables and remains a mystery to many people–including myself. Giving me a tour of his setup, Joel helps demystify the process.

At Alpenglow, it starts with locally grown straw. Joel first pasteurizes chopped straw in large drums of water hot enough to destroy possible contaminants and encourage the growth of beneficial organisms. Once pasteurized, the straw is mixed with a “spawn” –in Joel’s case, rye berries that have been inoculated with oyster mushroom spores–and packed tightly into long plastic bags. The spawn acts kind of like the starter in a sourdough bread–providing the initial cultures that will eventually colonize the whole bag. The straw provides the nutrients and space for mycelium (the mushroom “roots”) to spread.

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The inoculated bags are then transferred to the mushroom house. What looks like a large shed from the outside is the core of Joel’s mushroom production. Equipped with HEPA filters, intake fans, efficient florescent lights, and humidity controls, the simple structure has been transformed into a mushroom factory.  Inside, about 90 sacks hang like punching bags from chains on the ceiling. Inside the sacks, the mycelium begins quietly metabolizing the carbon in the straw. As it grows, a white spongy structure takes over the bag.

Between nine and twenty days after inoculation, mushrooms develop. Mushrooms are the fruit of the mycelium organism, and they only emerge when exposed to just the right combination of light, temperature change, air, and moisture. Joel monitors the conditions closely and tries to emulate nature in order to encourage the bags to fruit. For example, fans blow air in from the outside, imitating a storm coming in by creating a positive pressure environment.

Tiny dark pin pricks emerge from slits in the plastic. Soon enough, those pins blossom into gorgeous blooms of delicate mushroom clusters. Joel, with help from his family, harvest the mushrooms twice a day, seven days a week, to catch them at their peak freshness and shape. Each bag will go through about five flushes of mushrooms and will produce about 6 pounds of mushrooms per flush. That’s an incredible amount of protein-rich food in a very small space.

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Joel is equal parts pragmatist and dreamer. He recognizes that sustainable food production has to be both ecologically responsible and economically viable. Some might see this as a tall order, but Joel knows it is possible. He sees mushrooms as a vital component in a resilient local food system. Alpenglow Mushrooms is just the first phase in a dream to create an edible forest on the property. He hopes to grow berries, vegetables, and perennial crops to compliment the mushrooms. Doing so will help him recycle byproducts from the mushroom growing process (excess CO2 from the mushroom house will be pumped into a vegetable greenhouse. “Spent straw” from old mushroom bags will be composted and used in the garden) and provide more mountain-grown food to the Western Slope.

In his spare time, Joel can be found lending a hand at South River Aquaponics, enjoying the mountains, or playing music in his band. You can find his mushrooms year round through Farm Runners and at the Montrose and Telluride farmers markets in the summer.

Farmers in Focus: South River Aquaponics

 

Walking into the South River Aquaponics greenhouse on a cold, grey January day is like walking onto another planet–or rather, kind of like entering a sci-fi movie where astronauts are learning to grow vegetables in space. As Giovanni Mendoza, SRA’s director of operations, gives me a tour around the facility, I’m amazed by both the complexity and the simplicity of the operation. We make sure to wash our hands and wipe our feet on a special mat to prevent contamination before we enter the bio-secure facility. Once inside, it is warm and bright and filled with vibrant greens. There is a quiet rush of water swirling in giant blue tanks and a hum from the pumps that circulate the water from fish tanks through the reservoirs where rafts of lettuce, arugula, and herbs grow.

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South River’s state-of-the-art facility in Montrose is part high-tech farm and part laboratory.  It is the testing ground for a new type of agriculture, one that can provide food year round, even in the cold mountain climate of Western Colorado. The concept is simple: fish feed the plants, plants clean the water. As opposed to traditional hydroponic systems that rely on lots of artificial chemical inputs to keep plants growing, aquaponics uses fish to generate the fertilizer needed to grow vegetables in water.

At South River, the process starts with Barramundi (Asian Sea Bass). Baby “fingerling” fish are raised in nursery tanks, then transferred to large blue tanks where they swim, eat, and poop. The waste they produce is filtered out of the tanks and run through a separator. The solids are removed and turned into organic fertilizer. The remaining nutrient-filled water is syphoned off into vegetable growing reservoirs. There, plants use up the phosphorus, potassium, and nitrogen in the water, naturally filtering it in the process. The clean water is then fed back into the fish tanks. In this symbiotic system, both fish and vegetables are harvested, providing a sustainable local source of seafood in addition to greens throughout the year.

