Farmers in Focus: Brush Creek Microgreens


P1850097Meet JC and Marieta, some of the newest members of the North Fork Valley’s community of farmers.  The two are the faces behind Brush Creek Microgreens, Farm Runners’  source for micros, shoots, and edible flowers.

This winter, Brush Creek Microgreens moved their operation in to the greenhouse at the Colorado State University’s agricultural research station on Rogers Mesa. On a cold winter night, just as the sun was setting over the mesa, they gave me a tour of their new digs and told me about their journey to becoming microgreen farmers.


The couple developed their interest in farming and agriculture while studying at University of Colorado.”When we started, we just dipped our toes in a lot of different things,” said Marieta. Through internships, volunteer gigs, and summer jobs, they experimented with everything from ranching to biodynamics, specialty vegetables, and seed saving. After they graduated, they ended up at Full Circle Farms, Colorado’s largest organic farm. As a part of a small specialty crops crew, they worked on variety trials and seed production, and ran the farmers markets for Full Circle. Though they learned a lot and met some great friends and mentors, they left the experience feeling a little bit disillusioned and overwhelmed at the thought of starting their own farm.

Taking a break from full-scale production agriculture, JC and Marieta headed to Aspen, where Marieta was raised. They tried their hand at landscaping and gardening and eventually landed a gig working on The Little Nell’s restaurant garden project. It was there they learned that chefs were really interested in getting locally grown microgreens.

As aspiring farmers with little money and no land, microgreens were a project the young couple could get started with right away.  “We were young. We had nothing to lose,” JC jokes.  In an empty office building with a grow light and one south-facing window, the couple started the first iteration of their microgreen business.

In May, the two moved to Hotchkiss, where their friends AJ and Nicole had just started Deer Tree Farm and Agroforest. Setting up shop at Deer Tree farm, JC and Marieta continued to build their business and came on board as Farm Runners producers. Growing outdoors in tiny covered tunnels, they confronted endless challenges, but were also able to grow more than their small indoor setup once allowed.

In their new spot at the greenhouse, JC and Marieta have been able to expand their operation and work on product development. The greenhouse offers the ability to control the growing conditions to boost the green’s growth with supplemental heat and light when needed. They’ve also been able to glean some growing tips from the research station’s director, Frank Stonaker (who also runs Osito Orchard). “We’re super grateful to Frank,” said JC, about all the support and resources he’s made available to the couple.

The tables of microgreens at BC Microgreens form a patchwork of of vibrant, tiny plants at various stages of growth. Different varieties of kale, radishes, peas, mustard greens, and scallions glissen under tiny droplets of water. It takes between 10 days and 2 weeks for a tray to transform from a blank slate to a lush carpet of tender and flavorful greens.  The trays first spend a couple days in a warm, humid germination chamber until the seeds just start to sprout. They are then laid out on tables to grow to just the right size -about 7 to 12 days, depending on the weather and the variety. With constantly changing conditions, it can be hard to maintain a consistent growing schedule, but BC Microgreens is committed to providing a steady supply of their products, regardless of weather or season.

Eventually, JC and Marieta hope to build their own greenhouse and incorporate more specialty products, like edible flowers, into their business model. This summer, Marieta will also be starting her own farm-fresh flower operation as well. No matter what they do, they want to maintain their commitment to consistency, quality, and eco-consciousness.


Farmers in Focus: Thistle Whistle Farm

Right outside above Hotchkiss on Hanson Mesa, Mark Waltermire runs Thistle Whistle Farm. On sixteen acres, Mark raises a wide array of vegetables and fruit, plus a wiley herd of goats, a motley flock of free ranging chickens and ducks, and a few buzzing hives of bees.


In addition to growing food, Thistle Whistle is cultivating a new generation of kids interested in food, nutrition, and sustainable farming. Since the beginning, Mark has been dedicated to integrating education into the farm’s operation. Every year Mark leads farm tours, hosts on-farm nutrition and ESL programs, teaches seed saving to local elementary school student, mentors student gardeners at Western State University, and hires a crew of interns interested in learning how to farm. “Honestly, I feel pretty blessed to have a farm like this, and I feel and obligation to share it.” It is rewarding to work with enthusiastic young people that still hold on to their ideals, he says. “I use their energy to keep myself going.”


