Passion for farms starts young; at least that’s the idea locally as farmers nationwide age
The Farm Collaborative is a non-profit organization on Cozy Point Ranch that has worked in youth environmental education for years
The Aspen Times
Editor’s note: This the third of a series on farming in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys.
Local farms are working to educate and involve youth in local food systems in response to the rising census age in farmers and dwindling number of viable farms in the country.
Eden Vardy, director of the Farm Collaborative and CEO of 2Forks Club, is working to build community support systems in the Roaring Fork Valley to bring young, new farmers into the field.
“We continue to see the average of our farmers get older and older,” he said. “We continue to see the amount of farms we have get larger and larger and have less and less of them. The impacts of climate change and all the other global challenges that we’re facing today are amplifying the pressures that farmers face from being able to be effective in the field.”
The challenges that farmers must overcome to enter the field, especially in the high-mountain terrain of the Roaring Fork Valley, are substantial, say local farmers.
These challenges include the expense of equipment, finding staff, reliable housing, educated consumers, and managing land and weather conditions unique to the area.
The Farm Collaborative: Aspen’s Backyard
The Farm Collaborative is a non-profit organization on Cozy Point Ranch in Aspen that has worked in youth environmental education for years and has recently begun to make strides in farmer-support networks. The collaborative exists on a 25-year renewable lease from the City of Aspen, which has owned the Cozy Point Ranch since 1994.
The collaborative was born 15 years ago as a farm-to-table, free community meal, open to everyone for no cost by pre-reservation. With the help of about 250 volunteers, the event has been hosted at the Hotel Jerome near Thanksgiving in late November every year; but, since 2020, the event has been adapted as a farm-to-fridge model. All of the food, down to the herbs and spices, is grown locally and serves upward of 1,500 people.
“The premise of the event was to bring together people of all different segments of our community,” Vardy said. “It is so that, for one, we take kind of the stigma out of feeding people, but also so that the entirety of our community can come together in celebration of that which nourishes us.”
Having founded the Farm Collaborative on the basis of community nourishment and engagement with the land, they took their work to spread knowledge and love for local food a step further by educating younger generations, he said.
Ten years ago, the Farm Collaborative inherited John Denver’s Earth Keepers program — 10 weeks in summer with hands-on, outdoor environmental education for kids aged 5 to 10.
This program takes place in the outdoor space of the FarmPark, along with two greenhouses with indoor classroom spaces, according to Corina Person Minniti, the director of education for the Farm Collaborative.
Earth Keepers: Inspiring younger generations
The FarmPark sits on two-thirds of an acre as a producing farm that acts as a public park for anyone to walk through, free-range harvest, and connect with where their food comes from, Vardy said.
“Earth Keepers is predominantly a summer program,” he said. “We also have an after-school component; we launched the teen version, and we have a parent and toddler version of the program. It’s all inter-age mentorship and connection to food, connection to nature through our food system.”
In the Earth Keepers 10-week, day-camp program, teachers see between 10 and 20 kids each week, running from mid-June to August, according to Minniti. In this program, kids will spend the day outdoors, apart from rare time spent inside for weather precautions.
Lessons are entirely hands-on with the kids, and they learn about the various crops — such as cherry tomatoes, onion, garlic, cabbage — and about the plants in the space. For example, the soothing properties of catnip or what soothes the sting of nettle.
For the 2022 summer season, Earth Keepers cost $350 per week-long session, and the Farm Collaborative was able to offer space to 20% of participants on scholarship. These scholarships are offered entirely on a case by case basis with Minniti, where she is able to give flexibility and consideration to each inquiry about the cost. This past summer, she was able to offer full scholarships to multiple families in need.
“If they really want to be a part of it, and they just can’t afford it, then we give a full scholarship, and it can be anywhere from that up to just a small discount, whatever it is that families need, and that’s what I work out individually with them,” she said.
