Producer Profile: Thistle Whistle

Thistle Whistle Farm arrives at the Slow Food Market at the Source this Sunday, and Denver is lucky to have the chance to enjoy their produce for the rest of the season. He’ll bring with him fruit from neighboring Ela Family Farms. Both Mark Waltermire (Thistle Whistle) and Steve Ela (Ela Family Farms) are past Terra Madre delegates for Slow Food, and are genuine examples of farmers who represent Slow Food values of good, clean and fair food.

Thistle Whistle is a 16-acre farm located in Hotchkiss, CO and while you may have tasted his produce at your favorite restaurant, this is his first appearance at a Denver market. We are thrilled to have these top Colorado producers join the Slow Food Market at the Source.

We love this excerpt from Edible Aspen, Annette Gallagher Weisman author, to allow you to get to know Thistle Whistle, and Mark’s, story – before you meet him at the Source on Sundays!

“Despite its size, there’s much to satisfy almost every culinary desire at Thistle Whistle Farm. For Waltermire, it’s all about flavor over appearance. “I try to grow the best-tasting, most-intriguing, highest quality produce we can,” he says. Waltermire grows an Eden of small fruits, including blackberries, raspberries, sea-buckthorn berries, strawberries and antique apples. He has a wide assortment of conventionally grown vegetables, too, as well as Asian and other unusual varieties, not to mention 50 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, 35 varieties of sweet and roasting peppers, and 40 varieties of hot peppers. Other crops on the farm include organic grains, hops, asparagus and culinary and medicinal herbs. “We also have a small herd of milk goats, a handful of laying hens and one loud and lonely guinea fowl,” notes Waltermire.

Like his farm, Waltermire’s resume is varied and unusual. After graduating from Colorado College in 1985, he lived in Pakistan for two years doing agricultural development work. He then moved to Missoula, Montana, where he met his wife. While there, he and some friends started the Missoula Urban Demonstration Project, demonstrating and exploring self-reliant living skills, including backyard gardening, community gardening and composting, and alternative energy. After six more years and a masters’ degree in environmental studies from the University of Montana, he moved to Massachusetts. Much of his time there was spent running an educational, nonprofit food-bank farm on land once lived on and gardened by Henry David Thoreau. “We grew vegetables and fruits for about a dozen meal programs, shelters and food pantries, tailoring the produce to many ethnic groups the program served, including Haitians, Central Americans and Hmong.” The farm recruited a diverse group of volunteers, including some with disabilities.  “Mixing these groups in the fields gave the participants an appreciation for the power that food and food production has to bridge backgrounds and cultures,” explains Waltermire.

After 10 years in Massachusetts, Mark, with his wife and their two young boys, returned to Colorado. They started their own farm in Hotchkiss, intending to continue his interest in high-quality, flavorful, healthful produce available to and appreciated by all segments of the population. Situated at the edge of the mountains, the mesa like land, in a semi-desert climate, has flat plateaus with good irrigation. “We were attracted to this area because there was an unusually large concentration of small, organic farms with an unusual diversity of fruit and vegetable crops, and animal products,” says Waltermire. He adds that farming here is easier in some ways due to its farming community, and the soils, weather and growing season make for excellent quality produce, “the best-tasting I’ve come across.” However, he notes, “The clay is heavy and easily compacted, making it difficult to time many farm activities.”

Waltermire is a passionate farmer/educator who takes on everything he does with a missionary zeal. “I’m still hooked on the mix of education, kids and gardens,” he says. And Thistle Whistle Farm grows food for a local food bank with the help of volunteers.  Says Waltermire, “Last year we coordinated growing for and organizing the CSA with Raincrow Farm, another local farm; this year we’ll be carrying it ourselves.” He sells his produce to Aspen markets mostly through wholesalers, including Fresh and Wyld, and fulfills special orders for several Aspen-area restaurants.

The most rewarding thing about farming for Waltermire is the satisfaction he gets from nurturing a plant from seed to harvest and sharing the experience with others. The most disheartening is the fragility of the occupation. “We’re at the mercy of the weather, labor markets and unfavorable economics,” he says.”

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