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Local Students Learn Sustainable Agriculture At Highwater Farm

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Courtesy of Highwater Farm
“We're not training them to be farmers. We just think that farming is such a cool medium to learn a lot of new skills and get connected back to the environment,” said Anna Thomas, Highwater Farm’s youth program coordinator. “But to hear that some of them want to be farmers now is incredible.”

As the number of small, local farms continues to dwindle across the U.S., six high school students in the Colorado River valley spent their summer learning how to grow vegetables.

The eight-week youth program is the first of its kind at Highwater Farm, located on the Silt River Preserve. The 5-acre farm, which sits along the banks of the Colorado River, was started by Sara Tymczyszyn in partnership with the Town of Silt and the Aspen Valley Land Trust in April 2020.

On a recent hot, smoky morning, this summer’s “crew workers” were crouched between two long rows of crops picking small, green tomatillos.

Wyatt Brandt, a soon-to-be freshman at Rifle High School, checked each tomatillo to make sure it was ripe before dropping it in his bucket.

“They kinda look like a tomato almost, except a little tangier,” Brandt said. “It has like this little husk on the outside that peels back when it’s ready to harvest.”

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Courtesy of Highwater Farm
Courtesy of Highwater Farm

For most of the students, this is the first time they’ve ever worked on a vegetable farm. They had to go through a full application process to be accepted into the summer program, and every two weeks they receive a stipend of $400.

“I never thought I’d be working on a farm,” said Asher Charlesworth, a student at Liberty Classical Academy in New Castle. “I thought I’d be working at a gas station or a fast-food restaurant.”

Charlesworth said one of the best parts of the summer program is being able to provide fresh, healthy produce to his family and the community.

“I mean, it's hard work, but what really pushes me to do that hard work is to see what comes after that,” Charlesworth said. “After we're done with this farm, it's going to look so amazing.”

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Courtesy of Highwater Farm

So far this year, Highwater Farm harvested more than 13,000 pounds of produce and provided 4,000 pounds of that to food pantries and hunger-relief efforts in the area, including Lift Up, Summit County and Food Bank of the Rockies.

The rest of the produce goes to local farmers markets, their Community Supported Agriculture program and Skip’s Farm to Market. This summer, the students helped sell their harvested vegetables at farmers markets from Rifle to Carbondale.

“It’s really cool that I get to work somewhere where most of the food is sold to people at farmers markets and donated to food pantries,” said Lucas Poston, a student at Coal Ridge High School in New Castle. “So, yeah, that's what this farm means to me.”

Poston said learning how to grow vegetables without pesticides and herbicides — even when that means having to squish flea beetles and squash bugs by hand — has changed the way he eats.

“Before I came here, I didn't really care where my food came from, but now my eyes have been opened,” he said. “Just because food doesn’t look perfect or has a little bite mark out of it from a bug, that doesn't mean it's completely destroyed.”

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Eleanor Bennett / Aspen Public Radio
Aspen Public Radio

Sheccid Alcaraz-Soto, a student at Longmont High School in Boulder County, has been living with her aunt in New Castle so she that could work on the farm this summer. She said the experience reminded her of how much she loved helping her abuelita, or grandmother, in the garden and helped reconnect her to her Mexican and Apache heritage.

“A huge part of being both Indigenous and Latina is the land because first of all, a lot of us Mexicans are farmworkers and a lot of our life surrounds working on the farm,” Alcaraz-Soto said. “And being Indigenous, the land has a huge spiritual connection for us.”

One of Alcaraz-Soto’s favorite parts of the program was an equity workshop led by the farm’s assistant manager. Alcaraz-Soto said she was moved that the workshop included Native American history around agriculture.

“It was amazing to actually feel like someone cared,” she said. “And to feel like our community existed for once because no one really knows what Indigenous people are or what we look like beyond stereotypes.”

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Courtesy of Highwater Farm

Anna Thomas, the farm’s youth program coordinator, said she didn’t have high expectations for the first year of the program, and she was delighted when the students shared how their lives have been impacted by their time on the farm.

“The connection that the youth feel not only to Highwater, but to each other really surprised me,” Thomas said. “Coming into this season, I was like, ‘Please just don't let anyone get majorly injured and I just hope everyone learns at least one thing.’”

Over the course of the summer, the students learned about everything from farmworkers’ rights to permaculture and beekeeping. They went hiking, took cooking classes and even worked on their resumes and wrote speeches for the farm’s community dinner.

“We're not training them to be farmers. We just think that farming is such a cool medium to learn a lot of new skills and get connected back to the environment,” said Anna Thomas, Highwater Farm’s youth program coordinator. “But to hear that some of them want to be farmers now is incredible.”

Despite this, Charlesworth and several of his crew workers do want to be farmers now.

“I've thought about it a lot,” he said. “I'll go to college and try to be a plane mechanic, and then as I work my way up, I'll just build a farm out in the country with horses and pigs and cows and crops.”

Next summer, Highwater plans to expand its youth program to bring in more students. Several of this year’s participants, including Charlesworth, hope to come back to the farm and share what they’ve learned with a new group of young people.

Highwater Farm will be accepting applications for next summer’s youth program in February.

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Courtesy of Highwater Farm

Eleanor is an award-winning journalist and Morning Edition anchor. Eleanor has reported on a wide range of topics in her community, including the impacts of federal immigration policies on local DACA recipients, the Valley’s COVID-19 eviction and housing crisis, and hungry goats fighting climate change across the West through targeted grazing. Connecting with people from all walks of life and creating empathic spaces for them to tell their stories fuels her work.
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