Farms Finest: Pitkin County lands part-time ag agent | AspenTimes.com

Farms Finest: Pitkin County lands part-time ag agent

Joni Keefe
Special to The Aspen Times

Are you missing out on more benefits that you could have had all along? There is a public service, more than a century in the making, available to everyone, and yet many people simply are not aware that it exists.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides an extension service to all homeowners, farmers and ranches. Extension agents deliver the USDA's information. Nearly every county in the nation has or had a "go-to" person for agriculture who covers local needs by responding to phone calls or making visits to check on gardens, farms and orchards — or all. This helped communities stay informed and maintain a strong agriculture economy.

Pitkin County has not had an agent in 21 years. Budgets were trimmed, and the county agent's position was eliminated. The focus had shifted toward tourism and real estate. The attention on agriculture was fading. This vacant position remained unnoticed for more than two decades.

Today, we are experiencing more diversification in community needs and interests. This time it is toward sustainability, growing our own food and long-term land management. Community gardens are being established in growing numbers. To join one, there often is a lengthy waiting list. More garden space is needed. Officials find themselves reviewing greenhouse plans to permits for farm-to-table events. An unbiased and professional voice in agriculture is necessary.

On Oct. 1, Pitkin County once again will have an agent. This is a one-year trial on a part-time basis. Eagle County will share its full-time agent with Pitkin County once a week. Although only a fraction of a full-time position, it still represents a huge step.

Agriculture and natural-resource management are becoming daily subjects. Books, newspapers, organizations and local events all are sharing their views and opinions. Having a publicly available resource will help the community by having a unbiased and fact-based resource.

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C.J. Mucklow is the Western regional director for the Colorado State University Extension. He has spent 23 years as the agent in Routt County and now has an office in Grand Junction.

"I hope that Pitkin County people will put this to good use," he said. "They will share with Eagle County an agent and have one year to prove the value of this. Then, after this year, we can evaluate data and make a decision to continue or not."

The new agent is Jeff Pieper, a Colorado native who grew up in Fort Collins. Pieper has a bachelor's degree in food-crop production from Colorado State and a master's in sustainable agriculture systems from the University of Rhode Island.

Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said there's a growing need for this position locally.

"Because the county is showing intense interest in more local foods, we need to take a closer look at this," he said. "Homeowners with small-scale-acreage properties look to us for having help. The past economic downtown and budget cuts caused us to lose our weed manager as well. This hiring is a win-win situation for everyone."

In the past, extension services were a primary resource for any farmer or rancher. The name itself means reaching out into communities to educate and help.

During the Renaissance in Europe, groups started to formally gather and print farming and gardening wisdom. These books were circulated extensively to educate others. The United States, in the late 1800s, began to adopt similar methods to spread agriculture education here and this evolved into today's state university-driven system.

With the focus on food, health and environment, it is invaluable to have an agent to advise all of us. Fact-based information fills their extensive websites with topics that range from lawn care and beekeeping to chickens — and even canning.

Here are some resources to bookmark:

Western region and horticulture: http://www.coopext.colostate.edu/WR/

Small acreage: http://www.ext.colostate.edu/sam/

General information: http://www.csrees.usda.gov

I, too, hope that the community will use this proven resource. Imagine, in the future, having our own full-time agent to assist with Pitkin County's landscapes, community gardens and other projects.

Joni Keefe moved to the Roaring Fork Valley after a career in landscape design. She is passionate about local food and agriculture. For more information, her website is Farmsfinest.com, or follow her on Twitter. Connect at joni@farmsfinest.com.

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