Boulder County Parks and Open Space Agricultural Tour
November 11, 2012
Several weeks ago I took a Boulder County Parks and Open Space Agricultural Tour. I’ve long been a huge fan of Boulder County’s Open Space (I love living in a town surrounded by farm land, hiking trails, and open fields), so I was excited to go on one of these tours. They do several each year, all featuring a great talk while the bus travels between farm destinations, as well as two or three visits to local farms. Unfortunately on this particular Saturday, it was the type of rainy day we hoped for all summer, but which naturally showed up instead during our fall tour.
Based on a comprehensive plan developed in the 70’s to conserve Open Space, the philosophy of the Boulder County Parks and Open Space is that urban growth should center around cities, and rural areas should be preserved. Open Space is defined as land intentionally left free from development, such as farms, wildlife habitats, recreational areas, natural landscapes, or cultural areas with historical buildings. For years after the initial plan, there was little money to preserve much land (two tax revenue initiatives were defeated in the late 70’s and 80’s). But beginning in 1993, four tax initiatives were passed that have allowed the county to accumulate 100,000 acres of open space, fairly evenly split between the plains and the foothills/mountains. Of the total acreage, 65,000 has been purchased outright, and the remaining 35,000 was purchased as conservation easements, which means the surface land itself is not purchased, but there are restrictions imposed on future development.
One of the great things about Boulder County Open Space is that parts of the land is leased to farmers who raise much of the local produce and livestock in the area. There are between 85 and 90 farms that lease from Boulder County Open Space, with the leases ranging from smaller farms of 2 to 5 acres, to those as large as 1000 acres. Leases are either cash leases, or cropshare leases in which the farmer and the county split a share of both farming costs and profit. The yearly lease revenue of about 1.5 million goes towards irrigation costs as well as back into the farms.
In this area of the country we basically have a desert climate. But crops like corn, sugar beets and other vegetables take roughly 2-3 feet of water per year. Since the average annual moisture in Boulder county is between 11 and 13 inches, there’s quite a deficit. The irrigation water that makes growing crops possible comes from snowmelt that flows into ditches which run through Boulder County. The first Boulder County ditch systems were constructed and used in the late 1850s, which is pretty cool.
The Boulder County Open Space department encourages the ‘local food loop’ concept, and strives to make it possible for smaller farmers to have the opportunity to lease some of the land. They’re also supportive of organic farming methods, and have met their goal of having 10% of the croplands on Open Space being farmed using organic methods. (This is about 15 times the national average of 0.7% of public cropland that is farmed organically).
So obviously, there’s still a significant amount of cropland that is traditionally farmed, and in fact some of those crops include genetically modified ones. Personally, when possible, I choose not to eat GMO foods, based on the fact that it just seems healthier to eat more naturally developed food. But as with most things, there are shades of gray in the arguments against GMO vegetables. This report on the Boulder County Board of Commissioners’ adoption of the cropland policy has some good information on the open space position. Many local farmers have been using conventional methods for years, struggle to make ends meet as it is, and have found many benefits in using GMO seeds, such as drastic reductions in toxic pesticides required, reduced carbon footprint as a result of fewer passes for the application of pesticides, and a reduction of soil erosion as better tilling processes are possible. The sugar beet farmer that we visited sends the vast majority of his crops to locations that are well within the 100 mile radius that many locavores espouse. So I had to ask myself – how does a GMO sugar beet crop that travels 97 miles to Fort Morgan for processing stack up against organic peppers grown in Mexico and transported over 550 miles to Boulder? Not as simple as you would think it would be. While I wish that all the surrounding farming could be non-GMO (organic would be even better), and I buy organic whenever I can, I do respect the position of Boulder County Open Space in continuing to support farmers who have been farming the land for generations, while encouraging a gradual move toward more organic farming. I believe that any progress is better than no progress, and as consumers become more knowledgeable and voice their desire to have more organic foods, things will continue to move in that direction.
Something I found out at the sugar beet farm – sugar beets are amazingly edible in their raw form (at least in small quantities – not sure how it would work in bulk). I asked what they tasted like, and the farmer hacked off some pieces for us. It’s like eating sugary jicama, and I couldn’t help wondering if it would be free on the Weight Watchers point system since it’s a vegetable! We were supposed to see the beets being harvested, but since the entire field was mucky, we ended up just seeing the equipment and hearing the farmers speak.
Our final stop was The Rocky Mountain Pumpkin Ranch in Longmont, owned by the farmer who operates Full Circle Farms, the largest organic farm in Boulder County. Unfortunately, since it was so rainy, we didn’t get to visit any of the farm land, but we did get to hear a brief talk about their organic farming. I can vouch for their organic produce, which I have purchased both at Whole Foods and Alfalfa’s.
Due to the rain the only good pictures I got were at the sugar beet farm. I think it would be great to go on another one of these tours on a nicer day when I could see more of a variety of farming on Open Space, and I encourage anyone interested in finding out more about local food to join one next year.