Meet Alex Penniman from Gunnison, Colorado, United States

“I am a wildly passionate farmer growing food at 7,700 feet in a high alpine environment. I work for Mountain Roots Food Project, a non-profit working to build a more sustainable, localized food system, high in the Rockies.

My interest in food began through my Dad’s catering company in Florida, since he installed a small 500 square foot garden space to grow food. I began growing in that small space, and it was really rewarding to see the food go from seed to being plated at a large event.

Growing food and community gardening is an interesting way to tackle some of the problems we face in this world, like poor health, lack of community, and environmental degradation. Growing food is not abstract— it’s real, hopeful, and a tangible way to continue giving back.

Population of Gunnison is 5,854 and it is located 7,703 feet above sea level. Our growing space is approximately two acres. We grow what we can considering our climate— during the summer we grow what most people across the US can grow during the winter. ALL the leafy greens, brassicas, carrots, beets, potatoes. In our high tunnel we are able to grow tomatoes, squashes, and peppers.

We use a walk behind tractor and do everything on the human scale. We use a broadfork, and we’re also pasturing poultry to build soil fertility and rotating them through our growing space to add a lot of nitrogen to the soil and give the land a rest for growing crops. One of the benefits of growing food at 7,700 feet and being in a very cold place is that the insect pressure isn’t actually that bad. So far this year we haven’t had many pest problems, minus a few aphids.

We usually have to purchase seeds online and from a couple of local producers in our area. This is the first year we built a garlic plot so that we will be able to save some seed garlic for each year. We will continue to build our seed saving strategies as the organization grows.

Overall, the biggest hurdle for me is staying organized and keeping up with all the paperwork that’s required to be a functional farm, keeping everyone organized, motivated, and on task. I had never really worked on a farm before, and I just happened to be managing it, which has been a great learning experience. I was thrown into it and had to learn quickly, read up on everything, self-teach, and gain a full picture of everything it takes to run a farm, which I certainly wouldn’t have gotten if I was just someone’s farm hand.

The’ growing part’ of farming of course has inherent difficulties in Gunnison— we only have an average of 30 frost-free days. This year we had frost on July 4th and then on August 13th.

There is a limitless amount that you can learn and do on the farm. It’s very rewarding when you can implement new techniques and actually change what you’re doing to improve your farm and how you’re operating. Even the smallest tweaks can make a huge difference.

I work with many people my age who are also all new to farming. Figuring it out together in this environment has been really rewarding and I’ve created some lifelong close friendships which is really special. There’s something really beautiful about how hard it is and how terrible it is sometimes. You’re out there with really long days and wonder what the point is, but when you harvest or do a big new project and actually complete it, it feels really good.

Mountain Roots Food Project as an organization works to build the whole food system. If we were only farming, our small community would not know about us or need all of the local and organic produce we are growing, so we also have programs in food security and farm-to-school education. Mountain Roots is involved with the school system to educate youth about growing, cooking, and eating healthy food, works with our local food pantry to provide fresh healthy produce to those in need, and teaches our community why all of this is important. Our CSA also supports other local farmers to provide early season income. We provide community plant sales, training for young farmers, and throughout the pandemic, have provided free produce to those who need extra support.

Farming isn’t ideal, and neither is life, but they’re both pretty dang good!”