Today, when you see Happy Heart Farm, you may think of farm dinners under the stars. Or perhaps you think of them as one of many local growers throughout Northern Colorado. But more than 30 years ago, with just over one acre of land, Dennis and Bailey Stenson changed the face of Colorado farming forever.
“My husband is a native of Colorado, born in Greeley. I came out here from Michigan and went to CSU where I studied biology, horticulture and plant sciences,” explained Bailey. “My husband and I didn’t study crops or farming in college, but we’ve always had an interest in it. Dennis got that from his mom. At 86, she still has her own garden. And I grew up having gardens in all our neighbors’ yards.”
This passion eventually led the couple to help kick off Fort Collins’ first ever farmers markets. But before that, they had other plans. “Before we even started the farmers’ markets and the farm, my husband and I owned the first mountain bike touring business in the country, called Mystic Wheels Bicycle Tours. It was based out of Fort Collins when mountain bikes were very, very new,” she said. “We had some of the original models of mountain bikes and we took people to Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, Utah. We had a 15 passenger van, two kids, and we packed people in. I cooked meals in advance and we went on adventures all over the place.”
Bailey went on to say, “As our kids were growing up, we wanted a simpler life.” When their passion for food escalated in 1989, the couple was inspired to attend the Seed Conference in Santa Fe. There, Dennis and Bailey learned about what the conference called the trends of the future: cohousing and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).
Photo courtesy of Happy Heart Farm
“We’ve always been about community,” explained Bailey. “And we said, ‘This is the model we want to bring, not only to Fort Collins but to Colorado.’ So we created the first CSA farm in Fort Collins and probably in the state.”
Laughing, Bailey explained the process of buying Happy Heart. “My husband purchased our farm without me being there. It was an auction; my husband bid on the property, ended up winning it, and came home to tell me we bought a farm. My hair went straight up! All we’d had was a small garden as a family and we had never had a garden at this level. But then, by the time our third child came in 1990, we had started our CSA.”
Right away, Happy Heart Farm opened based on the principles Dennis and Bailey learned at the Seed Conference. Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, is a program in which people of the community become members of the farm: committing to all the farm’s successes and possible downfalls. But no matter what, members leave with armfuls of produce and a much closer relationship to their food.
“We just learned a lot as we went along,” said Bailey.
The road to success was a winding one. Opening in a time when there were no other CSAs in the region and no internet meant the Stensons had to invent much of their processes and knowledge on their own. “There weren’t models for anything,” said Bailey. So through trial and error, they developed planting schedules and practices — including a working membership now employed by many CSA farms throughout NoCo. “We needed help beyond our family, volunteers and young apprentices, so we created a working membership,” Bailey explained. “It was a way for other people in the membership to be part of the farm crew.” As a working member, you pay for your CSA share by working the farm — growing, feeding, harvesting — you name it.
Over the years, Happy Heart has also offered an apprentice program, teaching the younger generations the importance of biodynamic farming. Bailey said, “So far, there isn’t funding out there for passing on knowledge of organic, biodynamic farmers — people who have spent their careers learning the millions of tasks and skills it takes to actually grow food. It’s not a cakewalk. For that information to live on, it needs to be passed on. There is a tsunami of young people right now who are really interested and want to get involved, but they need a farm to receive the information.”
At Happy Heart, Dennis and Bailey have trained over 100 apprentices in the past 34 years. And now, their apprentice program is connected with the Biodynamic Association.
Photo courtesy of Happy Heart Farm
But even more than passing on the information, Bailey and Dennis are now confronted with the possibility of passing on their farm. “My husband and I are in the process of retiring from the physicality of farming,” she said. “We’re trying to determine how much we are staying involved in the local food movement we’ve been the pioneers of. It’s our time to be elders and relax a bit more, and we’re determining what that looks like for us.”
Last year, after a deal fell through on an Agrihood — a housing development built around an existing farm — the possibilities were flung wide open. “We’re staying true to the fact that we’re not going to physically farm, but that doesn’t mean there might not be another farmer here,” explained Bailey. “Ideally, we would like it to be owned, enhanced and protected by other people. We are looking to see who those other people are.”
