Farmer Mark & the Importance of Place

Mark milking Trucker

 Mark Waltermire of Thistle Whistle Farm on the Importance of Place

Mark milking Trucker.

 I first met Farmer Mark at his 50th birthday party. Chef Marilyn Kakudo invited me; she spends a considerable amount of time in the North Fork Valley, and over many years has built lasting friendships with the farmers out there. Chef Marilyn suggested I visit the valley with her, and though I’d arrived knowing almost no one, I too was welcomed as a friend. Each smile greeting me more genuinely than the next, each conversation more inquisitive and enthusiastic. Clearly I had landed in a very special corner of the world.

The North Fork Valley, considered by some to be America’s Provence, is located in southwestern Colorado, on the northeastern tributary of the Gunnison River. The valley itself is comprised of three small towns: Hotchkiss, Paonia and Crawford. Hotchkiss and Paonia specifically are known for their rich and diverse agricultural communities. While there, I visited farms where everything from tomatoes to lavender to peppers to apples to garlic to potatoes, to medicinal weeds and herbs are cultivated. There are goats and cattle, chicken, exotic fowl, dogs, sheep, alpaca. I met cheese makers, vintners, and bakers; everyone painstakingly committed to endeavor, making the absolute most of their land. It is a culture of doing rather than trying. There is an honesty and ethic to valley life which is equally as refreshing as it is inspiring.

After birthday festivities concluded in Paonia, I hitched a ride back to Thistle Whistle in Hotchkiss. Helen, one of Mark’s interns was kind enough to provide transport. It was late by farmer standards, probably somewhere around 11 pm. Once out of the car, I continued to my trailer (home for the next three days) guided only by the sound of Helen’s voice and the light of my iPhone. It was pitch dark outside and therefore impossible to see much of anything at all. I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I woke up in the morning. The only thing I knew for sure was that Helen had promised to teach me how to milk a goat at 7 am.

North Fork Valley Sunrise.

In addition to my excitement surrounding the goats, I was also very much looking forward to getting to know Mark. My initial impressions were those of a man who possessed wisdom far beyond what most of us will ever harness. I wanted to know more, and I was especially interested in discovering why food grown at Thistle Whistle Farm is some of the most beautiful product on planet Earth. When I asked Mark about it, he responded by saying that the valley was a “magical place”, and the farmers are merely following what they need to be doing, so that the land itself will naturally produce what Mark refers to as “better stuff.” 

Born to Colorado natives, Mark’s mother was raised on a farm in Loveland, Mark’s father grew up in Denver. Both earned science degrees; his mother in biology and his father in mechanical engineering. Mark’s family lived in Idaho until he was ten, then moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. At the age of eighteen Mark moved back to Colorado to pursue a Biology degree, and within a few years time, found himself utterly lost and disillusioned within the confines of academia. He enrolled in a Gandhian studies program, went to India for a semester abroad, then afterwards traveled to Pakistan on his own. Mark returned to Colorado with a greater focus, although still feeling as if he didn’t completely understand what he’d been through. Mark needed to go back to India and figure it out.

The goal to live in India was inspired by Mark’s desire to learn the language, learn the culture, and to engage in it differently.  He didn’t want to be an observer, he wanted to participate. Mark found a way to do this in Pakistan instead, and ended up staying for two years. The majority of his time was spent doing agricultural work in central Pakistani desert villages. Mark lived in a mud hut with no electricity or running water – it was just the experience he was looking for.

While in Pakistan, Mark connected with a family friend, a minister he’d known as a child. The Minister was involved in humanitarian efforts, and according to Mark, understood development differently than conservative missionaries. He wasn’t out to evangelize the country, he spent his time trying to figure out ways of turning projects over to Pakistani control and getting missionaries out. Mark found this work to be highly inspirational. The two formed a close relationship, and under The Minister’s guidance Mark learned how development either can or cannot work.

Helen making coffee in Mark’s outdoor kitchen.

While revisiting Pakistan, Mark discovered the knowledge he needed. His experiences provided insight suggesting that all humans are universally quite similar. He learned that while differences may seem profound at first, over time one realizes we are all motivated by the same things. Mark returned to the United States with no clear idea of his next step. He he worked in a lab at UC Berkeley grinding coal for a desulfurization study, while also working on a farm in Sebastopol. Eventually Mark began looking for attractive graduate degree programs. He discovered the environmental studies department at the University of Montana Missoula, a multi-disciplinarian program with a hefty credit requirement in applied activism. While earning his masters degree in Missoula, Mark started a non-profit organization with friends; It was also during this time that Mark Waltermire met Katie Dean.

Katie was an undergrad working at a local French bakery, active in the pro-choice movement. She had been assigned the job of collecting signatures for a newspaper supporting Roe vs. Wade. It was the middle of winter, and Mark was riding his bike through the icy snow covered streets. Yelling at Mark, Katie tried to wave him down, causing Mark to loose balance and fall over. It was one of those good long sustained spills scattering stuff everywhere. Mark got up with his bike and went over to sign the petition. He was in a relationship at the time, so the two didn’t officially become an item until a year later when they met at a fund raising party. That was about twenty years ago.

Katie and Mark hiked into the wilderness to exchange vows. A week later, they threw a party for family and friends. It was right after Valentine’s day, Mark dumpstered flowers and pruned juniper from nearby homes for decoration. Mark brewed beer, and made mead from the honey in their hives. Katie and Mark grew most of the food that was used to cater the event. The newlyweds then took off on a trip around the world, visiting friends in Pakistan, Europe and Hawaii.

