Posted 04 September 2011, by Curtis Wackerle, Aspen Daily News, aspendailynews.com
One problem with the environmental movement, according to Eden Vardy, founder of the nonprofit Aspen T.R.E.E., is that it’s too often focused on energy, which is an abstract, intangible concept to most people.
So that’s why getting your hands dirty at T.R.E.E.’s Cozy Point Ranch Sustainable Farmyard is so important, and instructive, to the hundreds of kids who have come through in the demonstration project’s first year as part of the ranch’s summer camp programs.
The plot of land carved out of horse pasture next to Cozy Point’s equestrian facilities, which is owned by the city of Aspen, located off of Highway 82 just downvalley of Brush Creek Road, is an outdoor classroom. The curriculum is the philosophy of permaculture, which teaches that agricultural ecosystems should be self-sustaining and self-sufficient. Some 50 varieties of plants, along with chickens, turkeys, pigs and goats are the textbooks.
Anything that might be thought of as waste has a purpose, such as the animal poop used for fertilizer and the compost piles that add nutrients to the soil. Smelly and spicy plants like arugula are planted next to more sensitive ones like tomatoes to deter pests. There also are techniques to adapt to Aspen’s high-altitude climate, such as lining the raised garden beds with basketball-sized rocks, which act as thermal insulators, trapping in enough heat to extend the growing season by a week or two, Vardy said.
A young boy used to joke with his father upon returning from the supermarket with a car full of groceries — “Hunt good. Many buffalo,” the boy would say, in a faux-Native American voice.
Fact is, the joke was about as close as the boy came to grasping the disconnect most people have between their food and its source.
Vardy, 25, who was raised in Aspen, founded Aspen T.R.E.E. three years ago to address that disconnect between modern society and the natural world and animal kingdom that surrounds and supports it. Critically, the organization focuses on positive solutions, as Vardy identifies too much negativity as another of the environmental movement’s ails.
“We focus on sustainable solutions,” he said. It doesn’t hurt to be creative and artistic while you are at it either, Vardy, believes, as “that will inspire people.”
T.R.E.E. stands for “together regenerating the environment through education.” The nonprofit is responsible for the annual Tuesday-before-Thanksgiving free organic community meal served at Aspen High School (this year’s birds are trotting around Cozy Point right now) that serves up to 700. It also offers programs such as custom garden consulting and “nature nannies,” which is basically a child care service that specializes in introducing kids to the outdoors and wholesome foods. T.R.E.E. also will build you an earthen pizza oven.
Vardy became interested in the concepts that would form T.R.E.E. a decade ago as an Aspen High School student. He took science teacher Travis Moore’s ecological literacy and resource efficiency course “and got really excited,” he said, and pursued the field in college. At Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., Vardy earned a degree in sustainable food systems, and he has a master’s in integrative ecosocial design with a focus on regenerative leadership and nonprofit management from Gaia University. Part of his master’s coursework with the nontraditional university included setting up a permaculture demonstration site at a school for AIDS orphans in Uganda. He also has worked in Asia and Israel on sustainable farms.
Aspen called Vardy back, however.
“It’s so beautiful here, it touches my heart,” Vardy said.
Aspen also is “such a magnifying glass,” he said. The idea was that if he could get T.R.E.E. successfully off the ground here, the concept could be packaged and exported to other communities. One day, Vardy hopes to see, for example, a Los Angeles T.R.E.E. and a Miami T.R.E.E.
He has now returned to Aspen High School and Moore’s classroom, where he is leading 72 hours of coursework on permaculture design, as part of the ecological literacy class.
“It’s quite an honor to go back to the class that started it all,” Vardy said.
T.R.E.E. had a similar permaculture demonstration site last summer at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies’ Rock Bottom Ranch near Carbondale, which it still maintains.
Earlier this year, Monroe Summers, head of the company that manages Cozy Point Ranch for the city, contacted Vardy about setting up a demonstration site at the ranch and contributing to the ranch’s summer camp offerings.
The reality is that Cozy Point’s equestrian focus only appeals to a certain segment of the community, Summers said, so the ranch tries to broaden its outreach when possible. T.R.E.E. and Vardy, who were introduced to Summers by Seth Sachson of the Aspen Animal Shelter, seemed like a good fit, he said.
T.R.E.E. was established and working with the campers by July. Summers gives T.R.E.E. the land for its demonstration project at no cost, and in exchange, T.R.E.E. provides instruction in “healthy living, local foods, animal husbandry and so forth” for interested campers, Summers said. The “We-Green-Riders” program in particular, which introduces 4- to 6-year-olds to basic equestrian skills while getting them some time in the garden, “took off like gangbusters,” Summers said. Cozy Point’s summer camp business this year was double or triple what it was last year, which was the camp’s first year, Summers said.
The nonprofit has similarly grown, with a budget that has doubled in the last year, Vardy said. He brought on six interns to help out this summer, and the organization is overseen by a five-member board of directors and an advisory committee that includes pro skier Nick DeVore and former Pitkin County Commissioner Patty Clapper.
T.R.E.E. is currently funded by about a 50-50 split of donations and earned income for products and services. Vardy said he’d like to see that become more of a two-thirds, one-third breakdown in favor of earned income.
With school back in session, the summer camp programs at the ranch have wrapped up. In the coming weeks, Summers said he plans to sit down with Vardy to debrief on the season and talk about how to improve and grow the partnership.
Ideas in the works include building a four-season greenhouse at the ranch, to add some variety to the concept of eating local in the winter months — otherwise true locavores don’t have much to choose from other than eggs and hunted game meat.
Other ideas include a Cozy Point farmers market, a bigger community garden and collaboration with the “slow foods movement.” Vardy also is testing out a number of different strains of quinoa in the garden, to determine what is best suited to grow in the high country elements.
“We have the sunshine, we have the land, the soil and good fertilizer — and we’re looking for ways to capitalize on that,” Summers said. In regards to T.R.E.E., “We see our role as a facilitator and a sort of big brother, to help them reach their goals and aspirations. They are young and just getting started, but they are doing some things that are really important.”