As Browns Farm in Niwot prepares to enter its third growing season, farm manager Catherine Blackwell is taking joy in the little things. To work on a small farm (seven acres of land, three of which are farmable, 1.5 of which are actually farmed) is to do the work that got you interested in sustainable agriculture to begin with.
“On a bigger farm, often times you are filling a role, and on a little farm, often times you’re all the roles,” Blackwell says. “I still get to hand-weed… for any farmer, that’s the sort of stuff that’s just natural. It’s nice to spend an hour a week doing it for old time sake.”
Blackwell spent time at bigger operations that provided critical experience, including McCauley Family Farm and Oxford Gardens. It’s at the latter that she met John Brown, a longtime fixture in the local ag scene. With some acreage in Niwot, Brown offered Blackwell a farm managing gig, and she took it.
Now, Blackwell, Brown and a team of part-time staff members are trying to build on a year that, despite the pandemic, saw growth for the small operation — after adding in a CSA early last year while the markets stalled, Browns Farm began to grow a following.
“I was blown away in all honesty,” Blackwell says. “Sold out of CSA shares, and when the [Longmont farmers market] opened back up, we had a line on Saturday mornings. Staffed as full as we could be. All in all, for us, it was a pretty fruitful year.”
A small farm has its benefits — for one, it allows Blackwell to grow a diversity of crops, as opposed to commodity farms.
“That’s our insurance,” she says. “Yes, a hailstorm might come and wipe out all of one thing, but something else can push through in two weeks time. At least we’re going to be able to scrounge something up for market.”
And for two, Blackwell’s able to grow things that people are asking for, as well as things she just wants to grow herself.
“Being from the South,” says Blackwell, who grew up in South Carolina, “when I first moved out here to Colorado, some of the staples in my diet were kind of hard to find. Black-eyed peas and okra and different heritage squashes and heritage varieties from the South, I wanted to grow just to feed my soul. … Last year was my first year growing artichokes and celery because when I reached out to our Listserv, a lady that shopped at the Longmont market said she had to drive down to Denver Union Station to buy those things.”
But, of course, there are challenges to operating a small farm. You have to make enough money to pay employees, and that requires maybe charging more for crops and, critically, explaining to the consumer why, for instance, a cucumber costs twice as much as one from the grocery store. That component of the local ag equation is critical to growing it.
“It pains me to still see farmers and farm interns, as valuable as those experiences are, if we are not offering payment for those experiences, we’re really excluding an entire class of individuals who have interest but can’t afford to not get paid,” Blackwell says.
And, Blackwell says, though hail has ravaged crop fields over the last several years throughout Boulder County, an unlikely environmental source is hampering crop growth on a more regular basis.
“My largest concern is the elk,” she says. “They’re in our fields, and they’ll eat an entire bed’s worth of beets. When I contacted Colorado Wildlife, they said, ‘File a report and we’ll pay for damages,’ but this is a lot of money that is coming out of taxpayers’ dollars to pay for food that’s never coming to market.”
Ah, the list of challenges of agriculture in Colorado is long. But a willing customer base and determined farmers like Blackwell is what overcomes the weather and wildlife and brings us closer to a food system that’s truly of and from the community.
The best way to reach that end? Start small.
Browns Farm’s CSA is now open for registration at brownsfarmniwot.com/csa.