If you look past all the food Happy Heart Farm has grown over the years, the farmers’ markets Dennis and Bailey have helped build, and the community of local food lovers they’ve fostered, the couple has created so much for our community.
Bailey said, “About five years ago, I started a separate organization, originally named Friends of Happy Heart Farm — a nonprofit. It was my attempt to create an organization that would help to fund several different programs.”
Photo courtesy of The Vegetable Connection
The organization, now called The Vegetable Connection, funds three main programs. The first and most prominent of those is Feeding the Families which assists financially-challenged people in our community with whole or half-shares of organically grown vegetables from local farms.
“We have five [CSA] farms now in town that will provide shares to low-income families,” Bailey said. This is funded through grants, partnerships with local businesses and fundraisers — including the now famous annual fundraiser at Avogadro’s Number in October. “We have a fairly famous pie auction that we’ve had as a part of the fundraiser,” Bailey laughed. “I just go nuts and bake every kind of pie. One year I made 34 pies. I’m cutting back a little bit now, but I’ve had a lot of fun along the way.”
The nonprofit also funds The Food School, originally started by a local woman in town. “She merged with our nonprofit to create a curriculum for kids from elementary through college so they can learn what’s important about our food and how to grow it,” Bailey explained. “They’ve been able to put the program in several schools around town, but it’s not funded by those schools so that has to come separately. It’s only been able to grow as those funds are available.“
And lastly, The Vegetable Connection provides funding for the apprentices Dennis is training and provides money for Dennis as a mentor.
Outside of The Vegetable Connection Bailey and Dennis reach even farther with the Fortified Collaborations Heart of Summer farm dinner, weddings hosted on the farm, summer camps through Expanding Horizons Farm, and even award-winning honey!
Using petals from thousands of blooming roses in her front yard, Bailey blends the fragrant petals with honey from Bee Squared Apiaries in Berthoud. In 2016, Beth, the owner of Bee Squared, entered Bailey’s honey in the 2016 Good Food Awards and they won in the honey category! “Myself and the honey lady, Beth, went to San Francisco, Nell Newman put a medal around my neck and I threw golden rose petals in the air. I thought, ‘When will I ever get to do this again?’” Beginning on August 1, 2017, the honey will be available online through Bee Squared Apiaries.
As Bailey and Dennis look back on their humble beginnings, reflect on Northern Colorado’s dramatic changes and look ahead to their future, they must feel proud. But they also feel a little worry and a lot of hope.
“Five years ago, tons of people joined the local food movement, but there has been a backing off nationally when it comes to CSAs. For most people to even have half an hour to prepare their meal is a luxury and when you’re a member of a CSA, you’re committing to engaging with your food at a deeper level. That works for some people, but it doesn’t work for a lot of others.”
“But [the CSA community is] like-minded folks who care about the environment,” she went on to say. “They care about other people. This has a deeper level of gathering and sharing together. There isn’t anything that connects us to place more than the food we grow and take. Most people are so far removed from that, they don’t see what they’re missing.”
Looking ahead, Bailey explained, “What we have here is so precious. We have the largest farm left in Fort Collins. With the rise of lofts and brownstones and malls and stadiums, to have an existing ten-acre farm that is historic in its founding of the CSA movement within bicycling distance of Old Town — this place is a treasure. We’re looking for the people who see it that way and want to get behind it.“
Founded on the principles of balance, you won’t find Happy Heart Farm at local farmers markets. “We needed to have time, not only for ourselves and our community but time together as a couple and as a family. You can only spread yourself so thin,” Bailey explained. “For us, the traditional CSA method worked. We’re the neighborhood CSA; people come over with their wagons, on their bikes, and go home with their fresh food.”
If you’re interested in becoming a member of the Happy Heart CSA, you can contact Bailey and Dennis here.
You can also join the Happy Heart family at the Third Annual Heart of Summer Fortified Farm Dinner on July 30th! All proceeds from the five-course meal benefit The Vegetable Connection. Check out Fortified Collaboration’s full farm dinner series schedule here with events through November.