Growing farmers

County mulls changes in land use code to aid small organic operations

Hoot 'n' Howl Farm
photo by Elizabeth Miller

Local farmers are speaking up to have their wish list and their problems heard as the Boulder County commissioners begin reviewing agriculture land use codes for an update. Revisions may move more farmers out of the gray areas of ambiguous regulations and onto ground that could help them grow their operations.

Abby Shannon, senior planner with Boulder County land use, is heading the project to revise the agricultural land use codes, which apply to both public and private land.

“We are so early in the process we actually don’t have anything proposed right now,” Shannon says. “The project has been identified by the Boulder County commissioners as something they really want to pursue, but the scope of the project hasn’t even been finalized yet.”

The project is expected to take at least nine months, Shannon says, and will start with gathering information on what farmers are doing now.

“It’s been long identified as an issue to work on,” she says. “It seems like we review our agricultural policies every 10 years or so, and the code is constantly evolving, so I think this is just one of those things we’re trying to keep up with.”

She’s also working with the Boulder County Parks and Open Space agricultural division, the Cropland Policy Advisory Group, the Food and Agriculture Policy Council and other stakeholder groups in the area.

“We’re just really early in the learning stage, trying to figure out what’s going on in the county and what the hiccups are and what the problems are,” she says. “Right now I’m just trying to talk to people and get a really broad understanding of what they’re doing now and to try and see how it fits into the code or maybe how it doesn’t fit into the code, how the code isn’t addressing what they’re doing.”

Open space administrators have been passing along the wishes of local farmers and consumers, even when they violate current codes.

“We’re letting them know what we’re seeing people ask for,” says David Bell, agricultural division manager for open space.

On that list are farm stands, farm-to-table dinners, demonstration farms — the causes of eaters who want to bring local food home and perhaps grow it themselves.

Recently, the open space department has been adjusting its own picture of land use to include more small farms. The 25,000 acres of open space land put to agricultural use are managed with 140 leases. But more people are looking to start small organic farms on just a few acres. It wouldn’t be possible for them to parcel those all into five-acre bundles with independent leases, Bell says. Nor is it possible for farmers looking to grow organic farms to lease hundreds of acres at a time. Even a few dozen acres is well beyond reach.

“One acre looks pretty enormous when you’re on your knees,” Bell says.

And for the first three years, while farms work to establish organic status and are hand-weeding every row, an organic farmer spends a lot of time buried in the rows of just a couple of acres.

Bell has a 40-acre parcel set aside for organic farming and is still searching for someone to take a parcel that size. He’s been working to develop models to make more small farms possible on acreage typically leased out in large chunks, working with farmers interested in developing cooperatives, like the Gunbarrel Growers Association on Jay Road in Boulder. Bob and Janet Poley, of the Hoot ’n’ Howl Farm and founders of the Gunbarrel Growers Association, have leased 15 acres to launch a you-pick berry farm. Visitors wander through rows of raspberries, gooseberries and an experimental patch of blueberry bushes, filling their buckets.

Hoot ‘n’ Howl occupies just a few of their 15 acres. Bob represents the Growers Association to the county — his name is on the lease with them. He then subleases to other tenants — the Dew Farm and the Frogstar Farm.

To put up a hoop house, a plastic structure that increases the growing season, Bob and Janet had to undergo negotiations with neighbors who didn’t want to see agricultural structures from their houses. They’ve also had to agree to a 500-foot buffer between the residential neighbors and their rows of bushes.

Adjacent to the land Bob and Janet are farming is their personal home, part of another model open space managers are promoting that matches public and private leases to allow homeowners to lease the land next to their homes to start a farming operation there.

Mark Guttridge grew up spending time on what is now Ollin Farms, on North 95th Street in Longmont. It was his grandmother’s hobby garden and a place he did 4-H projects. He moved in five years ago.

“Our little hobby garden behind the house kind of evolved into not only wanting to supply quality food and experience for our kids, but realizing there’s a huge need in the community for accessing quality food and a farm experience,” Guttridge says.

He’s since added four acres of land leased from county open space to the six acres he owns and is about to open another 15 acres.

“It’s safe to say we’ve been able to grow our farm, but as you know, there’s challenges with open space with land use codes and zoning codes,” he says.

To incorporate that experience element and let local kids better understand where food comes from, Guttridge has launched youth farming classes. Kids come to the farm to spend a week learning how to care for the vegetables and the farm animals.

