Pitkin County commissioners OK agricultural leases for open space

Pitkin County commissioners approved three agricultural leases Wednesday for properties owned by the county’s Open Space and Trails program.

Two leases were awarded to the Grange Family Ranches, one of the last family ranches in the midvalley.

The first lease was for the 20-acre North Lease area of the Emma Open Space, which is adjacent to the Grange property, said Paul Holsinger, agriculture and conservation easement administrator for the open space program. That lease was for five years at $7.50 an acre annually, he said. The family plans to grow hay.

A company associated with the Woody Creek Distillery also applied to lease that property to grow potatoes for vodka, he said. And while open space officials ranked both proposals equally, the Grange family won out because they’ve effectively managed the property in the past and were in good standing with the open space program, Holsinger said.

The same family also was awarded a lease for a portion of the Grace Shehi Open Space. The family ranchers already had been stewarding that property as well, he said. The family has been irrigating the property through its own water rights because the open space program bought the property without water rights, Holsinger said.

The Grange family will lease the property in exchange for the irrigation, he said.

The last lease approved Wednesday was for the Coke Ovens Open Space in Redstone. Avalanche Outfitters, a hunting and horseback riding company, was the only company to apply for that lease, and has been stewarding that 35-acre parcel for the past two years, Holsinger said.

Open space officials plan to have a management plan for the Coke Ovens Open Space in place by Dec. 31, 2019, he said. Until then, Avalanche will steward the property and pay $3,600 annually for the lease.

Of late, agricultural leases on open space properties have allowed younger, small farmers the opportunity to grow vegetables and meat on land in the Roaring Fork Valley they could not normally afford, according to the open space program.

Other leases, like those described above, free county workers from having to take care of the land — including controlling noxious weeds and exercising water rights through irrigation — and allow ranchers to grow hay for animal feed.

The Open Space and Trails Board even allocated $50,000 this year to start a tool-rental business that includes a tractor for use by young farmers and ranchers who can’t afford to buy such equipment.