Before moving with his family (wife, Katie Dean, and two sons, Baxter and Graham) to Hotchkiss 12 years ago, Mark ran an educational and food bank farm in Massachusetts. It was there, working with various ethnic groups that he was exposed to different crops and varieties that the typical American farmer and shopper never see. The folks he worked with and served were looking for flavors of home that couldn’t be found on supermarket shelves. “It opened my eyes to the potential of what food should be”

Out of this experience, Mark has developed a style of farming that is distinctly focused on preserving food traditions, rather than maximizing profit. If you’re looking for weird, rare, fun, and interesting flavors, Mark’s your guy. “I’m not willing to accept the standard of high volume and no flavor;” he says, “we can create markets for better tasting stuff.”

A diverse mix of crops and varieties matters a lot to Mark. He grows just about everything, from artichokes to heirloom popcorn. It is ecologically sound farming principle, but it also connects us to our cultural backgrounds and genetic dispositions. We’re programmed to appreciate a diversity of flavors, because different flavors – different plants – provide different nutrients that keep us healthy.


Mark can’t pick one favorite crop, but he’s drawn to anything with a story. Around these parts, Mark is known as the hot pepper guy. His passion for a host of interesting (and mouth-scorching) peppers comes partly from the connection each one has to a particular culture and particular use. Plus, he just loves the power contained in each tiny fruit. Tomatoes are another one of Thistle Whistle’s specialities. For Mark, each tomato is connects him to a dedicated individual seed breeder, whose passion comes through in a stunning visual and flavor array in the tomato field.


If you’re looking for a new veggie to try this winter, Mark suggests giving the Gilfeather Turnip a chance. It’s a veggie with a good story (synopsis: it’s a cross between a turnip and a rutabaga bred by John Gilfeather in the early 1900s, and was recently adopted as the state vegetable of Vermont), and it’s allure is coupled with the fact that they’re really really good eatin’.

The other crop Mark suggests getting your hands on this winter is the Sunchoke. It’s one of the few native North American food crops, which brings another meaning to the words “eat local.”


Farmers in Focus: Zimmerman Pork [and veggie] Farm

We visited Rick Zimmerman earlier this May on our Farm Runners Field Trip. Back in then, his Berkshire pigs were just giving birth to piglets and his greenhouse was bursting with baby plants waiting to get in the ground. I returned last week to check up on the garden and learn more about what Rick is doing on his farm in Hotchkiss.

I ended up spending more than two hours nerding out with Rick over vegetable production techniques and gleaning as much as I could from his wealth of knowledge. My notes from the day read like an advice book for young farmers, and it’s hard not to just list one good quote after another, but I’ll do my best to pare down what I learned.

So let’s start with the basics: Rick grew up in California and studied agronomy, biology, and chemistry. Rick moved to the North Fork Valley back in 1992 when he took a job with the Colorado State University extension at their experiment station on Roger’s Mesa. There, he specialized in entomology, studying codling moths and other insect pests and how to control them with “bio-controls” instead of chemicals. He started raising pigs as a side project in 1995 and planted his first garden about 10 years ago. In 2011, he switched to farming full time after the research station closed down.

P1840797Pigs are integral to the whole operation at Zimmerman Pork Farm. Rick raises Berkshire pigs, known for their superb flavor and genetics.  He sells whole and half hogs to individuals and businesses, and raises breeding stock that he sells to other farmers. He uses the manure they produce as fertility for his fields. After mixing the manure with sawdust, he lets it compost in large heaps. Then he spreads it over the fields, which gives the soil a burst of nitrogen and organic matter. I ask if he can tell a difference, and he says there is no doubt, pointing to a stunted row of peppers that didn’t get manure this year.

The pigs also eat all the vegetables that Rick deems unfit for sale. He maintains very high quality standards. “I think we raise the bar pretty high for quality.” Anything that doesn’t meet his standards gets fed to the pigs. “We want the wow factor,” he tells me. “We know your business depends on quality.”

P1840998Rick, with help from his wife Jeanne, grows all the vegetables organically, though he doesn’t see the importance of getting a certification. For him, his philosophy comes down to growing very high quality food at a reasonable price. Sounds good, right? Well, I guess it’s easier said than done. With just himself and his wife to take care of the whole farm, Rick hasn’t taken a day off in 16 months.

“This is really hard stuff. The learning curve is long.” Rick thinks his education and background has given him a leg up in some regards, but when it comes down to it, it’s all about the sweat equity and determination.  “You’ve gotta be a good problem solver to be a good farmer…You’ve got to have a vision. The ability to look at the place and think ‘I can make it better.'”



You can find Rick’s produce for sale through Farm Runners. Make sure to keep an eye peeled for his gorgeous broccoli, cauliflower, okra, peppers, eggplant, beans, potatoes, and more. Whole hogs are available by special request.


