Boulder food farmers claim City is shutting them out of Open Space land

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Will Brendza

Something about the City of Boulder’s agricultural land leasing process is unsettling some of the area’s local food farmers. The process is neither objective nor transparent enough, they say. According to them, it can be opaque and exclusive, and it needs amending.

Back in May 2018, a number of these farmers gathered at the Boulder City Council Chambers to address the Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP) Board of Trustees about these concerns.

“I own a lot of pitch forks, but we didn’t bring any of them,” said Andre Houssney, drawing some nervous laughter from the boardroom. “That’s because we don’t want to burn anything down or get anyone fired, I just want us to be better about following through with what we say we want to do.”

Houssney, who owns and operates a local regenerative food farm on east Arapahoe, was referring to OSMP’s 2017 Agricultural Resource Management Plan when he said that. Among many other objectives outlined in the plan, OSMP committed to establishing and restoring diversified vegetable farms, pastured livestock farms, and micro dairies “in accordance with city values, community demand and land availability.”

Essentially, OSMP stated an intent to phase out commodity farms as ag-leases on open space turn over, and phase in more local food producers, to “respond to the community’s desire for locally grown food.” And indeed, even on the City’s agricultural leasing webpage, where farmers can apply to lease land from OSMP, it says that preference is given to operations that produce and sell food locally.

Between that, and Boulder’s recent carbon sequestration pilot project, it seemed that the City was taking steps to make Boulder a paradigm of local food production and sustainable farming practices.

But Houssney and other farmers don’t see it happening that way. To them, it doesn’t seem like the status quo is changing at all. To them, it seems like OSMP is still giving preference to the same livestock and commodity farmers to whom they have been leasing for decades.

Before getting into that, though, it’s important to understand why OSMP’s ag-leases are so vital to Boulder’s food farmers. This isn’t just a matter of wanton business expansion or land greed for these agriculturalists. It’s a matter of having the option to grow at all.

“[OSMP] essentially now has a monopoly on affordable access to farmland,” explains Karel Starek, who owns and operates The Golden Hoof farm with his wife, Alice. They too attended May’s Board of Trustees meeting to express their own concerns about the leasing process. “One of the only options is to work with the City or the County,” says Karel. The land OSMP owns and leases represents the only affordable option for growth for most of these farmers (besides leaving Boulder County outright and starting fresh somewhere else).

It is a situation borne from over 50 years of OSMP acquiring land — an initiative that has generally benefitted this community.

Since its establishment in 1967, OSMP has acquired over 45,000 acres in and around Boulder, buying property when it becomes available and receiving property through donations, in order to “preserve and protect it for future generations.”

Just over 14,000 acres of that City-owned land is designated for agricultural use. This is what OSMP leases out to local farmers.

John Potter, the resource and stewardship division manager of OSMP, explained that most City ag-leases are three-year leases valued usually between $5,000-$10,000. And considering that the average price for purchasing a farm in Boulder is $1.9 million (18 percent higher than the average anywhere else in Colorado), the ag-leases are essentially land subsidies from the City to the farmer.

It’s a subsidy that OSMP decides who to grant to and for what purposes; a subsidy that most local food farmers cannot expand — or sometimes even survive — without.

That shouldn’t be any cause for doubt, though. Especially in light of the County’s and the City’s recent carbon sequestration pilot project that aims to establish large-scale carbon farming on OSMP land, and the Agricultural Resource Management Plan that resolves to expand local regenerative food operations. Given these circumstances, it would be reasonable to assume that the tide is turning for Boulder’s local food farmers. That they, not the conventional commodity farmers, might soon operate a much larger portion of OSMP’s agricultural land.

This, however, appears not to be the case. Not yet at least — as Houssney has become painfully aware.

Will Brendza

His farm, Jacob Springs, sits on the corner of 75th and Arapahoe. It is a small family-owned and -operated regenerative food farm specializing in grass-fed protein, dairy, fruit and vegetable produce. It is exactly the kind of operation that the City committed to expanding through OSMP leases in their Agricultural Resource Management Plan.

