Reflections on 40 Years (Part 3)

farms on open space

Part three of a four-part series

Think of Boulder County Parks and Open Space and what comes to mind? Maybe hiking at Walker Ranch, birding at Walden Ponds Wildlife Habitat, biking at Heil Valley Ranch, fishing along South Boulder Creek, or the stunning views along the Peak to Peak Highway. These are just some of the benefits that come from the last 40 years of preserving land in Boulder County, but there is one open space value that is often overlooked – agriculture.

From the early concept of an open space program, to the County’s Comprehensive Plan, the preservation of agriculture in Boulder County has been a priority for its citizens. Agricultural land was viewed as a non-renewable resource that was rapidly being lost to development up and down the Front Range, and Boulder County led the charge to retain this valuable resource. From 1959 to 1974, over 60,000 acres of agricultural land in Boulder County was gobbled up by development. Since 1975, due to the passion, dedication, and visionary efforts of our citizens, Boulder County has preserved 100,000 acres of open space, 25,000 of which is agricultural lands of local, state, or national importance.

Farmers and Ranchers: Partners in the Plan

Preservation of the land was a critical component of the vision, but the direction set forth in the Comprehensive Plan and within the open space program included much more. The ultimate goal to preserve agriculture and an agrarian lifestyle in Boulder County was accomplished by finding qualified individuals to maintain and keep the lands productive. Starting with the first agricultural purchase of Rock Creek Farm in 1980 (renamed the Carolyn Holmberg Preserve at Rock Creek Farm in 2000), the department began leasing land to local farmers and ranchers.

The Agricultural Resource Division now works with nearly 80 local farm and ranch families to keep our agricultural lands productive and act as stewards for future generations. These men and women come from diverse backgrounds; there are fifth-generation farmers, farm families who have been here since before Colorado was a state, and others who just arrived from around the U.S. And some brave people have changed careers to try their hand at producing food. All have a unique story to tell, and all share a passion for farming and ranching.

Our primary production continues to be beef, corn, sugar beets, wheat, and hay. These historic crops helped feed the people and build the community. Most original settlers in the Boulder area came here to strike it rich in the mines, only to realize that it was not going to be the pick ax and pan that would make their fortunes, but the plow and their farming skills. It is said that Longmont was built on sugar beets and beef and that tradition continues today.

The county’s revenue from agricultural production is around $1.4 million annually. This revenue is “plowed back” into property improvements, which in turn helps to generate revenue. To support the producers and increase long-term sustainability of the land, the Ag Division has grown to meet that need. The original division staff of two now includes eight full-time and two half-time employees. This group manages the agricultural lands not only for today, but also with an eye to the future. Management of the land includes range management, capital improvements like center pivots, small market farms, GPS towers, tours and public outreach.

Water Ways

In addition to Ag Division staff, the division includes water resources staff. This group is responsible for the protection and delivery of the county’s large water portfolio. Without this important resource, agriculture in Boulder County couldn’t exist as it does today. Explorer Major Stephen H. Long called the region “The Great American Desert” and he considered the area “almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence.” All that changed when settlers devised ways of diverting water from the snow-fed rivers and streams to man-made irrigation ditches. The development of this water infrastructure allowed the “Great American Desert” to transform into the “Great American Breadbasket.”
The water resources staff manages the quantity and quality of water required to irrigate our fields and sustain our livestock. From participating in the Governor’s Regional Water Plan to holding elected positions at local ditch companies, this group works with numerous stakeholders to ensure this vital resource is used efficiently and effectively.

Growing and Conserving

In addition to keeping our land as productive as possible, another focus of the Ag Division is how to sustain the land for future generations. To this end, we’ve undertaken a number of conservation projects. Installation of center pivots provide immediate economic and environmental benefits, while other projects focus on long-term returns. Currently we are involved in soil monitoring programs that look at the nutrients required to grow crops and the overall health and structure of the soil. The combined teams of Ag and Water work together to monitor the quality of the water as it enters and then leaves our properties to insure that quality is maintained or improved.

Sometimes we recognize the best use of marginally productive agricultural land is to return it to a more native state. This year we are converting 50 acres of dryland wheat to native grasslands, bringing the total converted acres to 1,300. Whether it’s finding a way to incorporate a trail on an Ag property, or setting aside land for nesting raptors, the Ag Division works to balance the goals and objectives of the Department while supporting our agricultural lands and heritage.

Meeting Challenges

As we move into the future, we recognize that agriculture in an urban interface is challenging. There are no longer any John Deere dealerships, dairies, grain elevators, parts suppliers, or livestock sales barns left in the county. Neighbors who love local food and agriculture often have little patience of farm equipment on county roads, or the smell of the manure that fertilizes an organic farm field. Put this together with a growing demand for commercial and residential water, and the future of agriculture may seem rather dismal, but creative and passionate agricultural producers are still working the land.

So, the next time you drive down Hwy 287 or travel the back roads of Boulder County and see fields of corn, kale, wheat, or grazing cattle, you can be grateful that 40 years ago a program was created to preserve that view and help support the dedicated people who continue to produce food, fiber, and forage in Boulder County.

Note: This is the third in a four-part series about the department’s 40th anniversary.