Farmers in Focus: Oogie McGuire of Desert Weyr Sheep Farm

Perched high above Paonia on Garvin Mesa, Oogie and Ken McGuire raise a flock of grass-fed Black Welsh Mountain sheep on the pasture beneath the family’s heritage apple orchard. Oogie grew up on the farm, where her mother raised sheep and other animals. She fell in love with shepherding when she decided to learn to spin and weave wool in order to make herself a traditional Medieval cloak. She not only ended up with a cloak, but also with a passion for the Black Welsh Mountain breed.


The Black Welsh Mountain breed originates from the hills of Britain. They are ideal for sustainable sheep production because they are good grazers and excellent mothers. They are also small in size and have a good temperament, which makes it easier for Ken and Oogie to manage the flock by themselves. Desert Weyr’s flock is especially sweet. “We breed for disposition,” Oogie says, “The mean ones become dinner.”

Unlike many sheep farmers around here, Oogie sells mostly mutton, not lamb. Even though the meat is of excellent quality, this can be an uphill battle. Mutton was once considered a prime meat, but after World War II, it fell out of favor in the U.S. Traumatized by gamey tinned rations made of tough, old sheep, soldiers returning from war swore off the stuff. This decimated the American sheep industry for decades. More than half a century later, lamb has made a comeback as a choice protein, but mutton  still has a ways to go.

P1840875Oogie is doing her best to change the perception of mutton being gamey, tough, or old. In fact, when it comes from sheep bred for mutton, the meat is tender and rich. Black Welsh Mountain sheep are particularly known as being superior for mutton. Like lamb, it has a distinct flavor, but it should never be strong or off-putting. Oogie uses the comparison of veal versus a well aged steak. Lamb, like veal, is from very young animals and has a delicate and sweet flavor. Mutton, on the other hand, is from a mature animal, making it’s meat richer and darker.

I ask if there’s another word we can call it–a rebranding, so to speak, for this up and coming meat–but she says she’s bound by law to call it mutton. In the U.S., any sheep slaughtered after one year of age must be sold as mutton. So instead, she’s changing people’s views by raising top quality meat with excellent flavor and giving them a risk free way to give it a try: she offers a 100% satisfaction guarantee.

Tips for Cooking Mutton:

You can cook mutton just about the same as you would cook lamb. Most of the cuts will look the same, but be a bit larger than their lamb equivalent. Braise larger cuts like shoulder and leg roasts. Quickly sear steaks and chops. Classic flavors that pair well with mutton are rosemary, mint, garlic, and mustard seed. Or go the moroccan route with paprika, cumin, garlic, and cinnamon.

For a quick-cooking cut great for the grill, Oogie recommends trying the Pave steak. This uncommon cut comes from the hindquarter and is often lumped together with a leg roast. However, when it is separated out, it is both lean and tender.

Another cut we’re looking forward to trying is the breast. As Darina Allen, author of Forgotten Skills of Cooking (my favorite British cookbook) writes, the breast of lamb or mutton “is the sweet and delicious equivalent of pork belly, and is a very inexpensive cut of meat. Lean layers are interspersed with layers of fat, which renders out and gives the meat a sweet, succulent flavor.” Desert Weyr mutton breast comes rolled into a nice roast, so cooking is simple.

Try this easy recipe from Darina:

  • 1 rolled breast of mutton from Desert Weyr
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons coriander seeds
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons sea salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roast the coriander seeds over medium heat for 3-4 minutes, until they begin to smell aromatic. Transfer to a mortar and pestle or spice grinder and grind into a coarse powder. Mix coriander with salt and spread out in a dish. Roll the roast around in the salt and coriander mixture so that it is coated on all sides. Place in a roasting pan or baking dish and roast until it reaches an internal temperature of 145 degrees (cooking times will depend on size, but start checking around 45 minutes to 1 hr).




Farmers in Focus: Dayspring Eggs

Rosie and David Nunz operate Dayspring Eggs in Olathe, CO. They bought the business about three years ago after David retired from his career as a builder. In addition to raising about 1500 birds of their own, they source eggs from three other local farmers to sell under the Dayspring name. At their small facility, they wash and package up to 30,000 eggs in a week.

Using a color-coded system, they keep track of which eggs come from what farm on what date. While eggs from giant chicken houses can sit up to a month or more before they make it to the grocery store shelf, David and Rosie rarely have eggs for more than about a week.

