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Rooted Women: Holly Conn of Mountain Roots

Holly Conn standing against a light brick wall.

This month, we’d like to introduce you to Holly Conn, the founder and executive director of Mountain Roots in Gunnison, CO.  Mountain Roots cultivates the local food system in Gunnison Valley and the surrounding areas by creating and coordinating local food programs like community farms and gardens, food distribution programs for those experiencing food insecurity, CSAs, agricultural and outdoor-focused kids camps, cooking classes, beginning farmer training, and more. Mountain Roots is considered the leading local food and sustainable agriculture initiative in Gunnison County, committed to increasing local food in schools, supporting food security for all, teaching lifelong food self-sufficiency skills, and building awareness and availability of locally produced, nutritious foods.

Q: It’s Colorado Proud Month and this week is National Farmer’s Market Week. How does what Mountain Roots do tie into those?

A: As a local food systems initiative, everything we do could be called “Colorado Proud.”  Mountain Roots is a leading agricultural producer in the Gunnison Valley – we have two community farms where we model and teach regenerative agriculture to produce food for the valley and to train the next generation of farmers – ten aspiring agrarians at a time in two-year apprenticeships. We start up, support, uplift, and promote our local and regional farmers. Every Sunday we’re at the Crested Butte Farmers Market, where the middle schoolers in our kids’ food entrepreneur camp run a booth selling handcrafted gourmet popsicles, playfully called “Whimsicles.” The CB Farmers Market is a key partner in our food rescue / food relief efforts, as well.

Q: Promoting health (healthy people, healthy planet) is one of your passions. What is your favorite healthy go-to meal (or meals) during a busy day?

A: I’ve been making a lot of “protein bowls” lately – I’ll start with a huge handful of of fresh mixed baby “power” greens (baby kale, bok choy, spinach, arugula, mustard), add half an avocado (sprinkled with cumin) some cubes of sheep’s milk feta, half a cup of lightly steamed broccoli, some diced grilled chicken, chopped bacon, a heaping spoonful of kim chi, and a sprinkle of chile pistachios.

Q: And what’s one of your favorite splurges/guilty pleasures?

A: In the summer, I think cool and fresh and simple is best – a bowl of fresh berries, or right now – apricots and peaches are coming in – topped with freshly whipped cream.

Holly Conn standing with her bicycle in front of a lake in summer.

Q: We know all too well that women are still trying to do it all – succeed at work, look after their families, run a household, be a good friend and member of the community. What do you like to do to unwind after a hectic day/week?

A: I preserve portions of the morning and portions of the evening for “me” time and I’ve found that having a routine really helps. It’s really the mornings that make all the difference to me. I’m an early bird, so when I wake up the house is quiet, and I walk my labrador, Cooper, around sunrise. I love seeing the early morning mist on the fields and watching birds in the wetlands on the open space near my house in Crested Butte. I do one full, slow sun salutation while my coffee is brewing then meditate for 10-20 minutes. Sometimes I’ll write in my journal. These moments of peacefulness really set the tone for my day. Also, we have amazing stars here – I always go out and look at the stars before going to bed.

I love to go hiking (the wildflowers here are up to my waist!), and work in my own garden, or take long bike rides down the less-traveled gravel roads that run along the rivers through our valley.

In the winter, I like to ski most weekends – I like to do one day of downhill and one day of nordic – that’s the beauty of living in a ski town!

Sometimes, though, it’s just curling up with a cup of tea and a good book.

Q:  How do you get motivated to go out there and kick butt every day, even when things feel overwhelming?

A: In general, I find that I am very motivated by the potential for and momentum around positive change. At Mountain Roots, when anyone joins the team, I have everyone do a visualization exercise where they explore and define our “why” – loosely based on the famous talk by Simon Sinek. Taking the time to articulate this to ourselves and to each other helps us to return to it when we’re feeling challenged or disconnected. So first, I return to my Why. Next, I review my “wins,” which might be big projects or accomplishments over the past few months, or as simple as writing down things I am grateful for – either way, this helps me stay focused on the positive. Finally, the staff and board of Mountain Roots are excellent co-conspirators. I like to ask the staff, “what’s the best thing going on in your world right now?” They offer fresh and different perspectives and by seeing things through their eyes, I find it is easier to refresh my own perspective.

Holly Conn in a purple dress, crouching beside some pea plants in a garden.

Q:  What are your plans for Mountain Roots this year?

A: Well, there’s no doubt we’re in a huge stage of growth. Now that we’ve established school gardens and have environmental education and nutrition education in the classrooms, our Farm to School program is going to turn our focus to transforming school lunch. This year we will start with a series of community input sessions. And even though we’re serving more people than ever with our free produce boxes in food security, what’s really interesting and transformational is that we’re working on this concept of moving people along a food security continuum to build self-sufficiency. In agriculture, we’ve built out our two community farm spaces and they’re really producing beautiful, abundant, and delicious food… but this year will mark the start of our journey into exploring the benefits and challenges of year-round, hydroponic vegetable production with our four new shipping container farms. Finally, we’re building a food hub and incubator kitchen. We’ve just finalized the design, the next step is to select all of the commercial kitchen equipment, and then construction will begin at the end of summer. I’m so excited to see this community development project come to fruition – it will be a game-changer for farmers and food business start ups.

Q: What are a couple of organizations or companies you’d like others to know about and why?

First, Colorado’s Blueprint to End Hunger. I’m a huge advocate for collaborations, and this is an excellent example of interagency collaboration, which started in 2018 with over 100 different partners working together to identify inequities in our food system and chart a course toward change. Recently, they’ve positioned themselves as a leader in the DEI space – they published an Equity Continuum to help organizations and public agencies take a hard, honest look at where we all are on our DEI journey.  We want to be more authentic in our relationships with the people we serve and more inclusive in program design and decision making, so I’m always on the lookout for models and more resources. This work is very challenging and it’s also so important. I appreciate their courage, honesty, and leadership in this.

I’m keeping an eye on Food Corps and the Chef Ann Foundation – they both are making great advances in transforming school food, and in farming, we follow a couple of the bigger organizations, like the Young Farmers’ Coalition and American Farmland Trust.

Right here in Colorado, there’s a rising tide, so to speak, of nonprofit local food organizations and food hub business that we’re a part of, and we are gaining momentum and working together to design and produce a collective impact: Guidestone Colorado in Salida, Good Food Collective in Durango, the San Luis Valley Local Foods Coalition in Alamosa, Valley Food Partnership in Montrose, Farm Runners (a food hub in Hotchkiss), Valley Roots Food Hub (Alamosa), East Denver Food Hub, and Southwest Farm Fresh in Cortez. Big things are afoot and I’m so excited to be part of these partnerships.

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