By Published: Sept. 1, 2014

Lenny and Sara Martinelli

In the farm-to-table movement, Boulder restaurateurs-turned-farmers Lenny and Sara Martinelli walk the talk.

Walking through a flood-ravaged stretch of Three Leaf Farm on the banks of Coal Creek in Lafayette, Colo., Sara Martinelli (Anth’92) surveys her surroundings with awe rather than frustration. It’s early summer. One horse pasture remains unusable, transformed into a marshy bog by the creek’s new course. Hay bales and splintered logs hang in downed cottonwoods. Some walking paths are still buried under flood debris.

Clad in a tattered straw hat, shorts and well-worn cowboy boots, she looks past the damage, pointing to a currant bush that, for the first time, is bursting with red berries. The indigenous yarrow, echinacea and wild licorice are growing like crazy too. One of her eight goats just had babies. And the fields are overflowing with snap peas, beets, arugula and heirloom tomatoes.

Ethan Welty (main house image, Tad Pfeffer);

“The explosion of life around here right now is just phenomenal,” she says as she points to a towering stand of purple thistle swarming with ladybugs. “It’s absolutely breathtaking.”

Nearly a year after the historic Boulder deluge of September 2013 wiped out the farm’s entire three-acre harvest and left much of the remaining seven acres underwater, Sara and husband Lenny Martinelli (EnvDes’90) — restaurateurs and farmers both — are bouncing back beautifully. Summer delivered a bumper crop of vegetables for their seven Boulder-area restaurants: Leaf, Aji Latin American Restaurant, Zucca Italian Ristorante, The Huckleberry, The Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse, Naropa Café and Chautauqua Dining Hall. Among their other enterprises is a small business that makes herbal tonics for pets and people. At the farm they offer herb walks, soap making classes, beekeeping workshops and farm-to-table dinners.

The Martinellis' herb apothecary

The Martinellis’ herb apothecary on their Three Leaf Farm.

“Lenny and I have slightly different missions,” says Sara, 45. “I want to create a sanctuary where people can come and learn about medicinal plants, wild foods, conservation and how to get back to basics. Lenny is all about the farming. It works because we honor each other’s goals.”

Sara grew up in New Jersey in a family of lawyers. She never envisioned owning a farm. But she always revered plants. She remembers plucking violets from her backyard and putting them in a box “as if they were diamonds” and whipping up “magic potions” made of mud and yew berries. At CU-Boulder she majored in nutritional anthropology, studying how food affects human culture.

“I’ve always found it really interesting how much myth and story and culture revolve around plants,” she says.

When we first started all this, we made a decision that we would look at our entire life as our job, including our home and our children and our businesses.

She went on to study graphic design and earned a certificate as a medical herbalist from the Rocky Mountain School of Botanical Studies.

Sara and Lenny met New Year’s Eve 1991 at the Boulder Broker Inn, where they were tending bar. Lenny, now 52, was a CU architecture student, a chatty vegetarian from California who dreamed of opening a farm-to-table restaurant. Sara was direct and to the point. At first, they clashed.

“It was crazy busy at the bar that night and he was just hanging out around the wait station,” Sara says. “I was like, ‘Who is this guy? Get him out of my way.’”

They fell in love anyway, drawn together by distinct yet complementary interests and a willingness to follow life where it happened to lead.
“I believe that life gives us these brief moments of opportunity — almost like little sparkles you can reach out and grab,” Sara says. “Sometimes you let them go, and sometimes when it feels right you grab them.”

The first big opportunity came in 1993, when a friend asked Lenny if he and Sara wanted to buy his share of the food service at Naropa University. They said yes and became restaurateurs. A few years later, they successfully bid to operate The Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse, an ornate work of art given to Boulder by its sister city in Tajikistan. Today the teahouse, in the heart of Boulder’s Central Park, is one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations.

Over time, as they expanded their business enterprise, they also raised a family: Three kids, now ages 19, 17 and 14.

“When we first started all this, we made a decision that we would look at our entire life as our job, including our home and our children and our businesses,” Sara says.

She helps design menus and labels and plans events around the farm; he tackles day-to-day operations at the restaurants. Life is a mix of exhaustion and exhilaration.

“Ninety percent of the time,” says Sara, “I am able to work on what I choose to do, so it doesn’t feel like work.”

Sara Martinelli holding a baby goat

The 2013 Boulder floods ruined Three Leaf Farm’s crops and forced the evacuation of animals, but no lives were lost.

In 2010, the Martinellis took their biggest risk yet and purchased a lush sliver of creekside land in Lafayette to grow organic produce for their restaurants: Three Leaf Farm. “When I am serving food I want to know exactly how it was grown,” Lenny says. “So I decided to grow my own.”

Sara, leery of the financial commitment and the backbreaking labor of farming, resisted. But they worked out a compromise: He’d get his farm if she could put horses on it.

Today Sara has 10 horses, including four she boards. Lenny hauls vegetable scraps from the restaurants to the fields to use as compost and feed for the chickens and goats. Someday he hopes to offer more classes at the farm — in sheet mulching, perhaps, or composting with worms — to teach people how to farm on their own.

Horse on Martinelli farm

The farm is home to chickens, goats and 10 horses. Crops include snap peas, beets, arugula and tomatoes.

“There is a very big need for all of us to start growing our food closer to where we are,” he says.

There also is a growing interest among diners in knowing precisely where their food comes from, says Jessica Lynch, general manager of Zucca, which has featured farm-fresh poached eggs, goat cheese and an array of fresh vegetables and herbs from the farm. “People come in all the time and ask, ‘What is being highlighted from the farm?’” she says.

In 2012 The Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse was honored by The Nature Conservancy with the Nature’s Plate People’s Choice Award for its green practices. And in 2013 Three Leaf Farm was honored with the Lafayette Heritage Award for preserving the agricultural spirit of Lafayette.

Dushanbe Tea House

The Boulder Dushanbe Tea House was initially built by hand in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and gifted to Boulder.

As for so many people in Boulder, the floods challenged the Martinellis, especially at the farm. Just as they began to settle into the rhythm of farm life, the disaster forced a frightening evacuation of their animals and flooded their crops with potentially contaminated water. They lost the entire harvest.
Still, Sara is quick to note, they were fortunate not to have lost lives or homes. In a sense, she says, the flooding gave her an even deeper reverence for the power of Mother Nature.

In June Sara plugged dozens of native medicinal plants into newly cleared paths to repopulate them for upcoming herb walks and planted a small teaching garden beneath a towering cottonwood that survived the worst of the property’s flooding.

“As I did this, I thought, ‘Oh. We are putting all this time into this and if it floods again it is all going to go,” she says.

But she dug her hands into the soil anyway and, as she and Lenny have done for 23 years, embraced risk. “Sometimes,” she says, “you just have to trust.”

Photography by Casey A. Cass