On the way out of Boulder just off the Diagonal Highway is a dirt road that leads to an 80-acre parcel of farmland that has been in a local family for generations. Part of that land allowed two University of Colorado at Boulder students to try their hand at sustainable organic farming this summer.
"I am a first-year farmer," says Kyle Baker, a CU-Boulder senior majoring in environmental studies and geology, who is running the farm this summer with his friend and fellow CU student Jacob Golding.
Baker and Golding, a senior communication major and former sustainability director at the University of Colorado Student Union, are cultivating about 20 acres on the farm, which they named "Beyond Organic Farm." They are growing more than 30 varieties of vegetables, including four types of squash, green beans, pumpkins, Swiss chard, radishes, 10 varieties of tomatoes, seven acres of pinto beans, onions and cucumbers.
Baker's interest in farming really took off a couple of years ago when he worked for John McKenzie, the landowner. In most years McKenzie rents the land to an experienced farmer to cultivate, but this past spring Baker found out that nobody had signed on to work the land. So he approached McKenzie with an idea: What if he and a group of volunteers from CU cultivated the farm over the summer?
"We'd been reading a book this spring semester in my environmental ethics class called The Omnivore's Dilemma' by Michael Pollan, and one of the ideas in the book is about going beyond organic and looking to create closed-looped systems," Baker said. "So we thought this was a great chance to give it a try right here in Boulder."
Golding liked the idea too. So they started asking around in their classes and created an e-mail listserv as well as pages on Facebook and Twitter to round up volunteers. By the end of the spring semester they had about 100 volunteers, many of them CU-Boulder students.
"We found a growing student movement behind this idea of local foods and sustainable food production," Golding said. With a volunteer force in place, they just had to figure out how and what to plant, and to make sure they had the funds in place to get the crops planted.
They applied for and received a Community Supported Agriculture grant, a program that connects local farmers to local customers who pay upfront for a summer's worth of produce. In their case, they received about $8,000 from 25 people to get started. They are now selling their vegetables at the Boulder Farmers Market, as well as to a handful of local restaurants.
With a full summer's work of planting, weeding, watering and harvesting almost behind them, both students say they enjoyed their time on the farm, and realize that farming in a sustainable way is a challenge.
"Our overall goal, outside of learning about farming, was to bring local produce to Boulder and reduce food miles traveled' for our customers," Baker said. "We realize that going in the direction of sustainability takes a lot of small steps that are going to occur over years, not in our first summer."
While running the farm was difficult, both Baker and Golding say they learned a great deal.
"This has been the most unique summer job that I have had in my entire life, mostly because it is entirely self-motivating and self-directed," Golding said. "Here at the farm we make our own schedule, our own commitments. We create everything ourselves, so it is completely self-directed. That is both liberating and scary at the same time."
They also discovered that farming is a tough business that requires multiple skills.
"This summer has been the biggest learning experience and most complex summer of my life," Baker said. "Making connections with restaurants and selling at the farmers market as well as running the systems on 20 acres of agriculture is a large job requiring a lot of attention to detail on many different scales. There are a lot of moving parts on a farm, and it has been very enriching to learn about them and to learn how to manage all these things at the same time."
Being students at CU-Boulder was a major plus for them and their sustainable farm, Baker said.
"The university provided us with a common ground for all of us to come together," Baker said. "Almost everybody who is here is either a CU employee, a CU student, a graduate or a friend of somebody at CU."
One of the biggest lessons they learned was the importance of keeping a sense of humor, as Baker pointed out on a recent tour of the farm.
"You'll notice that we're really good at growing weeds," he said.
Fresh produce is still available through the farm's Community Supported Agriculture program. To learn more about "Beyond Organic Farm" visit beyondorganicfarm.com/ or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.