Highwater Farm's dedicated crew: (top left to right) Lucas, Scheccid, Emma, Wyatt (bottom left to right) Brooklyn, Youth Program Coordinator Anna Thomas, Asher and Crew Leader Ellen Steward. Photo by Raleigh Burleigh.

On a hot summer afternoon, one of many with temperatures fixed above 100 degrees in Silt, six high school students worked diligently to complete a harvest before taking their lunch beneath a large cottonwood tree at the edge of Highwater Farm.

“It’s the best summer job,” Youth Program Coordinator Anna Thomas assured The Sopris Sun. Thomas joined Highwater Farm as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer in 2020 and was hired to spearhead the youth program in 2021. Next, she will pursue a graduate degree at the University of Notre Dame to help influence national policy with a rooted understanding of good stewardship.

Highwater Farm is a relatively new nonprofit with a threefold mission: to build a farm space, to feed the community and to empower youth through education. Twenty-five percent of what is grown goes to food pantries and hunger relief efforts in Garfield County. The name “Highwater” refers not only to the physical growing space, just south of the Colorado River, but also to the high standard of quality sought in yields and productive values.

The farm itself is in its second growing season, having relied on help from some 75 volunteers last year. The aspiration is to utilize all five acres of land being leased for 25 years from the Town of Silt. Portions of the fields will periodically be left fallow — uncultivated and in rotation — to maintain healthy soils. The Silt River Preserve is protected by a conservation easement so that initiatives like this can flourish.

“Within a few more years, we hope to have 15 youth and three crew leaders managing the space,” Sara Tymczyszyn, the nonprofit’s director, told The Sopris Sun.

Currently, one acre at Highwater Farm is under production. In 2021, a cohort of six hardworking and thoughtful students were led by the nonprofit’s small staff to grow, package and sell produce. Not only did the student farmers gain technical agricultural knowledge, the youth education program emphasizes personal and professional development. Each student was chosen based on application materials and received a modest stipend, plus access to fresh vegetables.

The summer program is modeled after Urban Roots in Austin, Texas, employing 35 youth each year to cultivate 3.5 acres. Another inspiration for the program is the Boston Food Project, which came about in the late ‘80s as a way to combat segregation while increasing food access.

During a visit by The Sopris Sun, the students practiced their public speaking skills while guiding a tour of the land. They pointed to trial plots being used by Wild Mountain Seeds, a seed adaptation company headquartered south of Carbondale. The ripening produce was abundantly diverse: potatoes, peas, onions, carrots, herbs, flowers, squash, melons, tomatoes and more.

“The challenge is the heat,” said Lucas, a student farmer. “The reward is the food.”

As an added bonus, Highwater Farm treated the crew to workshops led by outside experts, consisting of topics like cooking and foraging for wild edible plants.

Over hot days of hard work under the sun, interesting conversations emerged like resilient sprouts reaching for light.

“Everytime I go to the supermarket,” said Scheccid, another student farmer, “it’s stressful to see perfect produce and things that shouldn’t be there, seasonably.”

The students chattily mused on their shared scepticism for industrialized, mono-culture production, especially when heavy use of pesticides is required.

“Youth meet you where you ask to meet them and surpass expectations,” said Tymczyszyn, praising her staff. “[Crew Leader] Ellie [Steward] has done an incredible job. She emulates kindness and a hard-working ethic, and really leaned into how to be directive.” Meanwhile, Assistant Farm Manager Jess Dean was credited for researching disease and pests, developing effective systems and leading workshops on food insecurity.

Highwater Farm is a shining example of community-led agriculture in the region. With the youth farm program ending on Aug. 6, there will be a need for helping hands, eager to get dirty helping with the harvests.

Another way to support Highwater Farm is by purchasing delicious produce at the Carbondale Farmers Market (Wednesdays, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) or at the Silt Farmers Market (Wednesdays, from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.). Monetary donations, as well as materials and expertise, are also appreciated.

Learn more at highwaterfarm.org