“It’s just amazing to see how the week goes on, how much they kind of really feel like it’s their farm and start taking responsibility and connecting how everything works on the farm,” he says.

The kids stay mostly on the private land, thought they do cross onto public land, where the sheep pen is. Most of the infrastructure — stands and the shade structure that serves as a classroom — is on private land and has to be, according to the land use code.

“It’s kind of a gray area with open space right now about how much public access can be occurring on that land,” Guttridge says. “My guess is that we really wouldn’t be allowed to have our whole summer class on the open space at this time.”

He does what he can to be a good neighbor and prevent the kind of complaints that could get an operation shut down.

Farms operate on the margins of the rules when they have farm stands or teach classes on public land. One of the tools organic farmers have turned to are farm-to-table dinners, where guests come and have dinner on the farm grounds from produce harvested there, but those violate a list of open space regulations and can’t be held on public land. A farm-to-table dinner violates Boulder County codes for agriculturally leased open space by not being closed to the public, not closing at dusk, and allowing glass containers or alcohol, for example.

But the year he started farm-to-table dinners, the most convenient spot, with open, level space for tables, happened to be public land.

“We kind of knew it was a little under the radar, but that’s how most farms seem to need to operate these days to survive,” he says.

As the dinners have gained popularity, he’s moved above the radar and onto his private land.

“It’s not too much of our profit, but it’s a huge cornerpiece of our marketing,” he says. “When we first did it that first year, it was just amazing how many new customers the farm got. People come out to the farm, meet your family, eat next to the garden. … They feel a connection with you as a grower, and usually the same people show up at the farmers’ markets supporting you.”

Though his farm gets closer to supporting itself and his family every year, Guttridge says, he still relies on income from an engineering job to pay the bills.

“I can tell you there’s not many vegetable farmers in Boulder County making a living growing vegetables,” he says. “To me, the model for a successful farmer in Boulder County is to be somewhere they can diversify, not just growing vegetables but the agri-tourism things — these educational things that really round out the balance.”

Land use codes need to be revised to make it possible for farmers who lease only public land to have these diverse options for markets, preferably without mountains of paperwork.

“It’s a huge immediate need right now. The only thing getting publicity in the open space land is the GMO debate, but to me, that’s a microcosm of the big picture of what can really help local agriculture,” he says. “If you really want to help farmers succeed and turn agriculture in Boulder County back to being sustainable, the land use code needs to really change.”

Roadside stands need to be fully legitimate on open space lands, he says, and farmers need to be allowed to do dinners and summer camps and have bed and breakfasts. Boulder County could be the next Napa Valley, he says, with agri-tourists hopping from farm to farm, dining between zucchini and broccoli and learning to tend a farm.

“We have numbers of talented growers, but right now the land use code isn’t written to really allow the farms to get those enterprises the way they need to be,” he says. “Most of them are just kind of operating in the gray area, which adds an element of risk. That’s a big part of your income and a big part of your business model.”

That public/private interface is key to raising the next generation of smart eaters, says Cindy Torres, a seasonally hired local food resource specialist hired by the open space department.

“I can’t stress enough how valuable it is to have that civic engagement grounded in the realities of local food,” says Torres.

But she urges some caution with the idea of growing your own food or zealously pursuing local markets for that food.

“I know there’s a huge push for the local food movement, but it’s so important to have access to diverse markets,” says Torres. “You want diversity in markets just as well as you want diversity in the fields.”

She’s working with farmers to diversify their markets and include programs like farm-to-school programs, and take advantage of the best prices for their produce.

“Agriculture is this balance between, almost like art and science,” Torres says. “You really have to know what you’re doing.”

One unwashed tomato or poorly rinsed leaf of lettuce could shut the whole movement down if someone gets sick, she says.

To know what they’re doing, the agricultural division is continuously going back to the farmers.

“There’s a lot of knowledge that comes from these guys that have been farming this land,” Bell says. “We’re still learning.”

“One of the things we have heard from those who are farming now is that they’re just looking for more flexibility to do the things they need to do in order to make a living,” Shannon says.

The process is likely still going to come down to use classifications, and farmers can apply to change their classifications in a process that takes six weeks to six months or more, depending on the size of the operation.

A planning commission meeting on Aug. 17 will be held to introduce the agricultural codes, establishing what they cover now before discussions begin on what to change. The study session, to be held at 3:30 p.m. in the commissioners’ hearing room, is open to the public, although public comment will not be taken.