Josh Olsen & The Bean AcreS
Words: Christine Vazquez
Photographs: David Vazquez
“My first seeds were sown in February of 2006 for Sunday Dinners at Panzano [restaurant in Denver], including microgreens, chiles and eggplant. Specialty local vegetables were hard to come by in downtown Denver at the time. From there I kept experimenting and growing my agricultural knowledge. I was lucky to work with Aspen Moon Farm in Hygiene, Colorado, to learn about successional farming and irrigation. Most of my new understanding of Colorado farming came from them.”
JOSH OLSEN has a vision. One that includes working the land, getting fresh produce on the plate locally, sustaining responsible farming practices, education and building community. We visited Olsen at the acre of land in Lakewood—on the Warren Tech campus—he cultivates, with the help of instructors, students, and his hired hand, Dave. Olsen’s brother is an instructor at the school, and that’s how this collaboration came to be. The produce from the farm supplies The Squeaky Bean, the restaurant he co-owns with Johnny Ballen in Denver.
In its first year, it’s already a productive place. On the day we were there, they were pulling up carrots and beets. Favas were plump and prolific on the vine. Tomatoes would soon be happening in the hoop house. Lettuce had already been harvested and put on plates at The Squeaky Bean—we ourselves had eaten it alongside our sandwiches during lunch just the week before. Rows of corn line up like delicious soldiers on the hillside. Hops hug the chain link fence that runs along one border of the property. In another year, they’ll have 60 raspberry plants and 30 blackberry plants.
Three Sisters is a Native American traditional planting technique—also called companion planting—for crops known to thrive together: beans, corn and squash. Olsen is utilizing it on his hillside. He says, “Beans are nitrogen fixing, which helps companion plants absorb the nitrogen for growth. Corn, a heavy feeder, has deep roots that help break the soil up and can act as a trellis for the beans. Squash has large leaves that shade the growing area to aid in water retention and suppress weed growth.”
“We are planting on the hill practicing permaculture design, which uses swells to retain a natural high water table. The Center at Warren Tech [the name the school has given the farm] will have both linear crop and permaculture design as we continue to build the property out. This will be a living laboratory for education for culinary/STEM, among other courses at the school. The district also teaches Jeffco transitional students, who are developmentally challenged, life tools they can use as they continue learning throughout their beautiful lives. Having the farm so they can learn/harvest/deliver vegetables to the culinary program runs deep in my heart!” Olsen continues.
There are a couple of active hoop houses, which allow year-round farming, and Olsen points to a hard house in the near distance, sharing his plans for that. “The hard house will be built with a climate battery powered by solar electricity. The climate battery uses thermal mass to heat and cool the greenhouse during the different seasons. The system will force air via fans through perforated tubes running underground, tempering the air as it exits back into the growing area. We will leave a portion of the system exposed as a learning tool. This tropical house will have fig, citrus, banana and papaya, among other tropical vegging plants, herbs and flowers.”
Olsen and Ballen met while working together at Panzano. The sous chef and bartender, respectively, they shared a vision of their own restaurant, which began as a tiny place in the Highlands neighborhood of Denver, and has now taken over a significant corner downtown at 15th and Wynkoop streets.
Olsen clearly values collaboration, as he’s sure to recognize all the others who helped make this happen and help it sustain. He explains, “Liz Hudd is my direct contact with the school, teaches environmental science, coaches fellow teachers on tools for success, and is working on developing new curriculum for the ongoing project at The Center. She is not afraid of getting her hands dirty helping out on the farm, weeding, planting and organizing during the summer.”
Olsen also acknowledges the vital role the interns play in getting that produce to your plate. “Josh Sperry, one of our interns, has helped immensely to further the project! He and Erin Hennessy are out three days a week during their summer to gain credits for an executive internship through Jeffco Schools; an awesome internship program that we intend to utilize every summer.”
There are days when the farm has a handful of students helping plant and harvest, and other days when as many as 200 are there weeding and cleaning up.
Hudd had this to say about Olsen, “Josh has been instrumental in this whole process. If it wasn’t for him, this project would not be taking place. His time, money, effort have driven the whole farm. More importantly is his passion and dedication to educating students and adults on sustainable farming.” She went on, “I can’t tell you how much I have learned as well as countless other students working at the farm [note here how Hudd humbly refers to herself as a student]. It is such a place for authentic, hands-on learning and engagement. It is amazing to me to watch students that have no idea where a carrot comes from, or what a beet looks like, dig one up, clean it off and take a big ‘ol bite of it. It is priceless to see their expression, it is real and it grounds them.”
There are elevated plans for the space, literally. A full high ropes course will be installed to support the outdoor leadership program at Warren Tech, making it part of an outdoor classroom. Soon, students can zipline over broccoli, cucumber and eggplant. Plans also include a CSA for the neighboring houses and apartments, and the hope to have the opportunity to cultivate land at the adjacent Red Rocks Community College. Warren Tech is in the process of applying for a significant grant which will sustain the current and future efforts far into the future.
“Our relationship with the school is to aid in the education of sustainable agriculture for future engineers, culinarians and innovators to push our progression in sustainability,” Olsen says.
Olsen’s energy is calmly electric. He’s passionate, no doubt. Yet, it’s a sweet, subtle passion—not a hard-driving one. It feels similar to the determination of seed to crop. There’s intent and effort, but it’s natural and in due time.