Nic Koontz and Katie Slota :: Vegetable Farmers

Nic Koontz and Katie Slota :: Vegetable Farmers

In my mind, there is something utterly romantic about farming. Whenever I think of it, I picture pretty pages in glossy magazines. Idyllic country settings. Neat rows of snap peas and rainbow chard. A handful of happy hens underfoot. A tractor in the fields at sunset.

But after spending the better part of two days witnessing the harvesting, prepping, and selling of organic vegetables with husband and wife farmers Nic Koontz and Katie Slota, I have a different view. Still idyllic, mind you. But with slightly more dirt. More work. And, as it turns out, more rewards.

Freshly harvested grilling onions.

95 zucchinis, 100 heads of broccoli

I join Katie at her and Nic’s property, Native Hill Farm, early on a Tuesday. 5:30 a.m. early. The time birds are starting their daily chatter and Katie shows up to begin her 12+ hour day. Nic will be here soon, right after he drops off their 11-month-old son at daycare.

Katie leads me straight to an open-air shelter, called a hoop house, nestled between the farm fields and three huge, walk-in refrigerators. Inside she waters rows of basil, cilantro, and baby greens while filling me in on the day's schedule. She will manage the harvest crew and operations while Nic will oversee all prepping and packing. For every hour they spend harvesting, she tells me, they will spend an equal amount of time prepping the vegetables for customers. When the watering chore is done Katie removes her boots and hops on top of a folding table, spiral notebook in hand. There, hanging from the ceiling, is a giant white board. She glances back and forth from her notebook to the board, writing in the day’s orders: 95 zucchinis, 100 heads of broccoli, 200 carrots, 100 grilling onions, 10 lbs. of radishes. The list goes on.

As I stare at the immensity of the task ahead, Grace and Olivia show up. They work as full-time farm hands for Nic and Katie, helping with everything from planting and irrigation to harvesting, weeding, and selling. A handful of other women slowly wander into the shelter as well. They are volunteers, working members of Native Hill’s market-style CSA who donate time on the farm in return for a share of the farm’s output. Katie goes over the day’s agenda with everyone and a soft cheer erupts when the women learn we will not be harvesting spinach today. It’s the end of the season for spinach, I’m informed, a vegetable that’s notoriously tedious to pick.

Katie Slota's days start early. 5:30 a.m. early. She owns Native Hill Farm, an organic vegetable farm, with her husband, Nic Koontz.

Katie Slota and the morning harvest crew, mostly CSA members, hit the fields just after 6:00 a.m.

A small miracle

On that high note, the seven of us head to the fields. Splitting into two smaller groups, half the women head for the radishes and the other for the chard, which is growing just past a small field laying fallow. It’s just a few minutes after 6:00 a.m.

I squat in the dry dirt alongside the women as they work. “How do you know which radishes are ready to harvest,” I ask, feeling every bit the novice I am.

“You look for the right size – in the plant’s height and diameter of the radish,” Erica, one of the volunteers, says. “Also which are poking up from the ground,” her neighbor offers. “But if the tops are dry or cracked, that means they’re overripe and not as good.”

Later, after a lesson in pulling onions out of the ground and peeling away the dirtiest, outer layer (a task that should take about 8 seconds one of the women, laughing, tells me after I spend at least half a minute peeling mine), I join the other three ladies harvesting chard. I watch as they take knives to the thick stalks and deftly slice it from the ground. The women inch their way down the row, talking and cutting, talking and cutting. It is routine, meditative work. After every few handfuls, they wrap the stalks of the dark green leaves together in neat bunches with twist ties and leave them, for now, laying in the dirt. I look behind us and all down the row, I realize, there is food. A completely ridiculous observation. Of course there is food. But watching it be cut, stacked, wrapped, and lined up? The colors. The fresh smell. The sheer volume. It strikes me as a small miracle.

It’s not a miracle, of course. It’s the fruit of much hard labor – months of planning, prepping, tilling, planting, irrigating, weeding, and composting. Each season Nic and Katie use six semi trucks full of compost. And because Native Hill is an organic farm that does not use pesticides, the weeding alone requires constant upkeep.

The rumble of a motor shakes me out of my daydream. I look up to see Nic driving a tractor and pulling a trailer with a large white vat attached to it. He parks it at the end of our row, waves, and walks back to the hoop house. Moments later he’s in the driver’s seat of a small flat bed truck piled high with empty crates. He parks that near the other group of harvesters who continue to gather the abundance on Katie’s board. The work does not stop. In a few hours there are crates packed with radishes, carrots, cauliflower, and onions. The large white vat behind the tractor has been filled to the brim with chard and kale. Beets, broccoli, and squash are up next.

CSA members, Colleen and Nova, harvest chard at Native Hill Farm.

Native Hill Farm is known, in part, for their abundance of greens.

Colleen chops chard stalks before the leaves are washed, packed, and refrigerated.

