Woodland Park • Lee Willoughby smiled and gently caressed the leaves of a kale plant growing in a large, domed greenhouse near Woodland Park, then gazed at the many healthy plants growing inside the 22-foot-diameter structure at an elevation of about 8,500 feet.
The greenhouse, built in June 2009 at the Aspen Valley Ranch, represents the successes of The Harvest Center, an organization that sprouted from a group of gardeners at the Woodland Park Farmers Market.
The fruits of their conversations have grown into a nonprofit with 95 members and a goal to boost that number to 125 by year’s end.
Along with the dome greenhouse, The Harvest Center has two other community gardens, one on a member’s property off U.S. 24 in Woodland Park and another at the Mountain View United Methodist Church on Rampart Range Road.
Willoughby, a retired college professor, said people had been tossing around the idea of establishing a community of high-elevation growers in Teller County since the early 2000s.
It wasn’t until 2008, when the economy began to plummet, that the idea turned into serious talks, Willoughby said.
Laurie Glauth, a Harvest Center member and co-owner of Mountain Naturals grocery store in Woodland Park, said it was Willoughby’s leadership that created focus.
Glauth said there were about 20 people involved in the farmers market who each had their notions of what the community should look like.
“Lee is extremely gifted in his ability to bring people together and get the most out of them,” Glauth said, indicating that Willoughby, who moved from Kansas City in 2006, brought a talent for networking and connected group members with each other and possible donors.
The focus of the group quickly turned to becoming a nonprofit and teaching others to excel at growing food at elevation.
Grants from Teller County Public Health, the Pikes Peak Community Foundation and the Colorado Garden Show provided money to build the dome greenhouse and for workshops.
“It’s a mix of giving people fish and teaching people to fish,” Willoughby said.
What’s grown in the greenhouse goes to the Woodland Park Community Cupboard. The Harvest Center gave 477 pounds in 2011 for families in need.
Among the workshops that Willoughby, his wife, Kathy, and their volunteers offer are planning spring gardens, extending seasons, and building raised beds and planter boxes. The Harvest Center holds classes almost every month at the Woodland Park Library.
Willoughby and fellow Harvest Center member Ron Capen said one of the major goals is education, but they also put an emphasis on the community aspect of the group. They said input from everyone has helped to refine the way they garden.
Capen, a retired Colorado College biology professor, said input from one member led to a simple solution for warding off aphids and white flies, two of the few pests that bother their garden.
He said the goal is to remain organic, so pest control was a problem. They learned to spray plants with a mixture of 40 percent milk and 60 percent water and the bugs “go away,” Capen said.
“This is the kind of info that spreads through our workshops,” he said.
Capen and other volunteers took their mantra of community to Cripple Creek recently, helping the Cripple Creek-Victor school district build a dome, similar to the one at Aspen Valley Ranch, at Cresson Elementary School.
The Cresson greenhouse, at nearly 9,500 feet, took three years from concept to when the first plants went in the ground just after the ribbon-cutting on Feb. 29. Cripple Creek school kids will grow their vegetables.
The movement has come just as a statewide push toward locally grown foods is being encouraged. On March 16, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the Local Foods, Local Jobs bill into law.
The legislation is intended to make it easier for local growers and home kitchens to sell their products in stores owned by Colorado residents.
Glauth thinks the law will encourage local vegetable growers to join the strong stream of local meat and dairy producers who venture into stores like Mountain Naturals. The store, which recently moved into a former Loaf ’N Jug building on Colorado 67 in Woodland Park, sells chicken and duck eggs from Teller County producers, goat cheese out of Divide and Mountain Lightning Salsa made in Woodland Park.
Contact Matt Steiner: 636-0362
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