Nevertheless, Houssney, who has the necessary equipment, capitol and aspirations to expand his farm, has been denied land 11 times by OSMP over the last few years. Despite attempts to improve his lease proposals each time, and despite outbidding some of the other proposals, Houssney has had no success. Slowly but surely, he says, Jacob Springs is being boxed in — surrounded on all sides by privately owned land he can’t afford and City-owned land he can’t seem to access.

“We’re regenerative farmers, we care a lot about this and yet we’ve never been awarded any land to rent,” he says.

Houssney’s frustration is easy to understand when you look at some of the proposals that have beaten him out.

Take for instance, the King-Hodgson property, adjacent to Jacob Springs. Houssney’s proposal to OSMP was filled with long, thoughtful answers to the questions; answers that included banquets of applicable information, photos and an offered bid amount of $10,600 annually for the property. Which, for one of these City ag-leases, is a relatively high offer. The winning bid, by contrast, can only be described as low-effort: short, hastily answered and, perhaps most curiously, it bids only $5,500 for the property.

In another winning proposal, a local hay farmer who was awarded a lease explicitly suggested spraying a controversial polymer known as polyacrylamide (PAM) directly into a ditch on the property. According to an analysis of acrylamide in field crops published in the Journal of Chromotographic Science, PAM is both a “neurotoxin and an animal carcinogen.”

That farmer did not respond to an interview request or return phone calls.

While the City remains adamant that PAM’s have never been used on any of their properties, the suggestion to use them did not stop OSMP from granting the lease, leaving Houssney scratching his bearded chin in confusion.

Houssney’s story of rejection has other local regenerative food farmers like Golden Hoof’s Karel and Alice Starek worried. Their farm could eventually face a similar challenge.

“We have 75 acres of City Open Space adjacent to our farm,” Karel says. “And I have no idea what it’s going to take for me to get a lease on that property when it goes to bid.”

And considering how seldom these leases turn over, that is a disconcerting prospect. Once a farmer is granted a lease by OSMP, it is almost always renewed and almost never revoked. Turnover is both very low and very slow. Over 80 percent of the farmers who have managed to lease land from OSMP have renewed their leases for over a decade, some for more than 40 years. That means that when OSMP decides whom to grant an agricultural lease to — be it a conventional commodity farmer or a smaller-scale organic or regenerative food farmer — it is sowing the future for this farming community. It establishes an agricultural trajectory that will define the farming scene in Boulder for years to come.

So, in understanding why they are so important, how hard they are to obtain for regenerative food farmers, and how long these leases tend to last, what is it OSMP looks for in a lessee? What is the criteria for deciding which proposal gets the property?

Potter, from OSMP, explains, “It really depends on the situation … often it’s kind of specific to the property.”

Generally, though, Potter says, the City takes into account the quality of the proposal, if the potential lessee has the necessary equipment, whether or not that person already has an agricultural operation, how close that is to the property up for bid, and what the status of that prior operation is. OSMP’s proposal submission page for ag-leases confirms this: “Bids are evaluated on their feasibility, compatibility with OSMP management goals, the bidder’s ability and experience, and the bid amount.”

Trust also plays a large role in these decisions, though, Potter admits. Often times OSMP awards agricultural leases to farmers they know, and who already have at least one agricultural lease from them; never mind how subjective a value like “trust” can be.

“Because these leases are so small in value typically, there’s no City procurement policy or anything that applies to them,” he says. “So, it can really just be a lease negotiation between the ag staff and a prospective candidate.”

A direct negotiation, in other words, between City officials and the farmer to whom they intend to lease land. This cuts out the proposal process, significantly reducing the number of farmers who even have a chance at obtaining access to affordable farmland in Boulder. That might seem unfair to some of these potential lessees, and even the people of Boulder at large: City-owned land is a public resource. Distributing it directly to farmers who already have a relationship with OSMP might be easily misconstrued as favoritism by some.

