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Interest Grows In Pitkin County Agricultural Program

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Marci Krivonen
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Interest is growing in farming Pitkin County’s agricultural lands. The county manages about 250 acres that are either already leased or will become available to agricultural producers later this year. The land is desirable because it’s cheap. Often the cost of farming and ranching in Pitkin County keeps would-be agricultural producers from jumping into the industry. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports.

Just outside Basalt, near the old Emma schoolhouse, a tractor is moving across a field and digging up large, brown potatoes coated in dirt. A crew of workers trails the tractor, tossing the potatoes into buckets.

Wouter Olivier is overseeing this operation. It’s the first time his crew has plucked potatoes from the ground on this land.

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"It’s always exciting because the potatoes are underground, so you never really know the visual. The plants look great, but you never see the potatoes until you dig them," he says.

The potatoes will eventually be used to make vodka just down the road at Woody Creek Distillers.

Reporter: "So, you can get the potatoes from the field to being made into vodka pretty quickly? "

Wouter: "Yeah. And, the fresher the potato, the better the product."

The distillery is leasing this 10-acre parcel from Pitkin County for a nominal fee. It’s part of a number of agricultural lands managed by the Open Space and Trails Department.

"We’ve got about a half dozen, about six properties, we’re currently leasing for some sort of agricultural purpose," says Paul Holsinger.

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He's a Land Officer for the Open Space Department. The county buys these properties to retain the Valley’s rural character, provide recreation opportunities, preserve space for wildlife and to give agricultural producers a chance to work the land affordably.

"We’re looking for people who are willing to get on the property and grow some food or grow some product, and take care of the property. One of the ways we can help is to make this available to young and new farmers who don’t have access to the land and they want to try something."

Holsinger says there’s a growing interest to go back to the Valley’s agricultural roots and grow food locally here but, land prices are sky high. And, the expense of farming equipment, fertilizers and labor also factor in.

According to the USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture, there are 82 farms in Pitkin County and nearly half of those have sales under $2500 per year. The Colorado Farm Bureau says it’s not a large agricultural producing county in Colorado. But, still, people are interested in growing food here.

"Agriculture has always been there, but there’s been a lot more enthusiasm within the last few years from younger folks in the Valley and “foodies.” Folks are more concerned with where their food is coming from," says Holsinger.

Enthusiasm is also growing because Pitkin County’s agricultural offerings are expanding. Over the last two years the county and other public agencies spent millions to purchase more than 200 acres in the Mid-Valley. Now, agricultural producers are lining up in hopes to farm the Glassier Open Space.

"On the Glassier property I would make vermicompost for retail. Vermicompost is something I’m interested in producing out there because I can’t find it locally," says Jimmy Dula.

The 25 year old wants to grow raspberries, lavender and fruit trees on the plot and cultivate specialty items.

"I'd also plant soluble extracts, so growing comfrey, dandelions and nettles to be cooked and crushed that we can then add to teas."

Dula’s focus is on developing locally-made, organic compost. This is his first foray into agricultural production. He says money is a factor most young farmers, just starting out.

"Capital for initiating some agricultural enterprise is valuable and the land cost is one of the biggest pieces of that puzzle. So, having Pitkin County purchase these properties and then intend them to be used to expand agricultural production is super exciting."

The idea of using government owned land for private agricultural use isn’t new. Boulder County has had a similar program for more than three decades. Farmers grow crops like alfalfa, beans and corn on county-owned acreage . David Bell is the Agricultural Resource Manager for Boulder County Parks and Open Space. He says the program started, in part, to combat development.

"We wanted to maintain not only those scenic vistas and that open space, but we also wanted to maintain that agrarian lifestyle out here. Part of our mission is not only to preserve the farms but also to preserve that agricultural history of Boulder county," he says.

Back near Basalt, workers continue to fill buckets of potatoes. After months of monitoring this field, potato grower Wouter Olivier says he’s happy with the way they look.

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"(I'm) always digging, checking. Obviously the potatoes like their water at the right time and their nutrients and all that good stuff. We’re really excited."

Pitkin County is continuing to refine its management plan for the Glassier Open Space nearby. County officials expect to choose an agricultural producer for that plot of land by early November.

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