Granby farmers named emerging leaders in U.S. food and agriculture
Four hundred clucking hens, a pack of snorting pigs, a batch of peeping chicks, two honking geese and four shouting children make up the Friday morning symphony at Sisu Farms.
Aila and Asa Holley raise and sell farm fresh goods including pastured eggs, poultry, pork and grass-fed beef. This year, the Granby couple was honored as one of 20 emerging leaders in food and agriculture across the country.
Sisu Farms uses regenerative farming practices to improve the health of their soil and increase water retention while raising quality meat in the harsh Grand County environment.
“We’re raising pasture animals outside as close to their natural behaviors as we can and still do it in a way that we can make an affordable product for people,” Aila explained.
The couple runs the farm while also caring for their four children: 10-year-old Atticus, 8-year-old Roark, 5-year-old Eowyn, and 3-year-old Almanzo. Raising their family was part of the reason their interest in healthy farming practices began.
“We had been on a journey of discovering how food really affects your health and your body,” Aila said. “That started with Atticus being born with a lot of food allergies.”
The farming enterprise has been in the works for two years but began full swing in 2019 when they were able to start selling products.
Right now, the farm has about 2,000 chickens including both those raised for laying and for processing thanks to a couple recent batches of birds. The 400 laying hens produce about 35-40 dozen eggs a day, which the farm sells to individuals and to local operations like C Lazy U Ranch and Mountain Grind in Winter Park.
Sisu Farms also features about 60 Scottish Highland cattle and a number of pigs.
To regenerate the soil, the Holley family provides animal impact and then allows the soil to rest. The chickens are moved daily with the pasture not landing on the same part of ground twice in the same year.
The young but ambitious operation has not been without its challenges. While the regenerative practices worked well last year, this summer has been harder because of how dry it’s been.
Making daily choices in the harsh and unpredictable Grand County climate can be difficult — especially when the outcome might not be obvious for six months or even longer.
“You make your best guess and trust your gut to try something that has never been tried on this ground before,” Asa said. “You also have to gauge what needs done today and next week, and what needs to happen five years from now.”
As the farm navigates these tough decisions, Aila and Asa’s four kids also see the process in what Aila calls “farmschool” rather than homeschool. The children are deeply entrenched in the day-to-day processes at the farm, learning basic veterinary knowledge, business skills and customer service expertise at a young age.
“The kids have been able to be involved in the enterprise and see the processes — the successes and the failures,” Aila said.
Providing healthy foods for their family and the community along with important life skills to her children has been the most rewarding part of the business, Aila said. By producing their own food, the family is able to steer clear of the large-scale commercial food industry.
Aila described the industrial food system as broken on an individual, economic and environmental level. She said that the flaws in the this system affect everyone in ways that might not be initially oblivious but that changes are needed.
It’s not just Sisu Farms but many small operations that are growing to meet the demand for more farm to table services.
“What I see happening is movement in these types of operations — pastured poultry, pastured pork, grass-fed beef — on a smaller scale,” Aila said. “Families are doing it.”
While only a small portion of grocery store sales go to the farmer, when people buy direct more money is going to creating a better product that stays in the local economy.
The family works with Grand County businesses to provide a varied diet for their animals. Aila explained that the farm receives expired produce from Mountain Market in Grand Lake, leftovers from Middle Park High School and spent grain from the Fraser Brewing Company to provide the eclectic diet that the pigs and chickens would be eating if they lived in the wild.
Strong local ties are an important part of the Sisu Farms operation.
“We buy all of our feed locally from the feed store here,” Aila said. “We try to keep the money we get in the community. When you buy local — whether it’s us or some of the other farmers up here — it helps the local economy.”
If Sisu Farms is out of a product, Aila said they point customers to other local farmers. Meeting demand has been another experiment for the family, but their hope is to be one of many local farms providing products for Grand County.
“We can all work together and create enough of a supply that people don’t have to leave the county to get quality food,” Aila said.
Buyers interested in supporting this local farm can buy products online at Sisu.Farm and pickup contact free anytime from the front porch of their Granby location. Eggs are also available on the porch anytime with a jar available for payment.
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When the Braidwood Condominiums in Winter Park were built in the 1980s, the building lacked hallways wide enough for wheelchairs, walls between units were slim and the fire suppression system couldn’t compare to modern requirements.