The field behind the rural Boulder County house is cold—barren and firm in the dreary tedium of mid-winter. Nearby trees that look like giant grey guards line the property’s riparian edge, silently watching the naked acreage.
Peter Volz sees the latent beauty. When he looks at the empty field on this winter day, he sees the potential of spring and summer and fall. He sees the crayon box of colors, the rows of luscious flowers, the cornucopia of produce, pouting bushels of greens and happy tops of carrots, beets and sweet turnips.
Volz is a spiritual man, a passionate man, a life-long gardener who took a leap of faith for the sake of agriculture, nature and his own sanity. Just three years ago, he was the director for international education at Naropa University. His job was ideal, allowed him to travel, to learn, to teach. But devotion to his garden was verging on obsessive-compulsive.
“I decided I did not want to spend the rest of my life staring at a computer,” Volz says.
So, he farmed. Oxford Gardens began as a single acre of pure agriculture love. Volz has consistently added to the amount of land he works each year, and the farm is now parceled out in a few areas of Boulder County. Revenues have grown, and he continues to learn to boost efficiency, profits, crop yields, marketing and so on. He supplies local restaurants like Colterra, Salt, Terroir and Laudisio and has become a mainstay at the Boulder Farmer’s Market. Community-supported agriculture also accounts for about 5 percent of his revenue.
Volz says his motivations have been intrinsic—“I wasn’t driven by ideology or a social or political agenda. It was more simple than that. I don’t have an elaborate philosophy. I don’t think farming needs an elaborate philosophy,” he says. Still, he waxes philosophic about the disconnect between consumers and their food.
“We just gobble it down and rush out the door,” he says.
This new breed of aggie is changing the face of agriculture—bringing the farm closer to the table and the consumer closer to
“People of all ages—young people and people who have retired—are saying we need to do things differently,” says Anne Cure of Boulder County’s Cure Organic Farm. “We are seeing farmers change like we’ve never seen before; we’ve never really seen people going from high-tech jobs to agriculture. It has to do with changing lifestyles. And it’s happening all over the country.
“It’s all about interacting with people and growing food for the greater good.”
In Colorado, newbie farmers inspired by Michael Pollan’s local, natural food credo are filling classrooms of Colorado State University’s Building Farmers Program, which has courses in Boulder County and in other areas around the state. Farmer’s markets are packed with locally grown produce and locally grown farmers. College students and recent college grads are opting for the field over the cubicle. And like Volz, others find farming as a second career: enjoying the outdoors, the sunshine and the less frantic way of life while learning the unpredictability of Mother Nature and the tremendous investment of time and energy.
Many of these nontraditional farmers are motivated by and benefiting from the ideas behind the locavore and slow-food movements, which focus on the environmental, cultural and social benefits of locally grown crops. That often means they focus on creating small, sustainable, organic or community-focused agriculture businesses.
“What is striking to me is the number of young people getting into agriculture,” says Lisa Hamilton, author of Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness. “They are out there apprenticing, working at CSAs, learning to make artisan cheese, starting small goat dairies. You don’t see a lot of young non-farming people leasing big pieces of land and growing a commodity crop like corn. You don’t see them starting up conventional dairies. If you are from a non-farming background, that’s likely not compelling. It’s not the relationship you want with your community and land and livestock.”
In her book, Hamilton explores three unique cases of what she calls “unconventional farmers.” She looks at how farmers are becoming more innovative and less submissive to big agriculture.
“Something that I find interesting: People 20 years ago would have played out environmental and social beliefs through activism. Now there is this trend that people who are often college educated—more urban and suburban—are having these beliefs about how the world should be, and they see agriculture as being a way of putting those beliefs into use,” Hamilton says. “It’s practical environmentalism.”
They are not necessarily working to save the whales or the rainforest, but they are working at CSAs, dairies and pretty little veggie fields in Boulder County. Farmers interviewed for this story agree with that assertion.
Jon Knox, a 26-year-old CU graduate who works at Lafayette’s Isabelle Farm, interned with the United Nations but was frustrated with the bureaucratic inaction. So, he moved back to Colorado and got a job at Isabelle. He loves it and says he’s never worked in a better atmosphere.
“At some point, the importance of localizing your diet started to make sense to me. That drove me. It’s the best way to get in touch with your local environment and to stay in touch with other aspects of the natural world, like water,” Knox says. “…I’m definitely an environmentalist. This is a nice way to put my ideology into my action.”
