The Roaring Fork Valley’s most-renowned bard, John Denver, extolled the virtues of simplistic rural living. “Life on the farm is kinda’ laid back,” says one lyric from his popular song, “Thank God, I’m a Country Boy.”
“Which month are we talking about?” jokes Basalt-based farmer Harper Kaufman about Denver’s take on farm life.
Kaufman and her longtime partner Christian La Bar founded Two Roots Farm in the Mid-Valley four years ago.
Beginning at Spradley Farms in Missouri Heights, Kaufman and La Bar relocated to the Emma Open Space (owned by the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Department) in 2018. Their lease is 10 years and is $500 annually for use of the land. They pay utilities and other costs.
According to Paul Holsinger, Agriculture and Conservation Easement Administrator at Pitkin County OST, “The Emma Open Space management plan gives priority to any lessee proposing a diverse number of products and natural and organic production. Since Two Roots is growing many different types of vegetables and flowers and was proposing, and is now, organic, they won the bid process.”
Kaufman was born and raised in Colorado around the Minturn area. Her dad has been the proud owner of the Minturn Saloon in the Vail Valley for the past 35 years.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, La Bar is originally from the urban farming metropolis of Chicago.
Both of them are first-generation farmers.
The young couple has been partners in hijinks and agriculture since they met in 2009 at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore.
As interns at the University of Montana PEAS Farm (Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society) in 2012, they honed both their farming chops at the same time that they honed their relationship. After a brief stint at Ocean Air Farms in Crescent City, Calif., they were hired at ACES’ Rock Bottom Ranch in 2014 as managers of agriculture.
The return to Colorado was a natural move for Kaufman. Her family lives in Glenwood Springs and both she and La Bar share of love of the outdoors — especially skiing. Although they don’t live onsite at the farm, they reside nearby on Sopris Road.
The director of Rock Bottom, Jason Smith, brought the couple in to get a vegetable farm up and running. Rotational grazing of animals, irrigation and raising crops from seed-to-farmers’ market was an invaluable experience for them.
“We really got to have our hands in the whole farm management,” Kaufman says.
While hosting table dinners at Rock Bottom and working with other regional farmers, they noticed a need for local vegetable farms in the Roaring Fork Valley. Encouraged by Kate Greenberg, then the Western Programs Director for the National Young Farmers Coalition — now the Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture — Kaufman and La Bar founded Two Roots Farm.
Two Roots looks to be more bountiful than ever. Kaufman and La Bar grow in the ballpark of 50 to 60 varieties of vegetables each season. Some of the top sellers are staples like salad greens, carrots, beets and tomatoes.
Earlier this month, they put the finishing touches on their new greenhouse. Two Roots received a $6,000 grant ($2 per square foot) from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to build the structure. The 30-foot-by-100-foot space cost $20,000 to complete, and Kaufman and La Bar contributed the remaining $14,000 from their personal savings.
Consisting of a skeleton-hoop framework covered by sheets of plastic, the greenhouse is a bare-bones set-up.
“The NRCS grant only covered about one-third of the total cost of the greenhouse, but it helped a lot,” Kaufman says. “We’re going to be able to grow a lot of food with it.”
The greenhouse acts as a large blanket for the earth housed underneath it and does not use soil beds or hydroponics. Keeping the soil warm and in a protective environment extends the growing period on the farm by two months — one on each end of the season.
Adversity best describes 2018 for Two Roots Farm.
When the couple moved their operation from Spradley Farms upvalley to Emma Open Space, it delayed their spring planting season. Without a greenhouse of their own, they relied on other local farmers to assist growing their first seedlings. Then, four months after they planted roots in Emma, the flames of the Lake Christine fire exploded over the horizon.
At first, Kaufman and La Bar were advised to start packing up and prepare to evacuate as the fire grew closer. They began to second guess that advice, since the growing season was kicking into full swing.
“We didn’t have much of an option,” La Bar says. “Crops still had to be watered, harvested and brought to market. We totally rely on our income from the land. We couldn’t just take the day off.”
La Bar and Kaufman shared a surreal moment while weeding the garden wearing respirators during the fire.
“Are we spending hours weeding our fields that are just going to be burnt up in a few days?” they asked themselves.
Since its inception in 2015, Two Roots has turned a profit each year. Based on the diversity of vegetables grown at Two Roots and lack of commodity crops such as corn, wheat or soy, Two Roots does not qualify for federal farm subsidies.
This requires a different business model to be financially viable.
Two Roots’ key to success is being supported by the local community. They have a new consumer loyalty program, known industry-wide as Community Supported Agriculture. CSA keeps customers supplied with fresh local produce and helps drive new business.
By collecting payment in advance for a share of the crop harvest, CSA influxes much-needed capital to get the growing season started. But, it also allows locals to invest in land that is taxpayer owned.
In addition to the CSA, Two Roots is a regular fixture at the Aspen Farmers Market. It provides Kaufman and La Bar with the high-volume sales that keep the farm running in the black. According to La Bar, local chefs also go out of their way to secure the produce from Two Roots.
Kaufman added, “We’re a small farm and we sell to a small section of our community. Their support is what allows us to be profitable.”
They are able to support themselves, but admit they earn “less than a teacher’s salary.”
When asked why they chose to pursue such a hard life, Kaufman cited learning lessons in college about climate change, soil erosion and other issues associated with the modern mega-agriculture system. Once they got their hands dirty working the land, the love of farming stuck. It allows them to be their own boss, improve the land and make a small dent in the problem of climate change.