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Thursday, May 22,2014

Sustainability tax

Boulder County proposes a new levy aimed at boosting local agriculture

By Lori DeBoer
Lori DeBoer

In a poll conducted by Talmey-Drake Research and Strategy, Inc., in February and March of this year, 58 percent of voters indicated that they’d likely vote for a sustainability tax if money was spent on assisting local organic farmers.

Susie Strife, sustainability coordinator for Boulder County, says that county officials have also surveyed residents multiple times on environmental issues and have found that increasing the amount of food grown locally and organically, preserving agricultural land and increasing the number of farmer’s markets have been a priority.

“Local food not only protects our natural landscape, but there are more consumers seeking locally grown produce and more people who are trying to create relationships with producers of locally grown food,” says Strife.

That’s why county commissioners are currently working to put a sustainability tax, the details of which are still being drafted, to voters in November.

County Commissioner Elise Jones says that a big reason county commissioners are proposing the tax is to explore ways to provide Book ongoing Exp: funding 6/21/14for the county’s sustainability programs, many of which were funded through temporary federal stimulus grants and programs for which the money is now running out.

Other programs that will benefit under the proposed sustainability tax are the low-income weatherization and EnergySmart efficiency programs. The EnergySmart program’s federal funding was only for three years and it ran out last fall. In 2009, funding for the weatherization program could cover 450 homes, but that number decreased this year to support 160 homes. Boulder residents have also indicated in several surveys that they favor recycling and other waste disposal services and programs for alternative transportation. An initiative that did not rank highly in the Talmey-Drake survey was building more electric vehicle charging stations. In addition, the number-one reason voters gave for opposing a sustainability tax is that taxes are already too high.

The ballot title and language are still being drafted — including whether it will be based on sales taxes, which 60 percent of Boulder County residents polled supported — or property taxes, which only 53 percent of those polled supported. Residents will have a chance to give more input at another public hearing.

“Boulder County is uniquely situated to take advantage of the resurging interest in farming and local food systems,” says Strife.

Land use policies and planning set in place in the 1970s means that there is a large amount of agricultural land being preserved in open spaces owned by the county, notes Jones. Boulder County protects 100,000 acres, of which 25,000 acres are under agricultural development. One of the county goals is increasing the number of acres being farmed organically to 20 percent by 2020, says David Bell, agricultural resources manager with Parks and Open Space.

Most of the food grown on open space — whether it is vegetables or grain — is processed and distributed within a 50-mile radius, says Bell.

The county held dozens of meetings with key partners, nonprofit organizations and business leaders to hammer out how best the money could be used to help local farmers. Because these ideas are still in progress, residents are welcome to email the county with more ideas or input, says Strife.

One of the capital improvement projects under consideration is a Boulder County Center for Agricultural Education and Innovation. This would be developed through a partnership with the St. Vrain School District to offer programs to teach safe and sustainable food production systems. Students would be able to participate in an academic program that would partner with local farms for a hands-on learning experience in which they would be growing their own food and learning animal husbandry skills. The space would also be used for a cultural community gathering place and adult educational programs as well, says Strife.

Another idea is a community kitchen and food preservation center inside the Longmont Farmers’ Market. It would be available for use by individuals and businesses who want to can, freeze and dehydrate food in large batches on commercial equipment. It could be used as a place to teach people how to prepare, preserve and make food. It would also provide cold storage areas for local farmers. Adding walk-in coolers could be a bonus for farmers looking to store or donate extra produce.

“Denver Urban Gardens uses this model and it’s successful,” says Strife.

Another ongoing program helps farmers increase water efficiency.

Helping with the capital costs of installing farm stands and helping market those stands is another possible way the sustainability tax could be used, adds Strife.

“There’s a real interest in what farmers are doing on open space, and people want to participate in that,” says Strife.

Local organic farmers voice mixed feelings about the sustainability tax, saying that it’s not nearly enough to address the challenges faced by local organic farmers.

For example, the Federal Food and Drug Administration is considering legislation to require organic farmers to wash their produce with a bleach or peroxide solution. Farm operations on open space have septic systems, which are not set up to accommodate those kinds of chemicals, says Wyatt Barnes, co-owner of Red Wagon Farms.

Organic farmers are also hampered by Land Use Department regulations that exclude greenhouses with running water and electricity on open space. Barnes has to start his seedlings at greenhouses in Weld County, which could jeopardize his organic certification for those plants.

“Our chance of getting regulated out of business is tremendous, and getting help with those regulations is important,” says Barnes.

Another area of concern is the Transportation Department’s limitation on the amount of traffic a country road can manage, which hampers the viabili ty of an on-farm market stand.

Eric Skokan and his wife Jill own Black Cat Farm, and restaurants Black Cat Bistro and Bramble & Hare. He noted that a year-round farmer’s market could incentivize more farmers to grow vegetables during the off-season.

The capital costs needed for large and expensive pieces of farm equipment — which is used for only part of the year, then sits around — could be offset by the county investing in equipment and renting it out, he adds.

Another way county officials could help farmers is by making it possible for them to live on the farm they are operating, says Jill Skokan, co-owner of Black Cat Farm.

Bell says that Parks and Open Space is willing to help farmers on open space with issues as they arise, but that coordinating among various government entities and open space users is an ongoing process. “We are watching some of these changes and will be working with tenants to help them stay compliant with any new laws and putting systems in place to help them,” he says.

One way that the county helps organic farms is a 50 percent reduction in rent during the three-year period it takes for a farmer to transition from conventional to organic.

“When they are going through their transition, they can’t market their product as organic,” says Bell. ‘So they have all the expenses of farming organically, but they can’t recoup that expense.”

Bell says organic meat operations are the most difficult to sustain because the farmers not only need to do certification on their animals, but also need to have their feed sources certified. The county is partnering with the Colorado Department of Agriculture to give workshops on obtaining and maintaining organic certification.

Overall, while the desire to have locally grown, organic food is high in Boulder County, meeting the demand is challenging.

Bell acknowledges that it is difficult to attract and retain organic farmers, especially since farming is laborious work requiring a diverse skill set. The county has partnered with Colorado State University to create a Building Farmers Program, which teaches would-be farmers not only how to be good stewards, but how to have a successful business model.

“There’s been agriculture going on in Boulder County for a long time,” says Jones. “The local ag renaissance is really new and we are evolving to try and respond to that desire and opportunity.”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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