Food Matters: Farm Collaborative’s first ‘incubator farmers’ share their bounty |

Food Matters: Farm Collaborative’s first ‘incubator farmers’ share their bounty

Amanda Rae
Food Matters
Incubator Farmer Ava Gilbert in the field at the Farm Collaborative at Cozy Point Ranch in Aspen. Photo Ben Armstrong

When Ava Gilbert surveys her garden, she envisions a lush wonderland of vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Then she pictures bountiful summer salads, built from “a constant supply of fresh greens: arugula, spinach, baby kale mix, mustard greens … cabbage, kohlrabi, golden and red beets, carrots, radishes, and sweet turnips — like the watermelon of vegetables. This will be a huge transplanting week.”

Today those crops are still sprouting, thanks to a cool spring and late frost. A large part of learning the language of the land, Gilbert says, requires holding faith for the future.

“I think of harvest time — July, August, early September — when I’m planting and working,” Gilbert explains, during a Sunday afternoon tour of her 2,700-square-foot plot at the Farm Collaborative at Cozy Point Ranch on Highway 82. “It does just look like a bed of weeds (now). They pull through. Plants are very resilient.”

Perseverance is part of the curriculum at the Farm Collaborative, which launched its Farmer Incubator Internship program this year to help budding cultivators take the first steps toward market production. Gilbert, 20, and Katie Hunter, 27, are the first two incubator farmers, both of whom have summer CSA shares still available. Hunter will also sell crops at the Aspen Saturday Market beginning June 12; Gilbert at the Basalt Sunday Market, June 20 (see sidebar, opposite page).

After earning a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics from New York University, Hunter escaped the city four years ago to begin farming as an intern at erstwhile Roaring Gardens in Carbondale. (Ben Armstrong, who closed Roaring Gardens in 2018, is now the Farm Collaborative’s FarmPark and production director; Hunter worked full-time last year as the property’s assistant vegetable production manager.) Now Hunter maintains her own plot alongside Gilbert’s, where she is particularly excited to see Napa cabbages, currently about the size of thimbles, develop.

“I’m expecting that all of my 12 beds will be full to the brim,” Hunter muses. “A lot of greens, purples, and blues, hopefully!”

Ava Gilbert (Daybreak Gardens) and Katie Hunter (Hunter's Gathered Vegetables) weed storage crops last summer. Photo Courtesy Farm Collaborative

Both Gilbert and Hunter cite the Farm Collaborative’s incubator program as key to being able to begin farming here in the Roaring Fork Valley. Access to land—as well as constant advice from seasoned farmers onsite—is invaluable. The Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, which invites member subscribers to purchase a weekly “share” of summer produce for the entire growing season, helps to cover costs early on. These may be some of the last remaining CSA options available locally; shares from CSA farms featured in my recent cover story (“Taste the Rainbow,” April 15, 2021) are sold out.

“It feels silly to say, but it is a lot of work and we really appreciate our CSA members because they are like our investors for the season,” Hunter notes. “Money up-front allows us to buy seeds for the season, irrigation (equipment), potting soil, compost, row covers, plastic bags to put the produce in…a lot of little things I didn’t think about until I started purchasing. It’s great to have that income (now), rather than having to rely on making a certain amount each week at the farmers’ market.”

In the delightfully humid greenhouse a short stroll away, Gilbert checks on dozens of seedlings still “hardening off,” or building up strength to withstand the stress of transplanting in the field. She points out summer squash, green beans, sweet peppers, dinosaur kale, curly kale, broccoli, dill, and basil. Gilbert can’t help but lean in close to inhale the fragrance of the green leaves. “So much basil,” she enthuses. “Oh my gosh, it just smells so good!”

Daybreak Gardens CSA

Ava Gilbert

$200, July 4 to Sept. 5

Pickup: Basalt Sunday Market

Sundays 10 a.m.-2 p.m.


Hunter’s Gathered Vegetables CSA

Katie Hunter

$320, June 17 to Sept. 30

Pickup: Thursdays in Carbondale

Produce at Aspen Saturday Market

The Farm Collaborative

220 Juniper Hill Rd.

970-900-3276 (FARM)


Currently a Colorado Mountain College student studying sustainability and outdoor education, Gilbert operates Daybreak Gardens at the Farm Collaborative as a capstone project. Beginning July 4, she expects to offer about eight CSA members $20 worth of fresh produce (five to eight items) weekly, including at least one leafy green; a member of brassica family (cauliflower, broccoli, kohlrabi); roots (radishes, beets, carrots); and tender herbs such as basil, dill, and cilantro.

“It’s not 100% predictable,” she points out. “Because of the way CSA programs work, members don’t have much say in what they get. But I’ll supply recipe cards and (preparation) suggestions (for) inspiration.”

Hunter, under the cleverly named Hunter’s Gathered Vegetables, launches her CSA program next week, on June 17. The cost is $320 (also $20 per week, through Sept. 30), which includes four to six items such as napa cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, salad greens, carrots, beets, turnips, tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers. She’s accepting 10 to 12 CSA members to start.

Farmer Katie Hunter with the 2020 kohlrabi and cabbage storage crop harvest at Farm Collaborative. Photo Ben Armstrong

Now that she farms on her own slice of land at the Farm Collaborative, Hunter has transitioned to a part-time role as assistant vegetable production manager. (Marieta Bialek is the new vegetable production manager, freeing up Armstrong to focus on summer camps and classes.)

“I get to spend the majority of my time on my plot,” she tells me. “It’s a really awesome part of the Farm Collaborative’s incubator program, because you work there for your first year, so you have some steady income.”

Gilbert moved to Colorado two years ago from Minnesota, where she worked at a food co-op. She received deliveries from farmers and got to “see how people connect to local eating,” she says. “I wanted to be on the growing side of things. I’m in love with how full-circle permaculture farming is: Every step of the process is really connected to people.”

Most nourishing has been learning about permaculture practices that help to build health in the soil. “When you build functional systems—you have your drip (irrigation) set up (and) a good crop rotation going—(they improve) year after year,” Gilbert explains. “Your soil continues to get better, you continue to learn. A lot of these are long-term rewards, though you’re putting in a lot of short-term labor. You might not see it right away.”

Established by Eden Vardy in 2008 as Aspen T.R.E.E., the nonprofit Farm Collaborative considers its methods “beyond organic,” without use of artificial fertilizer.

“We try to work with nature and figure out pest-control methods that don’t harm the pests, the land, or any of the other vegetables,” Gilbert says. “Part of the focus is attracting beneficial insects, pollinators, and worms—helpful organisms. Filling space with herbs…doesn’t leave room for noxious weeds. We cover with cloths and nets. It’s all organic—and more.”

Supporting a CSA farm that maintains high standards to nurture the soil over time is a “noble thing to do,” she adds. “It’s important to remember how much it is building soil by (purchasing) a CSA share.”

Since permaculture is an approach to land management that is critically mindful of waste, folks who frequently head out of town or feel timid about using unfamiliar ingredients might want to think twice about a CSA subscription.

“It’s not viable for everybody,” Hunter says, adding that Farm Collaborative’s bounty will also be sold à la carte at Skip’s Farm to Market in Basalt and through Farm Runners. (Gilbert’s baby arugula and spinach will be available at MANA Foods in Carbondale this week, too.) “If you can, get to the farmers’ market. We love support in any way.”

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