As the South River team learns more about their system, they continue to add innovations that help close the loop even more. Soon, they will be producing around 800 pounds of mushrooms a week in a room next door to the greenhouse. The CO2 that the mushrooms put off while growing will be pumped into the greenhouse, which will help boost vegetable growth. Dave, SRA’s fish biologist, is also working to introduce fresh water lobster to system. They will live at the bottom of the vegetable reservoirs, helping to clean the water and tanks as they feed.

When you think of local, organic farming, a setup like South River isn’t necessarily what comes to mind. There’s no dirt to be seen and the farmers are dressed in logo-embroidered shirts, not overalls and straw hats. However, this type of farm is at the cutting edge of conservation and sustainable and safe food production. Because aquaponics recycles its water from fish to veggie tank and back, it can use up to 90% less water than a traditional farm. Since the plants get their nutrients from fish waste, no artificial inputs are required (in fact, adding chemical fertilizers or pesticides would harm the fish). Greenhouses can be set up on land that wouldn’t be normally be suited for agriculture. Water is tested weekly for any pathogens and fertilizer from fish (as opposed to other animals) does not carry E. coli or Salmonella. Growing all year in a greenhouse keeps food distribution local and helps eliminate the need to ship vegetables from California and Mexico.

South River Aquaponics is committed to feeding our communities with healthy, safe, and nutritious food–and to educating more people about the benefits of using aquaponics to address food needs around the world. They hope their facility will be a prototype for what is possible. Though they’ve invested a lot of money into the project, the information they have gathered is invaluable. They hope to help others build similar systems at a much lower cost. We’re excited to see what new and exciting projects SRA has up its sleeve next!

Farmers in Focus: Rain Crow Farm

Kerry Noonan, along with her husband Jason Beason, owns Rain Crow Farm in Paonia, Colorado. On their 10-acre parcel on the bank of the North Fork of the Gunnison River, Kerry and Jason grow about four acres of vegetables and flowers, raise goats and chickens, and nurture a habitat to attract local wildlife. Kerry is the mastermind behind the produce and flower production. Jason works full time as an ornithologist and moonlights as the farm’s cheese maker, tractor driver, potato grower, and handyman.

Since 2005, Kerry and Jason have built their farm and their family. Their son Otus was born just days before they moved onto the farm property. Almost three years later, their daughter Twyla was born. For the first five years of the farm’s operation, Kerry also taught elementary school full time. About five years ago, she made the transition to farming full time, but continues to teach part time in the winter. Getting to see her kids grow up connected to nature and to their food is one of Kerry’s biggest inspirations to farm.

 

p1840027-1On just a few acres, Kerry and her crew cultivate more than one hundred varieties of vegetables and flowers. Her favorite things to grow are also her favorite to eat–all those greens that are “so good for you.” Cool weather crops like kale, collards, and salad mixes do especially well in the microclimate of her river bottom land. She and Jason also love growing herbs like parsley and basil, calling their harvest time “aromatherapy.”

The success of Rain Crow is no doubt linked to Kerry’s enthusiasm, positivity, and culture of appreciation she brings to her farm. “I am so grateful for this farm,” says Kerry, as she diligently moves through her patch of kale, plucking the last leaves of the season. She can’t sing the praises of her dedicated staff any more loudly. “They are some of my closest friends. I would do anything for them because they have contributed so much to this farm and my family.”

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Kerry’s fierce commitment to environmental sustainability and background in biology is evident in her holistic farming style. She takes pride in the wild nature of her farm. “I don’t want it super groomed. To me, that isn’t beautiful.” What is beautiful is the diverse ecosystem of plants, insects, and birds that help keep the farm healthy by pollinating crops and preying on pests. Rain Crow also relies on compost tea to boost plant health, composted chicken manure to add fertility to the soil, and a heavy dose of hard work to keep weeds in check. They also can count on their goats and chickens to bring things full circle, eating all the weeds and leftover produce they can give them. Rain Crow Farm follows organic growing standards and is Certified Naturally Grown. This means they don’t use any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, or GMOs.

In addition to selling their produce through Farm Runners, Rain Crow Farm provides vegetables and goat milk products to local individuals. Their veggies and beautiful flower arrangements can also be found at the Crested Butte Farmers Market in the summer. 

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