Giving Thought: Upstart Highwater Farm quickly making big strides feeding community
What sort of farm hosts outdoor movie nights for the public and sells T-shirts, ball caps and stickers featuring its logo?
The answer is Highwater Farm in Silt, where building community and nurturing the fan base is nearly as important as the quality of the produce. This 2-year-old nonprofit earns most of its revenue by selling vegetables at regional farmer’s markets and through its CSA (community-supported agriculture), where people buy shares of the farm’s harvest in advance and receive seasonal veggies and/or fruit during the growing months.
As a nonprofit, however, Highwater tries to raise money through other means too. Hence the merch (available at highwaterfarm.org) and last week’s movie night, which featured live music and a showing of “The Princess Bride.”
“Bring your family, bring your friends and bring a chair,” said Director Sara Tymczyszyn to a dozen-or-so volunteers who had just spent two hours harvesting squash, pulling drip-irrigation lines and hand-weeding a garden of thyme, rosemary, lavender, asparagus and other perennial crops.
“And remember it gets cold after sunset,” she added.
There’s a contagious enthusiasm and can-do spirit about this small farm with just four employees (including Tymczyszyn) on the Silt River Preserve, just south of Interstate 70. The land is owned by the town of Silt and preserved by the Aspen Valley Land Trust. Well aware that she’s farming land owned by the public, Tymczyszyn seeks to rebuild and regenerate the soils to keep them productive for years to come. The license plates on her pickup truck read “VGTBL.”
Tymczyszyn and her colleagues are currently farming about 3 acres, but they have room to grow to 5 acres. In their first year, growing only summer crops, they harvested 8,000 pounds of produce on a half-acre of ground. This year the total yield is up to 26,000 pounds, and that number does not include the root vegetables and leafy greens that remain in the ground as of late September.
One could easily drive right past this inconspicuous farm, but as the months go by it looks more and more like a growing concern. There’s a pole barn with tools, equipment and a wash station, and a greenhouse where they start the vegetables they’ll put in the soil come spring. There’s also a season-extending “high tunnel,” which resembles a greenhouse but isn’t fully enclosed. And all of it is surrounded by a sturdy, 7-foot fence.
“A year and a half ago this was a totally empty field,” said volunteer Felipe Luisi with a smile. “Everything you see here now is here because of Sara — the greenhouse, the wildlife fencing, the pole barn, everything.”
Of course, Tymczyszyn is quick to say she could never have gotten this far without the loyalty and hard work of her volunteers. The farm’s 75 volunteers are a diverse bunch with men and women ranging from their 20s to 70s, but they’re all smiling and clearly excited to be producing locally grown food. On this particular day, they all walked away with freshly picked zucchini and butternut squash, the literal fruits of their labor.
“I love working in the garden and getting my hands dirty,” said volunteer Sandy Sekeres, as she clipped the foliage from recently harvested shallots. “And the people here are wonderful to work with.”
Three quarters of Highwater’s vegetables are sold to locals, and the remaining 25% are donated to food banks and pantries that feed the region’s needy.
The other pillar of the Highwater mission is to employ and empower high school youths as summer crew workers on the farm. The interns learn the value and challenge of hard work in a group setting, along with the specific skills of growing and harvesting food. Tymczyszyn says the work is especially healthy for today’s teens who must turn off and put down their electronic devices in order to be effective on the farm.
This summer the farm had six students who helped out — and were paid for their time. Tymczyszyn hopes for 10 students in 2022; she can use the additional hands, and she knows they’ll benefit from the experience.
“I hope they come out of the program with communication skills and a knowledge of local food and where it comes from,” she said. “I also hope they’ll make friends in the process.”
Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.