In the past two years, the day-camp summer program of Earth Keepers has expanded to after-school programs for all ages during the fall and spring seasons including a teen program, for 11 to 16 year olds. In the young-adult program, students are able to get more involved with the land and have an individual impact in agriculture, according to Minniti. In the teen program, kids have their own plot set up in the production space of the collaborative, where they can tend to their own soil and grow their own crops under instruction from the educators.
“Honestly, our education program was really just about connection,” she said. “So, our goal is really just to bring people here and to get people excited about where their food comes from, but also just connecting with nature.”
In the past two years, the two-thirds of an acre of the FarmPark was expanded to 15 acres of production space, allowing the Farm Collaborative to move from only education and experience into more farmer support, as well.
According to Vardy, the Farm Collaborative works together as two moving arms — where on one hand is their foundation with youth and community education, and the other is farmer support and production, which is just getting its start.
“We want to represent to everyone that comes into our communities what we stand for in the space of farmer support and how it is we are removing the gaps and challenges that farmers and ranchers face. The program is giving them fuel for getting into the field,” he said.
Bolstering New Farmers
On top of teen internships, youth programs, and other educational avenues, the Farm Collaborative is beginning programs geared toward local farmers. This includes a full-equipment library for farmers to rent out farming equipment as they need it, farmer incubation plots, and access to 0%-interest loans with the 2Forks Club. The work Vardy and the Farm Collaborative are doing with these initiatives is all about getting new people into the work.
“If you want to get into the agricultural field, you’ve got to buy very expensive land,” Vardy said. “Then, you’ve got to get super-expensive equipment, go through a ton of training, then figure out what you want to grow. If there’s a market for it, try it out, develop your market, and it’s usually only at that point that you can really determine that farming is really what you want to do.”
With farmer-incubation plots, currently in the pilot stages at the Farm Collaborative, any farmer can come to the space with a stable-soil environment, equipment library, and marketplace freely provided to introduce them to the field.
The farmer-incubation-plot program exists to “let us feed you into this ecosystem of other support network systems in agriculture,” Vardy said.
On top of the constraints that exist for new farmers in the agricultural world, farming in Aspen is especially challenging because of the staffing and housing crises.
With the help of permits from the City of Aspen, the Farm Collaborative is able to house limited agricultural staff and on-site interns for the season. However, they are generally lucky that much of their staff was born and raised in the area and has available connections to housing. Both Minniti and Vardy grew up opposite the Cozy Point Ranch overlooking what was, at the time, a bison farm.
At other farms in the area, as well, housing remains their largest obstacle.
Highwater Farm is a non-profit regenerative farm in Silt that has pioneered efforts in youth-training programs with their local teens. However, despite their many impressive and deserving applicants, the farm cannot take teens who live too far out of the area without housing accessibility, according to farm director Sara Tymczyszyn.
In this eight-week program, teens aged 14 to 17 from New Castle to Parachute are hired as workers in this intensive, agricultural-study program with the farm. A non-profit organization with the help of local donors, teens were paid a stipend of $3,000 for their term in the farm’s job training program in 2022.
With this education program, Highwater Farm can act as a model for the Farm Collaborative teen program in the Aspen area.
Highwater trains young people in agriculture and the love of the land fueling local farms, but teens also learn larger life skills from mentors and workshops.
“Typically, we are working in the field for the majority of the morning,” Tymczyszyn said, “and then we spend afternoons in different types of workshops, and those workshops will be anything from cooking classes to resume building and interview skills, public speaking skills.”
With this summer youth program, Highwater is bringing teens closer to the land and allowing them to connect to nature at the cusp of deciding how they want to make future change in the world, she said.
“They know then that they’re working on the farm, contributing to something larger than themselves, which is getting produce out to the community through the pantry system, through our CSA and through farmers markets,” she said. “And, they get to kind of see how all of those different pieces interact and start to understand what it means to grow food in our area.”
To reach Klara, you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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