Future of Farming

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On a 120­-acre farm tucked away in the rolling plains 10 miles north of Boulder, Tom Lopez (AeroEngr '62) is farming the old­-fashioned way, while at the same time applying his skills and knowledge as an aerospace engi­neer. In this synergistic way, he is cultivating a sustainably run farm using no chemicals, pesticides or insecticides, and aims to generate all the farm's power using solar energy and wind­-generated power.

The model for Lone Hawk Farm, owned by Lopez and his wife, Kristin, is to reach not just a zero carbon footprint, but a positive carbon input. With one foot in the past and one in the present, Lopez looks to the future of farming as he hopes it will become.

Visitors to Lone Hawk Farm drive down a tree-­lined lane wending past the farmhouse and barns he designed using reclaimed lumber. Peacocks strut through the yard or stand sentinel on the wood fence. A clutch of chickens peck at insects in the bushes while beyond the barns, horses graze in grassy fields.

In the years since Lopez bought the land on an impulse in 1975, he and Kristin, a research assistant and lecturer in CU­Boulder's Department of Integrative Physiology, have developed what was a nearly treeless prairie into a productive, diversified farm that provides the community with organi­cally grown produce, as well as a venue for celebrating special events.
"There's a collective memory of farm living," says Kristin, "a yearning to experience that and share it with one's children. We want to give people the opportunity to dig a carrot, feel a warm egg, take a bird walk and share what we've learned about farming. People come out for different reasons; we hope to be a resource for the community."

Freshly harvested vegetables, such as lettuce, kale, beans, tomatoes and squash are available to buy or people can pick the produce themselves. There also are organic chicken eggs for sale. Monthly farm-­to-­table dinners are held at the farm and feature produce from the fields. The spacious event barn can be rented for weddings and other special events. Pasture boarding is available for horses with ample space to run and trails for riding.

"We don't register as organic because we're not that big," says Lopez, "but our gardens and hay are chemical­-free. Manure for the gardens comes from the horses."

Lopez, who used to race motorcycles when he was single, built a large dirt motorcycle track when he first bought the land. Kristin's reaction, he says, was less than enthusiastic when she saw the motorcycle track.

"She ground her teeth, narrowed her eyes and began ordering trees to plant," says Lopez, chuckling.

Nearly 40 years and 10,000 trees later, the motorcycle track has given way to a lush landscape with ponds, gardens, a vineyard and an orchard.

While most farmers tend their fields on tractors that emit petrochemical exhaust, Lopez uses an exhaust-free electric riding tractor he designed and fitted with a solar panel, along with a hydraulic lift and hydraulic steering. Energy stored in deep-cell golf cart batteries on the tractor runs a variety of farm equipment, from chain saws to air compressors. In December 2013, Lopez received a patent on his tractor. He has also retrofitted lawn mowers and walking plows to charge with solar panels.

His entrepreneurial spirit fosters ideas so that he’s constantly tinkering, inventing and innovating. A background in engineering provides the knowhow to put his designs into motion.

After graduating in 1962 with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering, Lopez pursued a varied career that included working for a meteorological company in Boulder and designing a wing-shaped weather balloon that was used by the National Center for Atmospheric Research to study the planet’s boundary layer. He launched a company designing robotic systems for industrial automation. A second company sprang from the first and was later acquired by a Wall Street firm. Along the way Lopez was issued nine patents.

“Aerospace is a broad format of engineering,” he says. “It incorporates electrical, electronic, hydraulic, computer and mechanical systems. If you’re going to build a rocket to send into space, you have to know a lot of different things. My tractor could operate on the moon.”

On the couple’s farm can be found machinery and implements a typical farm would have, with one exception - a plasma cutter. Lopez uses a CAD computer system to design customized machine parts. The plasma cutter enables him to cut efficiently and quickly the individual shapes in steel.

Lopez is designing a sophisticated visual system to use with a mechanical cutter that will be able to identify and cut weeds between the rows of vegetables. He is also building a power station with solar panels and a wind turbine, which will take Lone Hawk Farm another step closer to energy self-sufficiency.

Another of his goals is to develop a company to make electric tools and customized implements and attachments for farming and gardening. He would like to be remembered as a leader in sustainable farming and, along with Kristin, aspires to leave the land better than they found it. It is the attitude of a pioneer coupled with the knowledge of a 21st century technological innovator. Lopez’s diverse accomplishments and lofty yet down-to-earth goals have brought him much satisfaction.

“What’s not to love,” says Lopez, gazing out over his land. “I love my wife. I love my farm. I love my life. It doesn’t get better than that.”

 

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