Cooper Means spends spring days outdoors, sometimes amid snow flurries, laying fence and constructing four mobile henhouses for 600 to 800 chicks arriving from a hatchery in Delta. By summer, the insulated wooden structures would relocate from his 10-acre Shining Mountains Farm at the Lazy Glen Open Space near Old Snowmass to Cozy Point Ranch a few miles east, where Means will tow them via tractor next to 60 grazing lambs. The henhouses offer a one-two punch by boosting egg production at the Farm Collaborative (former Aspen TREE) to meet skyrocketing valley demand and fertilizing virgin soil in preparation for planting an apple orchard and vegetable crops on 14 acres bordered by Highway 82 and Brush Creek Road.
Down the road at Aspen Center for Environmental Studies’ Rock Bottom Ranch in Basalt, Alyssa Barsanti is up to her elbows in kale. She’s harvesting the last bunches of candylike winter carrots also, selling both to local markets and restaurants. As the ranch’s new agricultural manager, Barsanti feeds pigs spent grain from Roaring Fork Beer Company, oversees a flock of 600 egg-laying hens and tends some 20,000 baby seedlings that will mature into nutrient-rich Swiss chard, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, onions and more in a greenhouse she helped hammer together last fall.
Another 3 miles west in Carbondale, Ben Armstrong has a to-do list at least a ¼-acre long. Make that a ½-acre: As newly minted owner of Roaring Gardens on McClure River Ranch, Armstrong has expanded boundaries (and is negotiating a five-year lease) to ramp up production. This winter, Armstrong “froze out” a 1,000-square-foot greenhouse in a pesticide-free process that kills off pests, allowing him to resume indoor vegetable production in March.
One month later, he harvests 25 pounds of greens—spinach, frisée, Swiss chard, arugula, baby kale, mache, mizuna, baby beet greens—to bag into salad mix (only 10 percent lettuce, he states proudly). That will only increase; his three-season Roaring Gardens CSA program runs April through December, allowing Armstrong to “connect with the community” longer than Basalt’s and Carbondale’s limited farmers-market season, where he also sells food.
Like Means and Barsanti, Armstrong is nurturing seedlings in a new hoop house—cabbage, kale, broccoli, seven kinds of cucumbers—to plant outdoors. Rhubarb runs rampant, and tarragon is sprouting up. Since Roaring Gardens sits on the former site of the 1892 McClure family homestead, Armstrong will grow seven varieties of potatoes, plus chile and shishito peppers, and edible flowers—some 200 plant varieties total, small quantities of which supply nearby Silo, Free Range Kitchen & Wine Bar and True Nature Healing Arts.
“You only have a few months to get things going,” Armstrong says of Colorado’s finicky climate. “There’s so much energy in it. It’s cool to think creatively about how to feed people.”
Means, 25; Barsanti, 26; and Armstrong, 27, represent a fresh crop of area farmers, but they’re hardly alone among their generation in the pursuit of growing local food. All three work alongside crew members or interns under 30.
“This valley has one of the strongest movements of young farmers in the state,” says Jimmy Dula, founder of Colorado Soil Systems and co-president of Roaring Fork Farmers and Ranchers. While the 3-year-old group doesn’t track demographics, its member list of farming establishments launched in the past five years is impressive. Erin Cuseo, 32, started Erin’s Acres in Missouri Heights in 2016; now, she shares land with Shining Mountains Farm, and Dula, 29, is a partner. Casey Piscura, 32, runs a 40-member CSA at Wild Mountain Seeds on Sunfire Ranch in Carbondale and supplies produce to Aspen restaurants including Cache Cache and Pine Creek Cookhouse.
What’s more, “all of us are expanding this year, growing more land and taking on new crops,” says Roaring Fork Farmers and Ranchers President Harper Kaufman, 26, who recently relocated Two Roots Farm onto 22 acres of Emma Open Space with partner Christian LaBar, 26. Both farmers got their start as assistants and, later, agriculture managers at Rock Bottom Ranch.
At the helm back at that ranch, Barsanti birthed two breeds of lamb and slaughtered the year’s first meat chickens while shepherding creatures around its renowned rotational grazing system. “Over the last year, I’ve become interested in how animals can positively impact the land and make it healthier,” she explains.