Land access

When Katie breaks from the picking and jumps into the tractor seat to pull the full containers back to the hoop house, I follow along. Inside, Nic is starting to wash the morning’s bounty. He fills the large white vat Katie has detached from the tractor with cold water and lets the bunches of kale and chard soak “for about an hour to crisp up the leaves.” While the greens soak, he, with Grace and Olivia's help, sorts the other vegetables onto metal racks and begins spraying bunches of radishes with a hose.

I ask Nic about the hardest part of farming. It’s not the manual labor, maintaining the machinery, or getting up before the sun everyday. It’s “finding long-term access to land to farm,” he says. “By far.”

It makes sense. In a sad sort of way. Big companies can afford to buy up big swaths of land. A corn farmer down the street from Native Hill, for instance, recently sold 50 acres to a gravel company. With industry all around, local farming is often forced onto smaller plots tucked between larger operations. In fact, after leasing this land and farming it for 8 years, Katie and Nic just recently purchased the 6-acre parcel. They lease an additional three acres down the road and, in the future, hope to lease and farm another 50 acres around the corner. That land is currently owned by the Poudre Valley Community Farms project, a cooperative that allows local citizens to own land and lease it to farmers, thereby ensuring the land stays dedicated to food production.

I’m surprised at how much Nic and Katie are able to produce from the nine acres they’re currently working. From their harvest, which happens year-round every Tuesday and Friday, they feed more than 100 CSA members, stock their on-site farm stand, sell at farmers markets twice a week, and supply food to a handful of area restaurants.

Nic Koontz, who owns Native Hill Farm with his wife, preps cherry belle radishes for the next day's farmer's market.

All of the farm's vegetables are stored in walk-in refrigerators after being trimmed and washed.

Before they were farmers

Nic and Katie weren’t always farmers.

Nic used to be an engineer. He got his first taste of farming working at a student-run farm while attending Clemson University. Later he worked on farms in Alaska, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

“The engineering paid well, of course, but I hated all the sitting.” He tells me this while wearing a pair of slick yellow overalls and dunking handfuls of just-harvested onions into tubs of cold water. I admit I have a hard time picturing him in an office. “One day I just had this feeling that this is what I needed to do.”

And so he did. Starting with just half an acre, Nic leased some land and planted lettuce. “I was going to farm in the summer and go surf in the winter. That was my plan.” He pauses, smiling. “But then I met Katie. And, well, that was nine years ago.”

That meeting happened at a town hall talk about local food. Katie, who was finishing a grad school program in environmental health at the time, was in the audience. She wanted to get more involved in her community’s food supply and talked to Nic afterward. That talk turned out to be just the beginning.

“For three years we worked our jobs and farmed on the side,” Katie explains. “We started with onions, squash, tomatoes, beets. As we grew, we added things. We started the CSA and tried figure out what would fit into restaurants’ menus.” They also learned how to be efficient in the area they had. They don’t grow sweet corn or melons, for example, because those crops require lots of space. “I’d say now we’re kind of known for our greens and root vegetables. And our heirloom tomatoes. That’s our MO,” says Katie.

Nic Koontz washes and packs grilling onions inside Native Hill Farm's hoop house.

Playing psychologist

Another part of their MO is understanding their customers. “We play psychologist a lot,” says Katie. “We watch how people shop so we can offer things that appeal to them.” They’ve figured out, for instance, that people prefer to buy loose products like greens and herbs when they’re bundled together. So they wrap things like kale and chard in convenient bunches and pack basil into small, grab-able baggies.

I see this insight in action the very next evening at a small farmer’s market Native Hill participates in on Wednesdays. The food, picked the day before, is set out on colorful tablecloths and lined neatly into wooden crates. Piled just so, customers don’t have to dig or search. They simply pick up their selections and plop them into the convenient baskets that Native Hill supplies for their shoppers. Over the course of three hours, people come in droves, chatting with Katie and her crew. People ask how to cook certain vegetables, what to pair with what, and inquire about the bitterness of certain varieties. They soak in the knowledgeable answers that come easy to these experienced farmers. As people weave through the line, they load their baskets with beets and carrots, broccoli and cauliflower, zucchini and fennel, snap peas and cucumbers.

Katie Slota arranges squash at her farmer's market stand.

A Wednesday evening farmer's market is equally popular with CSA members and the public.

Katie Slota knows most of her customers by first name.

Connecting people to food

Native Hill’s popularity seems to prove that the interest in locally grown produce is here to stay. But I’m just an observer. I ask Nic, who is living this life, what he thinks about it. “Is it just trendy or fancy marketing?” I wonder.

“There’s marketing and documentaries that’ve woken people up. But I also think it’s the new generation,” he says. “More people want to know a place… and be connected to it. And they can do that through the food that’s grown there.”

Nic and Katie want to help connect more people to their food. In the future they’d love to provide vegetables for area grocers, the university, and the school district. When I ask Nic and Katie about the best part of farming, they say its growing food for people who really love it. They say it feels like they’re providing something to folks that will enhance their lives.

And this is exactly how I feel when my time with Nic and Katie is over. The tangible contribution they make to the people in their community astounds me. It’s a small world out there. But if you look closely you can see it going around, and the people who are helping it do so.

A bicycle with a bag of produce.