Local farmers put down roots on open space properties
Pitkin County Open Space and Trails protects more than 20,000 acres of public land in the Roaring Fork Valley. These properties are used for recreation, to protect wildlife and for agriculture. The open space program leases out some of its properties to local farmers and ranchers. Two Roots Farm is the newest lessee at Emma Open Space.
This spring, Harper Kaufman and Christian LeBar are starting anew, putting down roots. They’ve been farming in the Roaring Fork Valley for five seasons, and this is the third location for Two Roots Farm. It’s a pretty spectacular spot, nestled near the base of Light Hill in Emma, with views of snow-capped peaks and the sound of the highway just a couple hundred feet away. There aren’t many properties like this nearby.
"It's a rare, flat piece of ground with good irrigation water, great access with the Rio Grande bike path right there," LeBar said.
Plus, it’s public land, owned and managed by Pitkin County. Emma Open Space is one of 15 properties that the county has dedicated to agriculture. A public process to develop a new management plan for Emma last year showed a strong desire for locally produced, organic food.
"Right now the next place we need to go especially with protecting open space and utilizing these spaces to the greatest capacity is supporting local farmers,” said Paul Holsinger, who oversees agriculture for the open space program.
At the end of last summer, Kaufman and LeBar were ready to find a long-term home for Two Roots. When the county started accepting leases for Emma Open Space, they jumped at the chance. LeBar said just like any other public lands issue, it’s about access.
"And in this case, it's about providing access to farmers to farm, in a place that would otherwise be frankly, impossible," he said.
Two Roots leases 22 acres for a total of $500 per year. Holsinger said that’s the going rate in the Roaring Fork Valley. Certainly it doesn’t match what a mortgage on land like this might look like, but Kaufman said that’s not a fair comparison.
"When you come on to a property, it's not quite like renting a building or something, because we're pouring lots and lots of sweat equity and money into the soil," she explained. "It takes a long time to build up a farm.”
And Holsinger pointed out, “It does come with more hurdles. You're dealing with a public agency.”
For example, Two Roots Farm hopes to put up a barn, which is needed to comply with new food safety regulations that are coming in the next couple of years. But before they can break ground, it needs approval from both the public and county commissioners. That proposal is open to public comment until April 25.
Kaufman and LeBar think it’s worth the wait, and they are optimistic the same public who asked for more local produce will support what’s needed to get it here. Holsinger pointed out that farms like Two Roots can help support a secure food system in the valley — one that doesn’t totally rely on shipping in dinner from across the country.
"It'll provide a really healthy food source, it’ll be better for the environment, it’ll cut down on trucking of all this food that’s coming in from other places," Holsinger said.
Instead, people can drop into their local farmers’ market or even pick up produce right here in the mid-valley. That is exactly what chef Andreas Fischbacher of Allegria Restaurant in Carbondale is planning. Fischbacher pulled up to the temporary greenhouse on his motorcycle.
"I come with the motorcycle down, pick up some produce and cook it in the afternoon," he said.
He dropped in to check out what he can expect this summer, and Kaufman gave him a tour of the propagation house, where seedlings are protected from the winter cold. Two Roots has a selection of kale, spigarello, leeks, chard and salad greens sprouting.
Fischbacher has worked with Two Roots Farm in the past; it’s been a reliable source of high-quality produce for his restaurant.
"We want to keep it that way, and be sure that young farmers are able to put their roots in the soil for longevity and not just for short-term,” he said.
In the Roaring-Fork-Valley-reality for many starting farmers, that longevity comes with the use of public lands.