Aspen Times Weekly: Land of Plenty? | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Times Weekly: Land of Plenty?

by AMIEE WHITE BEAZLEY

The Roaring Fork Valley loves to tout its connection to good, local, sustainably raised food — vegetables, fruits meat, milk, you name it — but the reality is this: much of our "local" food comes from the North Fork Valley and the Grand Valley, where organic farms are plentiful, the growing season is just slightly longer and farmers — young and old — can make a living, raise a family and enjoy working the land.

But in the Roaring Fork Valley, particularly from Aspen to Carbondale over the past three decades, ranches and farms have been gobbled up for development, and what is left is so expensive that purchasing land on which to farm would require a six-or-seven-digit investment, something farmers who want to grow organic vegetables might never be able to afford, sans a family fortune.

While this problem is perhaps amplified in our valley where land prices are at a premium, it is not a problem specific to the region.

Over the past century, the total number of American farmers has declined — from more than 6 million in 1910 to just over 2 million today. The average age of the American farmer is 57 and the USDA expects that one-quarter (500,000) of all farmers will retire in the next twenty years.

Recently, the National Young Farmers Coalition released a study showing that the nation's young and beginning farmers face tremendous barriers in starting a farming career. The study surveyed 1,000 farmers from across the United States and found that 68 percent of those surveyed ranked land access as the biggest challenge faced by beginners. Farmers under the age of 30 were significantly more likely to rent land (70 percent) than those over 30. Yet, over the last decade, farm real estate values and rents doubled, making farm ownership next to impossible for many beginners.

"If Congress wants to keep America farming, then they must address the barriers that young people face in getting started," says Lindsey Lusher Shute, director of the National Young Farmers Coalition. "We need credit opportunities for beginning and diversified farmers, land policies that keep farms affordable for full-time growers and funding for conservation programs."

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"Land is the biggest problem," agrees Hannah Williams, a summer intern with Carbondale-based Sustainable Settings. "The only people I know who have their own farms are the people who had a lot of money to buy it in the first place."

The prohibitive cost of land in the Roaring Fork Valley, particularly land that is designated for agricultural use, with good soils and sufficient access to water, is keeping young farmers out, and people who are in the businesses of conserving agricultural land — like Pitkin County Open Space and Trails executive director Dale Will are aware of this. He and his board have recently purchased or are in the process of purchasing lands where agricultural use is a very likely possibility.

As recently reported in The Aspen Times, Will contends the main attraction of the Glassier parcel is its agricultural heritage and potential. There is no management plan in place yet, but Will mentioned the possibility of combining the Glassier and Red Ridge properties under common management with roughly 140 irrigated acres. The property is located in the midvalley.

His department's unique position, being the stewards of hundreds of acres of prime and fertile farmland designated as open space, could be the key to advancing cattle ranching, hay and alfalfa growth and reintroducing and reinvigorating produce farming, and bringing vegetables and fruits into the upper valley.

"It's interesting," says Will of the prospect of leasing out open land to young farmers who want to pursue a small farm. "When the program was started, one of the purposes was to promote historic agriculture. Frankly, looking back to that time, agriculture was just part of the scenery. But over time the sense of why do you protect agriculture has started to fill out.

"I've been fascinated with agriculture my whole life and was a land manager at the Windstar Foundation Greenhouse during its halcyon days in the 1980s. (Buckminster Fuller erected a biodome at Windstar in the '80s meant to sustainably grow food). Moving forward I have always been conscious that we don't want to see cows but the food that comes off this land is part of our community, just a part of the scenery and wildlife that comes with open space are. The more I thought about it, the more important I feel that agricultural land be benefiting our valley in as many different ways as possible. Simultaneously the local food movement has taken off and people want better food. They don't want food that's been trucked in from thousands of miles away. The open space program is starting to look at this more and more seriously."

Suzanne Stephens, of the Aspen Valley Land Trust, says there are no formal programs for connecting young farmers interested in working protected properties but they realize it is a need, nor can they require land owners with AVLT to use the land for food production.

"As most of our protected properties are conservation easements under private ownership and are therefore still actively managed by the owner or ranch manager," she says. "However, we have connected several of our ranchers/landowners with Crystal River Meats, who now lease several conservation easement properties for running cattle and sheep for their local meat business. We could certainly see this sort of model extending to other people, landowners and types of agriculture like farming, especially as older ranchers get ready to retire and don't have a successor in the family willing and able to take over."

Resources such as Land Link, operated by the Center for Rural Affairs, and Colorado's own Guidestone and Healthy Community Food Systems connect new and retiring farmers for farm transitions beneficial for both parties.

