Boulder, Colorado is often in the news for being happy, healthy, and crazy about all things local—but not often does news coverage dive into policy efforts that underlie that hearty sheen.
One key: initiatives by the county government to support a local food system.
Boulder County leases approximately 25,000 acres to local farmers and ranchers in an effort to promote sustainable agriculture. This acreage is part of approximately 90,000 acres of county-managed open space.
Having such local agricultural production capacity is remarkable in Colorado’s sprawling Front Range. And heightened consumer interest in local foods has been a boon for local producers.
In addition to shaping consumer demands – the “all things local” craze also created new producer desires. More people began envisioning lives as small-scale producers – a few acres of organic vegetables, a lavender farm, some goats.
Yet historically, most of the farmers and ranchers leasing county land operated at a large scale. Niwot Farms, for example, is a natural beef operation with more than 1,000 head of cattle. And according to Mary Young, a writer for The Blue Line, third generation Boulder County farmer Jules Van Thuyne, Jr. runs a 1,800-acre operation, with 950 acres leased from the county.
Yet the county sought a way to facilitate smaller scale-farming dreams. And today, small producers (typically smaller than 20 acres) have access to public lands through recently developed regulations for a Growers’ Association model for agricultural leases.
Through the Association model, several producers work together on one larger parcel of land with access to shared resources, such as water, coordinated among members. According to Adrian Card, Boulder County’s Colorado State University Extension Agent, the county currently has 3 Growers’ Associations encompassing 8 producers, with annual leases running $100/acre.
Growers’ Association producers include Ollin Farms, a family business committed to sustainable agriculture that operates a farmers’ market booth, on-farm dinners, summer youth camps and also offers shares in its “community supported agriculture” (CSA). Organic produce, eggs, and honey can also be found at Hoot n’ Howl Farm, one of three farms which comprise the Gunbarrel Growers’ Association.
A key challenge of the program has been helping would-be farmers realistically consider the requirements of running a production business. Boulder County’s Extension Office offers a variety of informative print material, as well as interactive listservs and business workshops. The county also requires each member of a prospective GA have farming experience and/or direct mentorship and oversight from an experienced farmer.
Many local producers have developed close connections with community grocers and farmers’ markets. Boulder’s top restaurants, including Frasca, Salt, and the Kitchen also foster close connections with local farmers and ranchers. The Black Cat Farm Table Bistro has gone so far as to create their own organic 70 acre farm which supplies the restaurant, a farmers’ market booth, as well regular food deliveries for their membership-based community food share.
This strong connection between local restaurants and food producers – from vegetables to mushrooms to poultry — was noted in Boulder’s 2010 recognition as “America’s Foodiest Town” by Bon Appetit magazine.
Boulder County’s first Growers’ Association hit the ground in 2008 and the program is following a path of slow, careful growth. According to Extension Agent Adrian Card, key is to ensure potential producers have a solid business plan based on realistic expectations. A successful backyard garden isn’t sufficient to ensure larger-scale success.
Still, with its innovative policy setting and relatively strong local market, Boulder County offers a place where ambitious small-scale producers can pursue their farming dreams. Would-be farmers must bring experience, determination and a willingness to work hard, but the Growers Association Model provides access to another central requirement – land.
Written by Lori M. Hunter, Associate Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies at University of Colorado at Boulder