Elizabeth Agee points across the 2.5-acre field where Colorado Farm & Food Alliance will be growing its Equity Garden in Paonia. Photo by Raleigh Burleigh

“As a community, it’s our responsibility to uplift one another, so that everyone has the opportunity to grow,” says Elizabeth Agee, Just Good Food Manager for the Colorado Farm & Food Alliance (CFFA). 

We stand in a frosted field beneath Mount Lamborn, about a mile from downtown Paonia. Beneath our feet, the soil is rich with life from years of regenerative farming. Agee informs me that this was once the site of Paonia’s farmers markets and will soon be a community hub once again.

With a three-year lease on the land, CFFA is planning to build a timber frame classroom, wheelchair-accessible gardening beds and an outdoor, horno-style (adobe) community oven. A pollinator garden and dryland garden will both be planted and – snaking through it all – there will be a path laid with bricks produced using escaped methane from nearby decommissioned coal mines. This is Paonia’s Equity Garden taking root.

“In my mind, it’s the next evolution of the community garden,” explains Agee. “Scaling up to the community-care model.” Beyond making plots available to rent, the Equity Garden seeks to actively include more people in the local food movement.

Of the 2.5 acres, four eighth-acre plots are designated for a new farmer incubator program, organized by Agee. The initiative aligns with CFFA’s commitment toward equity in agriculture.

Four chosen applicants will each be given access to healthy soil, irrigation, on-site workshops, farm business tutorials, a cooperative booth for selling produce, regional farm tours and even one-on-one mentorship — all for $250.

For additional support, participants will also have the option of joining the Montrose nonprofit Valley Food Parntership’s Cultivating Farmers and Ranchers that Thrive program. The common goal of both initiatives is to remove barriers and absorb risks that discourage aspiring agricultors from getting started.

As a graduate of the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute, near Basalt, Agee fully understands the challenges of starting a farm from scratch, admitting “I’ve done it more times than I can count.”

She continues, “There’s only so much pulling yourself up by the bootstraps that you can do without support.”

Thankfully, an outpouring of generosity has propelled CFFA’s Equity Garden efforts. As of now, “everything is a gift,” says Agee, describing how leftover plant starters were donated by nurseries last season, resulting in 275 lbs of fresh produce delivered to food pantries.

“Everybody wants to help,” she continues, listing soil scientists, seed savers, builders and other facets of the agricultural valley’s heritage. In Agee’s experience, farmers must understand many trades to be successful. “The profit margins are too small to be able to contract out certain work.”

CFFA originated in opposition to oil and gas lease sales in the North Fork Valley. The nonprofit has since broadened its focus to support the local food movement, sustainable food systems and climate advocacy. 

“Our liberation is bound up in it,” concludes Agee. “The more hands we have in our food system,” she says, “the more resilient it is.”

To learn more about the Equity Garden Incubator Plot program, donate or apply, visit: www.colofarmfood.org/equity-garden-incubator-plot

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