Currently, Pitco Open Space allows existing ranchers to continue to work the land for no cost, acting as managers of the property for the county. There are several cases where publicly owned fields are being used for hay, cattle and other ranching/farming initiatives. There are, however, no direct to consumer fruit and vegetable producers.

Michael Thompson is a partner in EcoSystems Design with Jerome Ostenkowski. Together they been running the Basalt Heritage Fruit Tree program for seven years and would love to see an orchard established on public open space land.

"It could be ideal in terms of water, fencing, good soil and drainage," says Thompson. "For the county to be able to provide land at a low rate and offer a similar agreement where young farmers grow vegetables and fruit to establish these farming businesses is great. It would be a place where a number of young farmers who can't afford to buy farmland can start. I look at these maps of irrigated lands in the valley, and think of the future and I get motivated."

Fortunately, this model of open space used for agriculture has been successfully executed before. Boulder County currently uses approximately 25,000 acres (of the 100,000 acres it oversees) for agricultural purposes, leasing those acres to qualified operators and growing associations, bringing in $1.6 million of lease revenue for 2012. The goals of this program, which has been in operation since 1985, are to increase food production in Boulder County, improve access to locally produced food, improve economic viability of agriculture in Boulder and improve the health of Boulder County residents.

"Talking about direct consumer vegetable and fruit programs, we are trying to expand that," says David Bell, Boulder County's agricultural resources manager. "We buy property to protect the rural landscape, add agricultural land, and create buffers between communities."

One aspect of Boulder County's success in this area has been providing these young and small-scale farmers with the ability to build small structures such as hoop houses, greenhouses and farmstands on their leased open space parcel in order to effectively grow and sell their crops. Young farmers who lease open space sell their produce through CSAs to restaurants, schools, hospitals, farmers' markets and directly to consumers near the farm.

"It's a big benefit," says Bell, who notes infrastructure improvements allow growers to sustain the farm's economic feasibility, plan future crops and maintain relationships with those who purchase their products. "It's a win, win, win; not only money for program or for long-term maintenance of these lands but economically they are creating jobs, and putting food on the shelves in local markets."

Currently, Pitkin County Open Space has not made a decision on whether or not to allow structures such as greenhouses or animal shelters, which many farmers maintain is vital to the success and profitability of local food production.

"The prospect of rows and rows of greenhouses … I don't know if that's appropriate for open space," says Will. "It's a vexing problem. We can dramatically extend the type of food we grow, and for how long throughout the year. It's an interesting question: How do we balance scenic opens views with agricultural work in progress?

"Boulder County is a great inspiration for (this kind of partnership with young farmers)," Will continues. "They are able to interest young people to get them to get back into agriculture and produce organic crops significant to the community. We thought that is a really good to save what's left what was once a very fertile resource in our valley."

For those wondering what the new generation of sustainable farmers on open space might look like, attention has recently been on Eden Vardy, an agriculture consultant, educator and founder of local nonprofit, Aspen T.R.E.E.

Four years ago, Vardy set up his sustainable farm where he holds annual summer camps and other education programs at Cozy Point Ranch, a city of Aspen-owned property. This 170-acre horse and cattle ranch is located six miles northwest of Aspen at the intersection of Highway 82 and Brush Creek Road. According to its website, the land, which is designated as public open space, consists of approximately 60 acres of flat irrigated hay meadow and pasture, 30 acres of equestrian facilities with the balance in wooded hillsides of pinion, juniper and sage.

Vardy recently won approvals from Pitkin County Commissioners to expand his farming operations by building a series of small structures on the open space plot he rents.

Vardy's proposal has several components, including building a small roadside farm stand, open for all local farmers and gardeners or anyone who is producing to sell their produce.

"Unless you want to solely eat storage crops throughout the winter season and if we really want to have access to local food, greenhouses are totally essential because at high altitude growing food in a cold climate without any kind of covers is not realistic. It's impossible to grow food when it's snowing outside.

"I believe and feel that getting young farmers inspired to participate in a model that is sustainable is essential to the growth of our community and way of life," says Vardy. "If we want to sustain this sustainable persona and keep young people around, this is it. There are not a lot of job options for younger people."

Vardy commends Will's support of local agriculture and acknowledges his advocacy is a large reason that the idea of using open space for young farmers is even discussed as a possibility.

"It takes a lot of work to be a farmer," he says. "And farming is not just a business model for profit; it's a model for building solid connections and generally saving our landscapes. I think hoop houses, greenhouses and domes are beautiful. I like how that looks, and it would be nice to have these structures on open space model. These things are designed to be scalable, to fit a large plot of land with coverage and without. It is a potential solution for utilization of large plots of land, and getting people involved. It covers its costs and it does generate a lot of yields in many other ways."