It’s not just a tangible approach to making societal differences, but for Knox, there are personal outcomes.
“I like the idea of learning how to grow my own food. I want to be self sufficient—at least in a supplementary way,” he says.
Knox’s boss and Isabelle owner Jason Condon grew up on a farm nearby and worked at a big commodity farm at a very young age. After joining the Navy, he and his wife returned to Colorado and started Isabelle as a part-time project—a little piece of land where they could focus on organic, sustainably grown produce.
“I don’t want to become huge,” he says. “The biggest thing is the community connection. When you have a farm with commodity crops, you have a connection with the land but not with people. It’s really great to interact with people. You know the end user.”
He admits he and his wife are “more normal than people would like us to be.” Not necessarily the icons of farm-to-table purity, but they truly believe in growing high-quality food for their customers. They believe in the land and the soil and the product.
“There is nothing vague about what we do,” he said.
But as many come to learn, passion and values don’t always equal success. It’s not easy growing any business, especially one that is subject to the “elemental realities,” as Volz puts it. It can take about three years to make a profit, and the capital to get a farm started is remarkable. The work can be tedious, the hours long, the weather erratic.
“I had never really worked hard,” Volz says. “It was always warm and dry and predictable. But the field is a wild place.”
Adrian Card, who runs CSU’s Building Farmers Program in Boulder County, has to constantly manage the expectations of wannabe aggies. Many of the people in his program are there because they are drinking the local, all-natural, organic Kool-Aid. So, much of the program focuses on the business aspects, covering the real world challenges that farmers face and putting the students into apprenticeships and internships at local farms.
“A majority of people in the program are motivated by these social movements,” he says. “There are few people who say, ‘This is a great way to make money!’ It’s an intrinsic motivation. In some cases, their business models may be solely formed around a nonprofit model. They are there to impact local food and make an impact in the community.”
That was once Card’s story: He was the idealistic new farmer at Colorado’s first CSA, Happy Heart Farm in Fort Collins. But he instantly saw how tough it was on the business side. Now, even though demand is up, he still cautions new farmers: It’s tough out there. Card’s philosophy is that “profits preserve passion.”
Mark Guttridge, owner of Longmont’s Ollin Farm, agrees but adds that locally grown, organic produce has helped preserve his profits.
“There are incredible amounts of work,” he says. “The only thing that drives you comes from the heart and not from making money.”
Guttridge, who has a degree in environmental engineering and a master’s in water resource management, moved back to his family’s Colorado farm when his grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It’s grown immensely over the last couple of years. This year, he’ll be working about 10 acres, and next year, they plan to add another 20 acres.
“It’s definitely a lifestyle choice,” he says. “It has been a calling, a spiritual calling.”
He calls Ollin a community farm—where Longmont residents can ride their bikes out to the produce stand, where the staff is like family and where they host farm dinners to get people out into the field. Every year, Guttridge sees new faces come to the farm. He says it’s the “second green revolution,” led not by environmentalists but by soccer moms.
“There is this huge momentum right now,” he says. “It makes me feel like I’m doing something important. On a political level, the government and corporations have been giving us really crappy food choices. And now, we can do it on our own. We can do it sustainably. We can do it locally. It’s about survival. We have to go back to our roots. We have to take control.”
Guttridge sells everything he grows. The demand for produce like his is real. Still, there is more to it than banquets and bouquets.
“Even though the face of farmers has changed, the economic challenges haven’t,” he says. “You gotta work. You have to work for nothing. This is the first year we are paying ourselves.”
Cure too focuses on the challenges of farming. It’s hard work—but it’s great work, she emphasizes. She grew up on a small farm in upstate New York; her parents later turned it into a bed and breakfast because it was so laborious. She has worked on farms her whole life, and part of her job is now spreading the gospel of locally grown food, whether it’s at the farmer’s market or when someone gives the farm a call.
“People are just more interested in where food comes from, in supporting the local economy,” she says. “So, we are also becoming resource guides.
“There used to be a farmer in everyone’s family, and that connected people to where their food came from,” she continues. “That doesn’t happen anymore. So, I really believe that’s why people appreciate it now.”
But Cure reminds us that despite the political, environmental, economic, social and cultural issues that surround modern farming, there is way more than ideology that drives agriculture.
“I love working with the land. I love watching the seasons come and go and the unpredictability of it all,” she says. “It has kept me awake.”