“People come to the farm for our dinners—where food was grown 200 feet away.”
Every young farmer cites a deep desire to tackle myriad hands-on projects and connect with the Earth. In addition to being a farmer, carpenter and land steward, Means is an enthusiastic mycologist, cultivating shiitake mushrooms from spore in a lab and adjacent fruiting room he built in the barn on his property. Though less active in winter, mushrooms provide a stream of income year-round.
Means’ deliveries to Skip’s Farm to Market in Basalt—which also sells Shining Mountains Farms pastured lamb—are robust. “I had some 20-pound weeks last summer,” he says of the mushrooms. “People value local food more than ever before.”
That demand is fruitful. “Support in the community to create resources for farmers… has inspired a lot of people to launch enterprises,” Kaufman notes.
Understanding that consumers and chefs want to know where their food comes from eases the burden that producers face with marketing and distribution. Emma Stopher-Griffin and Matt Kottenstette began Farm Runners as 20-somethings in 2012; the delivery service collects food from family farms within 100 miles of its headquarters in Hotchkiss.
Finally, these dirt devotees are earning recognition: many in this story are featured in How We Grow, a 2017 documentary produced by Haley Thompson and Tom Zuccareno that won best of the fest at the Colorado Environmental Film Festival this year.
“We’ve seen a huge influx of young people showing up to have a voice in our advocacy, many of whom are first-generation in agriculture,” says Harrison Topp, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union membership director and a farmer in Delta. Though 2012-17 U.S. Census data is still being tallied, Topp believes that trends indicated in the 2007-12 census will continue apace: “Overall, the number of new farmers is down; however, the number of farmers under the age of 35 increased, which is only the second time in a century it’s done that.”
Why now? Young farmers today have abundant access: to knowledge, whether via aging mentors or the internet (Means makes no bones about learning to grow mushrooms via YouTube); land, much of it leasable as open space through Pitkin County; and assistance through initiatives like the Farm Collaborative, which is launching a farmer-incubation program and “tool library.”
Farm Collaborative’s tool library already had six members signed up this spring—Armstrong included—to borrow expensive yet crucial machines such as bed shapers and tractor implements. “The dream is that, in a few years, we’ll have a grain combine, which is very cost-prohibitive and why I think there hasn’t been much grain in the valley,” Mean says. “Landowners have tractors and everything to plant and tend [grain]—but not to harvest it.” In fact, Means is experimenting with growing high-altitude grain at Shining Mountains Farm.
Consider these young farmers as devoted environmental activists, each with personal motivation toward embarking on the arduous task of protesting America’s broken food system through action. Aspen-native Armstrong managed sanitation for a composting toilet program abroad in Bolivia, where he saw firsthand the effects of poor diet on health. Barsanti grew up in California’s south Bay Area near a livestock yard, which inspired her to raise a pet piglet at age 5; she studied nutrition at Boston University and worked at a farm-to-school nonprofit in Vermont before relocating to cook at the Sundeck. (Being able to cultivate, harvest, cook and serve elegant-rustic meals all on one property at Rock Bottom Ranch is the ultimate luxury, she says.)
As a 9-year-old student at the Aspen Community School in Woody Creek, Means apprenticed at Sustainable Settings, where it was originally founded before moving downvalley. He recalls collecting eggs, milking goats, plucking greens, weighing turkeys before slaughter, spreading leaves over garden beds in the fall, and feeling part of something bigger: an ecosystem. “I distinctly remember eating Brussels sprouts right off the stalk out of the garden at Sustainable Settings,” he recalls. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
Means’ mentor, Brook LeVan, knows how hard it is to honor the land and make a living simultaneously; he founded Sustainable Settings as an “educational community” 21 years ago, before words like “sustainable” and “green” were part of the popular lexicon. Environmental literacy changed that, though.
“There has been a noticeable shift in cultural awareness,” LeVan admits. “Jerome Osentowski from CRMPI, [farm architect] Michael Thompson and some of us who’ve been around doing this for a while, we get together and go: ‘It’s happening.’ For us, it’s a real treat to see younger ones—it’s a lot of work! But it’s also a wonderful life.”
LeVan’s wisdom rings clear: If not young farmers now, then who—and when?