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Farm Collaborative’s ‘farm park’ and future plans

by Scott Condon for The Aspen Times Weekly

Visitors to Aspen’s Farm Collaborative who expect to find something like a botanical garden are in for a surprise.

Yes, there are exotic plants indoors and an abundance of varieties of vegetation outdoors. But instead of immaculately groomed gardens, this is nature at her messy best.

The Farm Collaborative, formerly known as Aspen TREE, was created 12 years ago to help connect people to nature and teach them where their food comes from. It’s a bona fide farm and farms are often messy and unpolished.

“For me, our work at the farm is all rooted in connection,” said Farm Collaborative founder and executive director Eden Vardy. “Connection to our surroundings, connection to our food, connection to each other and connection to that which nourishes us.”

Farm Collaborative leases 15 acres of land from the city of Aspen at Cozy Point Ranch, at the intersection of Highway 82 and Brush Creek Road. At the center of the operation are a large mobile greenhouse known as Rolling Thunder, a separate growing dome and a teepee used for kids’ programs. Scattered around that centerpiece are goat pens, rabbit hutches, tool sheds and various structures that were erected as needs arose.

Members of the 10-person full-time staff and five interns buzz around the farm, tending to the particular needs of the day and the hour. There are rows of vegetables and greens to weed outdoors. Inside the mobile greenhouse, tendrils from the cucumber vines climb strings attached to a latticework of supports for the ceiling. Rows of tomato plants emit an intoxicating aroma of ripening fruit.

Farm Collaborative strives to grow farmers as well as food, so the internship program is vital to stoking interest while staff positions help aspiring farmers hone their skills and perhaps develop their own vision.

On a rapidly warming August morning, the temperature in the growing dome had automatically triggered the upper vent windows to open and release hot air. Nevertheless, it was hot and humid in the tropical indoor climate. Plants such as passion fruit, figs, eucalyptus and avocados thrive.

A few hundred yards from the collection of buildings, scores of sheep gnaw down the grass, oblivious to the loud hum of vehicles passing nearby on Highway 82. Adjacent to the sheep pen, chickens peck at the ground in a part of the pasture from which the sheep were recently relocated. They surround a chicken tractor (a sort of mobile chicken coop). The sheep and fowl are part of the farm’s rotational grazing program (see related story on next page).

“We have a strong connection to John Denver out here,” Vardy said. Some of the structures and equipment were inherited from Denver’s Windstar Foundation after it ceased operations. Farm Collaborative also operates the Earth Keepers program, which was launched at Windstar.

Normally, there would be members of the public wandering around the property, formally known as a “farm park.” That changed because of social distancing requirements during the coronavirus crisis.

“We will open to the public when we feel it’s safe to do so,” Vardy said.

But COVID-19 hasn’t knocked the agricultural nonprofit organization off its feet. It is wholeheartedly pursuing the next step in its maturation.

“I feel like we’re in late teenagehood or maybe early childhood,” Vardy said of the organization’s growth.

The next step — and one of the biggest — is constructing a learning center/farm hub at a central spot on the leased land. It will have 4,000 square feet above ground and a 4,000-square-foot basement.

“It’s the heart of the farm,” Vardy said.

The new center would replace many of the “makeshift” structures now utilized, though the grow dome and mobile greenhouse will remain, Vardy said. The new structure will allow Farm Collaborative to more effectively carry out its existing programs.

The learning center is being designed by the Aspen architecture firm of Rowland and Broughton with John Rowland as the lead architect.

“The most complex design goal was to ensure the new building was carbon-neutral or better,” the company said in a statement.

The building will have a photovoltaic solar array with 64 panels that will produce an estimated 31,000 kilowatt-hours per year. External rammed earth walls will regulate indoor temperatures and reduce energy consumption while the walls and earthen floors help control the interior temperature fluctuations, according to Rowland and Broughton.

The facility will have a commercial-grade kitchen where farmers can process their foods. A significant part of the basement will be a root cellar where the collaborative and other farmers in the valley can store crops for sale during winter. That will help broaden the market for local farmers and improve the Roaring Fork Valley’s food sustainability.

Vardy said the learning center and farm hub would advance its ability to achieve its mission. About $4 million has already been raised for the project. A total of $6 million is being sought.

Every other part of the infrastructure is in place at the Farm Collaborative — greenhouses, pastures and even a heritage orchard, where scion wood from trees brought to the valley by homesteaders is grafted onto rootstock.

“We’re carrying on the heritage of the pioneers,” Vardy said.

And if his vision for the Farm Collaborative bears fruit, valley residents 140 years from now will be using it as the model for sustainable agriculture.

“Farming and working the land is literally and physically an act of hope and optimism, and when we plant we are making a statement that we have hope for our future,” Vardy said. “My wish is that we can share that hope with the kids and community that benefit from our programs so that together we can plant a future that nourishes all of us and those not yet born.”


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