In Colorado, there is no such thing as a typical farmer: The hardworking farmers growing our food are as diverse as the crops and livestock they produce. Meet the men and women, military veterans, minority farmers and Native American tribes who grow your food.
Sally Herbert, Altius Farms
Sally Herbert had a successful career in supply chain management before starting an urban farm.
“I started learning more about the food crisis,” she says. “We were over-farming certain areas and climate change was having a big impact, and I wanted to be part of reducing the carbon footprint of our food by growing it closer to our cities.”
Herbert had the idea for Altius Farms in 2015. Rather than pursuing conventional soil farming, she opted to establish a high-tech hydroponic greenhouse on a rooftop in downtown Denver.
After struggling to find the right site, Herbert finally launched Altius Farms in 2018. The rooftop urban farm features an 8,000-square-foot greenhouse where 28 different crops, including several varieties of lettuce, are grown in vertical towers to maximize space. The farm grows as much produce as 1.5 acres of conventional farmland.
Although Herbert is among a growing number of women pursuing careers in agriculture, it’s not a desire to break the “grass ceiling” that gets Herbert excited about growing fresh, local produce for restaurant and wholesale accounts.
“I am a process person,” she says. “Supply chain was a process; farming is a process, too. I want to work on this model and hope that we can continue evolving it to make a difference in communities.”
Taylor Drew, Forever West Farms
“I wanted to get more involved in the local food community,” Drew recalls. “I took classes through Veterans to Farmers, a Colorado nonprofit that trains military veterans for careers in agriculture, and loved being on that side of production.”
The veteran and chef started Forever West Farms with Joe Pettenger in 2018. The 15-acre market garden grows 25 varieties of vegetables and herbs. Drew also planted 2 acres of winter wheat that he processes in a small mill. He plans to start selling the fresh milled flour at his local farmers market next spring.
The military, Drew says, taught him valuable skills that he uses in the field.
“When you’re out to sea and you only have so many resources, you have to figure out how to make things happen; the same thing is true out in the field. You have to use what you have,” he says. “For every disheartening moment, there are ways to make it work. There are a lot of small victories that make you feel like a million bucks.”
Roberto Meza, Emerald Gardens Microgreens
Roberto Meza has a background in video and film, not farming, but that didn’t stop him from digging into a new agricultural venture.
“We watched a lot of YouTube videos to figure it out,” Meza confesses.
In the three years it took Meza to build a barn and add essential infrastructure, including a well and power, to his Bennett, Colorado, farm, his plans changed. Instead of growing vegetables to sell at local farmers markets, the Latino artist-turned-farmer and his business partner, Dave Demerling, decided to grow microgreens. He started Emerald Gardens Microgreens in 2017.
“It was a high-value crop with a quick turnaround that chefs were seeking out,” he says.
The same qualities that made microgreens attractive to Meza as a farmer also appealed to him as a social justice advocate.
“We wanted to push microgreens beyond the garnish and into the lives of people who could benefit from the nutrition,” he says.
With the help of the Food Pantry Assistance Grant, which provides funding to food pantries and food banks to purchase Colorado-grown products, Emerald Gardens Microgreens is able to sell its nutrient-dense crop to food pantries.
Meza believes the demand from chefs and food pantries has helped the farm go from a concept to a thriving venture.
“As a farmer, entrepreneur and food activist,” he explains, “I’m looking for opportunities to use microgreens to build partnerships that will pave the way for our success.”
Eric Whyte, Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprise
The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe started growing crops after its water rights were settled in 1988. Over the last three decades, the farm has expanded the Ute Mountain Tribe Farm & Ranch Enterprise to a 7,800-acre modern irrigated farm that grows non-GMO corn, wheat, alfalfa, sunflowers and a 600-head cow-calf operation.
The enterprise sells most of its alfalfa to dairy farmers and mills corn into cornmeal and tortilla chips under the Bow and Arrow brand. The corn has also been used as a key ingredient in award-winning distilled spirits.
“The distilleries have been a big surprise and really good for us,” hay sales manager Eric Whyte says.
Growing on tribal lands has special significance for the tribe, according to Whyte. The farm provides employment and income for the tribe while using state-of-the-art sustainability practices to ensure they are good stewards of the water they fought so hard to access.
“It’s not just about having the water rights, it’s about showing what we could do with them,” he says. “We have become more than profitable on the farm and ranch side and done good things for the tribe and our local communities with agriculture.”