Mark Waltermire loves growing things. At his Thistle Whistle Farm outside of Hotchkiss, we sit under a shade awning and talk as we peel various kinds of sweet onions — red ones from Italy and other colors, too, with unusual names. The talk bounces around from one kind of plant to another, from gooseberries to potatoes to marketable, edible weeds.
Fields and gardens surround us. Chickens wander, and across from us is a greenhouse filled with starts of hundreds of species and often countless varieties of each. There are tomatoes and peppers I've never heard of, medicinal herbs, unusual versions of broccoli.
I noticed a native variety of coneflower and ask Mark why he's growing it. "Just to see if I can," is his answer. "I like finding new plants that will grow here."
The conversation turns to water. Mark has switched most of his gardens to drip irrigation and raves about the water savings and results, which, most importantly, include more time planting and harvesting and less time irrigating. From water, the conversation moved on to soil. Mark has farmed all over, from Montana to Massachusetts to Pakistan, and has learned that each place has its unique soil benefits and challenges. "Here," he says, "it's all about adding organic matter. Yes, our pH is high, but that seems to matter less than one would think. Since I've been here, the organic matter of this soil has almost doubled, and I'm successfully growing things that shouldn't grow in this pH. I rotate goats through the pasture and plant alfalfa to break up the soil. To help the soil I only utilize plants and cover crops — "green manure." He continues on to talk about microbes and their importance. "I don't add anything artificial," he says. "Those things cost money and often come with consequences. We know natural processes work, why not use them?"
It's clear that Mark likes to farm.
"I work hard," says Mark, "but I love what I do and I choose what I do, and I feel rich in having the freedom to make that choice and to have an abundance of water, soil and food."
Mark doesn't take that for granted. In Pakistan, he saw people trying to grow their food on pure sand and with minimal water. He spent two years there trying to help improve those farming methods but ultimately realized that he could be more useful in the United States where he was already part of the culture.
"If you're going to affect change," he says, "it almost always happens at the local level."
One local change at Thistle Whistle is how their Community-Supported Agriculture orders are done. Customers buy shares in advance and now are able to custom order what veggies they get each week. "We want them to want and appreciate everything that shows up in their box," says Mark. "We grow all the food here because it's important to us that customers know exactly where their food comes from."
His customers also have the option to request fruit from Ela Family Farms and bread from Monica Wiitanen.
We peel some more onions and the topic switches to education. Mark is as passionate about growing people as he is about growing plants. As we talk, a van full of students arrives. It's a class from Fort Lewis College that comes each summer.
Matt, one of the students from a previous year, now sits beside us peeling onions. He is now an intern at Thistle Whistle and returned because he was inspired, he says, by the mixing of farming and education that he saw happening at this farm. Other colleges show up, too. Western State Colorado University is a regular visitor as is Colorado College and University of Colorado.
The van of students moves on and we shift the conversation to local kids. Mark goes into the classroom of local Hotchkiss schools multiple times each year to talk farming and plants. Kids eat fresh grown tomatoes in the fall and harvest their seeds and then plant them the next spring so that they see the full cycle. Kids also come on field trips to the farm, and Mark estimates that more than 200 young kids showed up last year.
Thistle Whistle also provides a plot for the Kids Pasta Project to grow veggies and herbs for their meals. Mark is very thankful to the Kampe Foundation for helping make these kinds of projects happen.
On Tuesdays, Thistle Whistle becomes home to English-as-a-Second Language families. Parents and kids show up for the day to learn about growing food and cooking it. This is the third and last year of a grant from the Colorado Health Foundation that supports the program. Danielle Carré, the farm project coordinator, says that "the program is very popular and that the kids especially just love it while they learn how to grow and cook food in a healthy way." She says that families participate who are from Burma, Mexico and China. Mark, too, is very enthusiastic about the program and hopes that funding for it will continue. He thanks the Kampe foundation for helping with this program as well.
For his innovative growing and educational efforts, the Delta Conservation District is awarding Thistle Farms and its owners, Mark Waltermire and Katie Dean, Farmer Conservationist of the Year Award.blog comments powered by Disqus