Potter did clarify, though, that while these direct negotiations do happen, it is not how the majority of lease proposals are decided. The majority of leases are granted based on the lease proposals, he says.

Will Brendza

Regardless, whether through direct negotiation or through the proposal process, all of OSMP’s agricultural leases are overseen by the same two employees. They are the ones responsible for managing all of OSMP’s agricultural properties, and they are who decide which farmers get leases, which is apparently a lot of work for that twosome, who, Potter says, feel “stretched thin” a lot of the time.

“We have two ag-resource coordinators that oversee up to 30 agricultural leases and 50,000 acres,” says Potter, adding, “Their time is very limited as you can imagine.”

So, naturally, those two ag-resource coordinators often follow the path of least resistance when it comes to choosing a lessee: they select farmers they already know. Farmers they already lease to and who, more often than not, are conventional commodity farmers.

“The status quo is the easiest,” Alice Starek of The Golden Hoof says. “But if their stated goal is local food, then why can’t they put more of their budget towards supporting it?”

Potter remains confident in OSMP’s progress toward their stated goals, though. He explains that since 2010, OSMP has leased 17 properties to farmers throughout the area. “Around half of those ended up with existing tenants and half with new tenants we had no prior experience with,” he says. Of the nine leases that went to new tenants, four were certified organic food operations.

So, some new local food farmers are in fact getting their shot, instead of being shut out. But to Houssney, the Stareks and other farmers like them, that isn’t enough. They want to see changes to the proposal process itself.

“Take everything on a bid-by-bid basis,” Houssney suggests. Put forth the criteria, he says, then actually score those proposals blindly, objectively and award the property to whomever fits that criteria the best. “Then, even without the ag-management goals we’ll be moving in the right direction.”

Without that kind of objectivity, direct negotiations and decisions made behind closed doors (by just two people, no less) understandably warrant scrutiny, and are subject to doubt.

To be fair, it is also true that between 2011 and 2016, 19 out of 24 organic farming operations in Boulder County failed, despite significant investments to support them. That is an 80 percent failure rate, and could be seen as a reason for the City to be wary of leasing to such operations. Houssney, however, doesn’t think that failure rate is reflective of the process of organic food farming, so much as the farmers to whom the City chose to lease land.

“The City is often very gun shy. And they’re gun shy of farm failures. And there have been a few leases they’ve given out to local food farms that have failed, but that’s not necessarily justification for just not giving the leases to [local food farmers],” says Houssney. “If [the City] did a better job of picking the qualified farmers, they maybe wouldn’t fail as often.”

Potter and the City seem to be open to refining the process, though. At the Board of Trustees Meeting in May, Potter agreed that there are opportunities for “continuous improvement” and said that they would be looking at the feasibility of things like transparency and open bidding.

“Before we put out any additional bids for any lands, we’re going to go through this effort to look at what we’re doing and make sure we’re doing it the right way,” he told the Board, after the farmers had said their peace at the meeting. It’s a goal Potter reaffirmed in later discussions.

“We’re committed to continuous improvement on our process for how we negotiate leases,” he says, restating that the process is actually in review right now, since there is a lull in lease turnover. “It gives us the chance to make any kind of improvements that might make sense or that we might have the capacity to handle before we put any [agricultural leases] out at the end of this year or early 2019.”

What that means remains to be seen. On Potter’s authority, it could mean a more transparent and objective bid and proposal process for leases on OSMP’s agricultural land. Or, it could mean doing away with the proposal component altogether, shifting entirely toward a direct negotiation model.

If it’s the former, Boulder’s bounty of local food farmers might be able to rest easy, working with a fair and unambiguous ag-leasing process. If it’s the latter, however, then the status quo is unlikely to erode — and their frustration might just come to a boil.