Once back from their honeymoon, Katie wanted to pursue a masters degree in social work, and also to be closer with family in New England. They moved to Boston and stayed for nearly ten years. Mark ran an educational farm, and it wasn’t until the birth of their first son when they decided to move on. Thoughts of returning to Missoula surfaced, but were eventually dismissed after Mark and Katie discovered the North Fork Valley on a road trip through the American west.

Mark, Katie and sons have called Hotchkiss home since 2005.”It’s been quite something.” Mark comments. “It seems like it was a really good decision for us. It’s a weird and diverse place, and I don’t know that we could have ever done better. There are lots of organic growers, and lots of traditional growers, and coal miners and libertarians, and evangelical christians, and Rainbow Family hippies up in the hills. It didn’t have the ethnic diversity that I loved in the east, but it had its own type of cultural diversity, and enough friction, and enough economic hardship to make for a vibrant place. So we decided that it was worth taking a fly around this one, and here we are.”

Thistle Whistle is a 16 acre non-certified organic farm, where Mark and staff grow hundreds of unusual and rare vegetable varieties. The vast majority of labor is done either by hand, or by use of hand tools. This season alone, Thistle Whistle planted over two thousand tomato plants, consisting of roughly two hundred varieties. Mark takes great interest in both the vigor and the subtleties produced in varioius species. “It’s the power of the plants that I really appreciate. The hot peppers and the medicinal herbs, and many of the other things I grow – just because they have so much power and its such a phenomenal thing to see in them, and to taste and to experience. I get excited with new and interesting flavors, and subtlety in flavor is something that I also really like.”

Thistle Whistle Farm beets & potatoes.

Thistle Whistle hosts several programs, including The Sauce Plot Kids Camp, English as a Second Language Nutrition, and local school outreach. Through education, Mark hopes to give others an idea of how to connect with the source of their food. He wants to highlight the sort of choices they can make, and how these decisions will improve their lives. This is something he came back with from being overseas. “People in the village in Pakistan were pretty darn happy, living without power in mud huts with thatched roofs, not much access to health care, and subsistent to agriculture. Priorities were more really family and friends. That was interesting for me to see. That the assumptions we live under on what we need in our lives are assumptions, and we have the freedom to accept and decline those things. We don’t give ourselves that freedom very much. If we do give ourselves those freedoms, then we open up for other choices on how we can live. I want more people to realize that, because it leads to a better society.”

When asked about his spiritual beliefs, Mark answered by saying that he doesn’t find a home in any organized spiritual system. He appreciates the insight of Tibetan Buddhism and finds amusement in watching the Dalai Lama giggle at human foibles. Mark feels that he is an insignificant part of something grander, and that feeling of insignificance is important to him. “If I start feeling like what I do and who I am matters too much, I get paralyzed in it. I have a hard time just doing what I need to do and finding joy. Being out here, doing the farming, I can find it more regularly. I don’t have to climb a mountain to get scared and feel it. I’m humbled by nature. I mean, I can’t figure out what’s going on here half the time.”

Fracking has become a major concern throughout the United States, especially so within the North Fork Valley. To say that Mark has strong opinions on the matter would be a massive understatement. He has spoken out many times  –  gas and oil development work against everything that Mark is committed to. He refuses to believe that fracking is safe, and feels there is zero compatibility between it and the valley’s thriving agricultural community. “I don’t think that carbon based energy is smart given climate change and global warming. I think it’s really stupid and we’ll be paying the price for it, and we’ve got to stop.”

Mark also fears the presence of industrial workers in the hills behind his farm. He doesn’t want their trucks tearing up his roads, creating dust and spewing exhaust; nor does he want to see an increase in traffic and pollution. “Trucks tip over, they have accidents, they’re driven by humans. The stuff that’s in those trucks, I don’t want that in my ditch, I don’t want it in the river. Those chemicals, whatever they are, that’s the real worry for me.” Mark continues, “They can tell me that the drilling is safe, and we can argue that from now until eternity; but those trucks are not safe, they never have been and they never will be. That type of transportation is always subject to operator error, and those errors happen. There’s no way that I can be convinced that it’s a safe thing for me to have in the valley. It just isn’t.”

Luna (L) & Sol (R).

Knowing that the most essential of human needs are also the most basic, Mark prefers to focus on thoughts surrounding contentment. “I think I’m finding that I need to have meaningful relationships with other people. I think that those relationships are the most challenging things I face now. The farm work is nothing compared to human relationship, and working through the inevitable discord that happens, the messiness. I’ve come back to that many times in my life, and every time it hits a little deeper and I understand it a little better.” Contributing to one’s community is also of paramount importance. “It’s not me teaching the kids. It’s me participating in their experience in the garden, and seeing their joy at discovering something. That’s the beauty of it.”

There truly is no place like home, and one tends to speak of “terroir” typically in reference to either wine or agriculture. After speaking with Mark and visiting Thistle Whistle Farm, I have begun to think of terroir in terms of people as well. Without question, Hotchkiss is very much the present day terroir of Mark Waltermire and family. The North Fork Valley has seasoned their experience and outlook just as it seasons its crops. “I’ve been somewhat transient in my life up until settling here. I suppose my stretches living in single places have gotten longer and longer, but I’ve always uprooted myself and moved on at some point. I don’t feel like doing that, I feel like trying to figure out how to smooth out the bumps and continue to be here. That’s different, and that’s where the home idea comes in. I want to connect with the place. And so what is home? Maybe it’s a place where one can be fully one’s self? I think maybe that’s it. I think when it comes to home, I like to think of it as a place that provides an environment that allows us to find contentment, and to be able to contemplate what we do, and how we do it in a way that allows us to be better humans.”

Veronika Sprinkle: “So for the time being, Hotchkiss is home?”

Mark Waltermire: “It is. It’s given me the lessons I need right now, yes.”

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