As an early 1990s arrival to the state, I’ve seen a slow but steady conversion of prime agricultural farmland into houses, commercial real estate, parking lots, golf courses and more. It makes sense, right? Cities form first near prime agriculture lands and then expand onto those lands. Many of us appreciate the openness these working lands create but few of us consider what it will take in terms of policy and vision to keep farm and ranch lands viable in the urban and peri-urban interfaces.
The most obvious action is preserving the land and water for agricultural use. Seems simple, but for many farmers and ranchers those two assets are their retirement. Several cities and counties in the northern urban corridor have progressive agriculture land and water preservation programs, notably City of Boulder and Boulder County. Tax dollars often fuel these purchases so then voters must come to embrace the value proposition that agriculture land and water has value. In an ever-growing area of Colorado, some buffer to yet another subdivision might be a winning solution.
Farmers, ranchers and their workforce are also impacted by affordable housing. Like any other business, no workforce, no business, but remember this workforce is often seasonal and thus faces income constraints others don’t. Several creative solutions have percolated, such as housing for farm workers during the production season used in the winter months for homeless housing, but none have gotten any serious traction. Increasingly in Boulder County like other areas of the U.S., there are fewer migrant workers and more full-time residents, so generally we need year-round housing solutions.
Long term business cycles will produce a business transfer, acquisition or exit. Adding new farmers and ranchers in the urban interface poses serious challenges not only as affordable housing but also regarding a central business location for supplies, machinery, cold storage, grain storage, etc. No viable farm or ranch can do this from a house in the suburbs. They need farmstead, a place to stage and manage farm operations. The vision of Boulder County public agriculture land purchases when first sold to voters was the preservation of working lands but not for intensive agriculture use. This likely needs to be revisited given the major barriers for farm and ranch startups finding yet alone affording a farmstead in the urban corridor.
Local food carries the unfortunate and often inaccurate image of patronage from the elitist consumer, freed from the workaday grind to indulge in a stroll through the farmers market, bringing home high-priced delectables to prepare for a slow food meal. She is a strong supporter but generally clueless how those products got to the point of sale. Mostly not true, but indeed some have purchased homes in the agriculture/urban interface that border farms or parcels that could be farmed more intensively (think vegetable production versus grass hay). The threat of diminishing views of the mountains with a high tunnel, waking neighbors to the sound of a tractor baling hay in the wee hours, dust from that same tractor tilling the soil, seeing white row cover and drip tape not so tidily stashed on the field boundary, blowing corn residue, weeds, and topping the charts, smelling a livestock operation (pastured pigs, anyone?) are all part of producing local food and feed. The old acronym NIMBY (not in my backyard) comes to mind. If agriculture in the urban interface will persist it will do so through an understanding that it ain’t a golf course and producing food and feed from the soil, seed, water and animals is very elemental, biological and not at all the pastoral scene the natural foods marketing executives want us to believe. It is messy and beautiful simultaneously.
For more information on agriculture in Boulder County, visit the CSU Extension Boulder County website at boulder.extension.colostate.edu/agriculture.
By Adrian Card, Colorado State University Extension Boulder County