Big boost for smaller farmers planned in Roaring Fork Valley in 2018

Erin Cuseo pulls carrots last fall on the land she farms on Lazy Glen Open Space. Cuseo is part of the surge of young farmers taking root in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times |

Small farms and ranches got a big boost from the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program in 2017, and even bigger things are planned this year.

The agency is leasing some of its property at favorable rates for long periods of time to incubate start-up farmers. Open space also has approved spending $50,000 this year to start a tool-rental business specifically aimed at farmers and ranchers.

The additions are part of the agency’s expanding focus to provide land not only for wildlife habitat and recreation, but to help revive the valley’s once rich agricultural heritage.

Last summer, the agency leased 10 of 40 acres at the Lazy Glen Open Space for agricultural operations. This year, the Emma Open Space will be a focus of the expanding agricultural effort.

“The one thing we can offer that the private sector can’t is a long-term lease,” said Paul Holsinger, agriculture and conservation easement administrator for the open space program.

The open space program is starting to grant 10-year leases with possible extensions on its agricultural lands so that the leaseholders can rest assured they have a chance to recoup funds they sink into capital improvements.

“I think that’s immensely critical,” Holsinger said of the long leases.

Cooper Means was awarded a 10-year lease at Lazy Glen last year. He raised livestock and grew mushrooms, which proved wildly popular with restaurants. He subleased land for gardens to Erin Cuseo, owner and managing partner of Erin’s Acres.

Cuseo produced nearly 6 tons of veggies and greens in her gardens and greenhouses, according to a year-end report by Holsinger. Cuseo’s produce included 5,280 pounds for Erin’s Acres Community Supported Agriculture program, 3,000 pounds she sold at farmers’ markets, 2,000 pounds sold to restaurants and 1,500 pounds in donations, the report said.

Means raised and sold 630 pounds of lamb, 1,400 pounds of poultry and 120 pounds of mushrooms. The mushroom production is expected to grow tenfold by June.

“The only thing limiting them there is the size of the property,” Holsinger said.

A second apartment is being made habitable in a barn that exists on the property. Providing a second place for a permanent resident is likely a key to increasing livestock production at the Lazy Glen property. Someone needs to be onsite regularly to oversee the animals.

“The challenge of the young farmers is the same as for everyone else: housing,” Holsinger said.

The other major open space parcel that figured into ag production in 2017 was the Wheatley property on the north side of Snowmass Canyon, opposite Highway 82. A company related to Woody Creek Distillery produced 385,000 pounds of potatoes. Two varieties of spuds were used to make vodka.

At Emma, young farmers Harper Kaufman and Christian LaBar, operating as Two Roots Farm, have bid to start the first phase of what’s designed to be an expanding operation over the next several years. They were selected in December for what’s known as the South Lease, and the open space board will consider granting that lease and a separate lease for the nearby Emma schoolhouse property. The two parcels are 20 acres combined, Holsinger said.

“It’s no news to anybody that land is expensive around here,” LaBar said. “We’ve been leasing from Spradley Farms, so we see this as a good opportunity to get access to land that we could not afford. We really want to stay here, and we really appreciate the support we get from the community.”

Two Roots intends to grow produce on 4 acres near the schoolhouse. They plan to rotate where they plant, so the remainder of the schoolhouse property will be planted in grasses to help restore the soil, Holsinger said, and the South Lease will be an irrigated hayfield and possibly be rented periodically for grazing.

The open space board will consider the leases Thursday as well as Two Roots’ proposal to add a barn and hoop houses for irrigation improvements.

We’re feeling confident,” LaBar said. “It’s a tricky space our application is in because it’s kind of a new thing for this program, and us asking to put in new infrastructure and a barn and stuff for our vegetable options has never been done to the degree we’re asking. I do know the public’s opinion was overwhelmingly in support of diverse organic farm.”

Another portion of the Emma property, the North Lease, was rented to the Grange Family Ranches for a hayfield and grazing. The Grange family, one of the last family ranches in the midvalley, has worked that land for several years.

The open space program will assist young farmers and ranchers beyond its borders this year. From its budget, $50,000 will be used to buy a stand-behind tractor with multiple attachments as well as several pieces of equipment that can be used by a standard tractor.

The machinery is often too expensive for young farmers to invest in, yet it could help them expand their operations, Holsinger said.

Oversight of the rental equipment will be handled by Aspen T.R.E.E., which has an agricultural lease from the city of Aspen at Cozy Point Ranch. A formal organization with an annual fee will be started for young farmers and ranchers. Only members of that organization will be able to rent the equipment, for an additional fee, Holsinger said.

Details of that tool-rental program are expected in February.


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