County invests in organic farming business

Matt Pierce inspects his new irrigation system
photo by Jefferson Dodge

Boulder County officials have stepped up efforts to encourage sustainable farming on open space land, recently investing $114,000 on an irrigation system to convince a traditional farmer to go organic.

The farmer, Matt Pierce, is a member of the county’s Food and Agriculture Policy Council. He plans to begin farming organically on about 130 of the 1,000 acres of county open space he uses.

And he’s using that land to produce corn for cows at the nearby Mile Hi Dairy, which provides milk to Royal Crest Dairy in Longmont. In turn, Mile Hi provides Pierce with manure from the cows, to fertilize for the next round of corn.

“This corn ends up on your doorstep through Royal Crest,” says David Bell, the county’s agricultural resource manager for parks and open space.

Boulder Weekly recently joined Bell and Pierce on a tour of farmland on the north side of Longmont, which has gained attention in recent years for the use of biosolids — watered-down human sewage used as fertilizer. During the tour, biosolids were being applied to Pierce’s county-owned farmland.

The new center-pivot irrigation system is allowing Pierce to water 130 acres instead of 80 — and with the push of a button instead of labor-intensive and water-intensive irrigation with ditches, pipes and yellow plastic tubing.

“It saves time and water with the pivot,” Pierce says.

It’s not the first time the county has funded farming improvements on open space land, but it’s the first time a conventional farmer has agreed to go organic because of it. According to Bell, the county has previously spent about $131,000 on irrigation projects, such as creating holding ponds on county land, and the county has even funded the construction of hay sheds and granary bins to let farmers store their crops and wait for prices to go up during the off-season.

The county does reap some rewards, aside from boosting local organic food production. In Pierce’s case, the county pays for one-third of the seeds and fertilizer, and even shares the cost of a crop consultant, then gets the profits from one-third of the crops. It’s part of a self-funded program in which the county leases its open space, hay sheds and granary bins to farmers, then uses the proceeds for maintenance and improvements. Last year, the county brought in about $1.2 million in lease revenues and spent $980,000 on such projects, Bell says.

Pierce is a third-generation farmer who is still wondering how he’s going to control weeds and bugs without chemicals.

“Other farmers think I’m crazy because I’m trying to make it profitable, with all the obstacles,” he says.

A large organic farm nearby has 80 workers. Pierce has five workers, and three of them are his kids, who are under the age of 14.

“I’ve probably got the only kids who are happy to go back to school,” he says with a laugh.

In addition to corn, Pierce grows barley for Coors, sunflowers and alfalfa hay. His primary enemies are Canadian thistle and bind weed, which crowd out crops and compete for their water. It takes three years of non-chemical farming to get certified as organic, and the county is letting Pierce spray this season one last time to get rid of the weeds before he begins the process. When he can’t spray the weeds, he says, it will take five or six passes with a culivator to cut weeds between rows. As for the weevils that he won’t be able to spray, Pierce says he’ll lose some yield by having to cut crops early in the season — which eliminates the bugs’ shade and wipes them out with heat.

During the three-year transition, the county will cut his lease in half — since he won’t be able to collect premium funding for organic crops, which usually bring in about 15 percent more than conventional farm products.

As a user of controversial RoundUp Ready corn in his conventional farming efforts, Pierce says he respects the concerns about Monsanto products, but maintains that there are two sides to the story.

“There are a lot of benefits to it — we use a lot less chemicals,” he says of genetically modified crops, noting that there are two kinds of chemicals instead of six, and they are applied less frequently. “You get more yield, and crops do a lot better. But I’m not an expert. There’s always an extreme to each side.”