This past Tuesday was a gorgeous day. Perfect for an early evening farm visit. I pass Native Hill Farm often on my way home. I’ve watched it grow over the last couple seasons, most recently with the addition of a honor system farm stand. Nic was gracious to meet with me after a long day. Katie Slota, the farm and Nic’s other half, was at a board meeting for the Food Co-op. It’s hard to pin one farmer down during the season, even harder to pin down two! It’s a busy life.
Nic came to Colorado via Indiana, Texas and Pennsylvania, with a few other locales thrown in the mix. While educated in Bio Systems Engineering, he came across farming through working at the student run organic market farm for three years at Clemson University, where he went to school. Following that he gained another two years of experience working on a farm in Alaska and a mid scale CSA/market farm in eastern Pennsylvania. He was also reading a lot about topics that resonated with him like the works of Wendell Berry and Edward Abbey. He thought about consumerism and the lack of a sense of place many folks have. Long having thought that farmers are the true philosophers, my conversation with Nic led me to believe he definitely fits the profile.
About six years ago Nic took the plunge and leased some land on Shields. He was working as an engineer in town, for what he describes as a great company. It just wasn’t a fit for him. Through farming Nic found a place to apply both his idealogy and his education. Farm work is more than digging in the dirt and harvesting vegetables. There are a myriad number of things to fix and problems to solve. That engineering degree comes in handy with irrigation and mechanical concerns popping up on a regular basis. What Nic expressed that he liked best was that he can be working on pumps, have an opportunity to be creative while also working on the larger issues that he cares about.
With that fateful decision to lease land and take on farming, Nic was also involving himself in the local food movement. He spoke at Matterhorn’s first annual town meeting on food. It was at that event that he met Katie. Originally from Wisconsin, Katie majored in microbiology and holds a master’s in environmental health. Having mutual concerns and passions, they talked after the event. Katie eventually came to work in the greenhouse. The relationship grew and they grew Native Hill Farm together. Two years ago they were both able to leave their off farm jobs and focus on farming full time. As Nic expressed, “When your split, you aren’t doing either job well.”
This year marks the farm’s sixth season. At the corner of Taft Hill Road and 287 they lease six acres. To the east they lease another acre and are just getting ready to cultivate another four acres west of the main farm. The goal is to have three times the land than that in cultivation each year. Growing towards regularly farming ten acres, that would mean thirty acres would need to be available. For rotation, cultivation and rest. Nic explains that they are not motivated to own the land they farm. They are part of the evolution of traditional farming, where land is historically passed down generationally, and they have peace with leasing the land. The motivation is to be viable. And with land prices what they are, owning doesn’t necessarily equate to viability.
Native Hill Farm is lucky to service solely to Old Town. They don’t deliver any further south than Cafe Vino on College. In the farm’s second year they started their market CSA, as the land originally leased when the farm started did not allow for any visitors. The CSA currently consists of 145 members, with an additional 30 trade shares with working members. As a testament to their popularity, they sold out their shares in two days. Nic explained the reasoning behind choosing the market share versus the traditional box share. “While the traditional box share works for the farm, it doesn’t always work for the customer.” Through the market share folks get to pick what they want each week. With the box share, members receive a variety of vegetables based on what the farm has available. While box shares are much easier to plan for, Nic has found many of his customers prefer the free choice share that they can pick up at the market each week at the Larimer County Farmer’s Market in Old Town, and the weekly farmer’s market at Beaver’s Market. In addition to the farmer’s market, they sell to 4-8 restaurants and now have the farmstand at Taft Hill/287.
I asked Nic if they were seasonal or year round. He explained the first few years they experimented with selling at the Winter Market and the Food Co-op. About three years ago they offered a nine week fall share. This allowed them an opportunity for learning and market development. The fall share consisted of 1/2 storage and 1/2 fresh items. This was a great option to extend the 24 week market season. This year they are offering a 26 week fall/winter/spring (November to late March) share in addition to the 24 week summer share. This winter share will consist of storage vegetables and fresh greeens from the hoop houses. Their hoophouses currently cover a quarter acre. The two shares combined will provide 50 weeks of veggie shares, taking only two weeks a year off for both farmers and eaters. Nic stated that they took this as a professional challenge in their 5th year to extend to a year round model. “It’s nice to have some continuity.” As it stands, right now their thoughts and planning are on next spring.
If that wasn’t enough, Nic explained how he and Katie are always looking at the larger picture and how they can impact that greater vision. “Growing food is a powerful thing. We’re able to watch kids grow up on our food. And they stay with you.” The vision includes him still growing food in thirty years . While he says they have no unrealistic expectation of making a living, they seem to be doing pretty good. Having established themselves over the last six years they are currently finding balance and managing their time better. “We’re excited about getting home at a reasonable hour and cooking what we’ve grown. Walking the dog.” It’s impressive that they have found that balance considering the number of things they are involved in. As mentioned earlier Katie is on the board of the Food Co-op. They are also active in the Building Farmer’s Classes. Nic as an advisory and class development participant and Katie as a teacher.
In looking to the future his eye is set on conservation and cooperation among farmers. While many farmers have a willingness to show up and coming farmer’s the ropes, it isn’t always possible. If a farmer is showing you how to till and plant and harvest, it means they aren’t using that time to do their own farming. Always thinking of how to address these concerns, coversation turned toward cooperative endeavors. A recent CSU Specialty Crops Grant was awarded to investigate how to create a multi-farm cooperative CSA, in partnership with Carl of GreenDog Farm. While such cooperatives are not new, this one is particularly interesting as all the farms involved cater to the same geographic market.
In looking at cooperatives like this one, Nic explains that there is great potential to not only share equipment and knowledge and reduce small scale competition. There is opportunity to create more viability for each farm than is available through several small independent and individual farms. The farms involved could also simplify, through specializing in a few crops rather than each farm juggling twenty to forty crop varieties. This type of cooperation would also allow for them to expand the potential market, reducing the small pool competition that can be found in areas like Old Town. While small independent farms may not have the infrastructure and resources to expand up the canyons, to Denver or North, a collective of farmers could. Thereby reaching more customers who want good local food, and again, creating sustainability for each farm.
As the sun started to wain over the mountains, we wrapped up our conversation. Nic ended with this note, an example of his passion for farming and evolving, “I would love to do this forever in varying ways.” Yup. I get it.
If you want to learn more about Native Hill Farms or where you can find their goods, check out their website or stop by the farmstand when the doors are open!