Open space leases are a ‘win-win situation’
When people think of Aspen and Pitkin County, agriculture is probably not the first thing that jumps to mind.
However, agriculture is part of the area’s history, and one part of Pitkin County’s multifaceted Open Space and Trails program is focused on making sure it continues into the future.
“We want to keep agriculture going in this valley,” said Gary Tennenbaum, the program’s assistant director. “We want agricultural products grown on our properties.”
In order to promote that goal, open space officials revamped their lease program in October 2014 to include a far higher level of management than previously existed, Tennenbaum said. Previously, open space officials would ask neighboring landowners to help manage lands it owned, he said.
Now an online bidding process allows county businesses, nonprofits and individuals to apply to use the lands for nominal amounts of money in exchange for infrastructure upgrades and managing the lands, including controlling weeds and amending the soil, Tennenbaum said.
“These producers know how to manage agricultural lands,” he said. “Open Space and Trails doesn’t have an agricultural background.”
In fewer than two years, the program has awarded 11 leases to people who grow hay, raise livestock and graze horses on a portion of the more than 4,700 acres the program owns. Businesses with leases include a Basalt-area agricultural co-op with plans to grow vegetables, flowers and fruit trees, as well as Woody Creek Distillers, which grows potatoes on two plots it later turns into vodka, he said.
Without the leases, the county would have to hire more employees to manage the lands, he said. In addition, the county keeps any improvements, such as irrigation equipment, when the leases run out.
“It’s a win-win situation,” Tennenbaum said. “We’re saving the county money and keeping water rights fully utilized.”
For example, Woody Creek Distillers grows potatoes on a plot on the Emma Open Space and another on the Wheatley Open Space, he said. A message left at the distillery Friday seeking comment was not returned.
Pitkin County commissioners last month approved the latest lease, which allowed Avalanche Outfitters in Redstone to graze horses on the Coke Ovens Open Space for $3,600 a year. A message left Friday at the outfitters also was not returned.
Jimmy Dula is head of a cooperative that holds a 10-year lease on a 14-acre portion of the Glassier Open Space near Basalt. The five members of the Glassier Gardens Agricultural Cooperative include a flower farmer, a produce farmer, a heritage fruit tree project, an organic fertilizer business and a children’s camp, he said.
Dula, 27, said his vision for the future of agriculture is for it to occur more on public lands, including town parks, open space and national forests.
“I see something very romantic about agriculture on public land,” Dula said. “We can work together as a society to make sure we all have access to food.”
Leasing agricultural land from a public entity for $10 or $20 an acre takes the single biggest cost — land — out of the equation, he said.
And while his co-op is just getting off the ground — it was only awarded the lease in March 2015 — one of the rules for everything eventually grown on the property is that it must be sold in this area, he said.
“I really like them including that,” Dula said. “I said we wouldn’t sell anything past Glenwood Springs.”
Tennenbaum said Dula’s co-op is a prime example of the new lease program working well.
“Properties are being used in ways we didn’t expect them to be,” he said. “We’re excited about it.”
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