When eggs come in fresh from the farm, they can be stored unrefrigerated because the shell has a protective coating. Washing the eggs removes this protection, at which point they must be refrigerated. To begin the washing process, eggs are sprayed with a light sanitizing solution before they are rolled on a conveyer belt past the “candling station.” Every single egg is checked for cracks by shining a light onto the shell before it moves through to be rinsed and graded. While Dayspring can lose up to eight percent of their eggs through their strict grading process, they believe in setting high standards for themselves and their other farmers. “If it’s not a good egg, we don’t pay ourselves for it.”


David and Rosie are committed to providing quality, fresh eggs to their customers. “We go out of our way to get a good product,” says David and it all starts with the health of the hens. If the farmers keep their hens health and feed them a well balanced diet, the number of broken shells goes down dramatically. By adjusting the protein content of the feed, the farmer can influence the size of eggs. Adding supplements like calcium-rich oyster shells helps to strengthen the shells.

All of the chickens that lay eggs for Dayspring are fed a diet of non-GMO grain from West Slope Ag-Center.  Dayspring Eggs are also considered “free range,” which means the hens are never kept in cages, but rather, allowed to roam around their home. At David and Rosie’s, the hens spend most of their time in a shaded hoop-house structure with open floors and free access to food and water. Every couple of days, they are let out into a larger fenced yard to peck around in the grass.


Terminology in the egg industry can be confusing and misleading. The terms “cage free” and “free range” are unregulated, so it’s important to understand exactly what a producer means when they use these words. In many large chicken houses, free range can mean that the hens only have limited access to a small dirt patch through a tiny door in their dark barn. “It’s a mockery,” says David.

None of the Dayspring hens are ever given antibiotics, and David says there’s really no reason to. He rarely has disease problems with his birds. He attributes it to the fact that the chicken house is exposed to the natural sanitizing effect of UV rays from the sun. Plus, the birds have plenty of room to move around and plenty of ventilation from the open air.


While David and Rosie give their other farmers freedom to make choices about how their hens are raised, they are all kept to a high standard of a free roaming living environment, access to the outdoors, no antibiotics, and non-GMO feed. When demand outstrips their ability to supply enough eggs, Dayspring also reaches out to some larger egg producers in Olathe and Montrose. When they resort to this, they also only purchase non-GMO, free range eggs (often from certified organic barns).

When asked if they’ve ever considered going in the direction of certified organic eggs, David says it’s not what really matters to him. Though they can fill orders of specifically organically-raised eggs if a customer requests it, providing eggs that are super fresh and from hens that were raised healthfully and humanely is most important.



Field Trip!

Last week we kicked off the 2017 Spring and Summer Season with what we hope will become an annual tradition–the Farm Runners Field Trip.With more than 25 people, representing over 10 restaurants, this was the largest tour we’ve hosted yet. Thank you so much to all the chefs who took the time to come meet their farmers and get a taste of our valley. We hope it was a day of fun and inspiration.


After what’s been a volatile spring, we were stunned by a gorgeous day full of sun, puffy clouds, a gentle breeze, and vibrant green views of the valley. Everywhere we went, snow-capped Mount Lamborn provided a stunning backdrop.

Our tour started in Paonia at Rain Crow Farm. Kerry Noonan shared with the whole crew her infectious enthusiasm for her beautiful farm on the banks of the North Fork River. When we arrived, Kerry and her crew were transforming blank canvases of tilled earth into new beds of cooking greens. Kerry’s farm is an edible landscape, with cultivated rows of veggies tucked between wild patches of perennials and stands of wildlife-attracting shrubs and trees. Chickens scratch beneath a small grove of fruit trees. Greenhouses overflow with early season mustards, chois, and flowers.


Next stop: Delicious Orchards for a bite to eat and tour of their organic orchard. Delicious is home of Big B’s juice and hard cider, as well as a farm-stand cafe, u-pick orchard, and campground. Lil not only managed to get all the mob of us fed and full of cider, but also taught us about organic orchard management and how to keep delicate fruit blossoms warm when it freezes.


Last but not least, we wrapped up the tour with a trip to Zimmerman Pork Farm in Hotchkiss. Rick Zimmerman raises berkshire hogs, known to produce some of the best flavored pork around. He and his wife Jeanne also raise several vegetable crops from seed. His greenhouse was bursting with plants like Shishito peppers, okra, and tomatillos ready to get out in the ground. Rick’s down-to-earth style and wealth of information on farming were a perfect way to end the day. Plus, there were baby pigs. And who can doesn’t love a baby pig?




A big thank you to all of our farmers for taking the time out of their busy schedule to tromp us around. We couldn’t do what we do without you. Here’s to a prolific, successful, and happy season!

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.


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.


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.



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:



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 🙂