By Jimmy Dula, NFU Intern, and Vanessa McCracken, Agricultural Resource Specialist for Boulder County Parks & Open Space 

Boulder County, whose most populous city is the eponymous Boulder, Colorado, is home to the University of Colorado Buffs, and is infamous for an expansive population of tree hugging, rock loving, spiritually centered citizens. In the 1970’s, an intergovernmental agreement among a half-dozen towns within Boulder County, coupled with a movement led by former Boulder County Commissioner and Boulder County Parks and Open Space Director Ron Stewart, set the stage for Boulder County Open Space and Trails (OST) to agricultural land leasing into its open space preservation program. This allowed OST to purchase open space to protect agricultural land from growing urban development.

Of the total 100,000 acres of open space land that Boulder County currently owns, approximately 25,000 are protected as agricultural lands and leased to qualified operators. These properties were afforded through a combination of voter approved sales taxes, property taxes, state lottery contributions, and grant funding. The majority of these parcels are dedicated to growing corn, sugar beets, alfalfa, grains, and vegetables, save for 7,000 acres designated as rangeland for grazing.

Leases are arranged in two ways: cash payments or crop shares. With cash payments, lessees have a fixed cost that can range from $10 to $100 annually, depending on crop and land characteristics. For instance, land for a diverse, two-acre market garden would require a cash payment of about $200 per year and – if you’re a small scale producer following in the footsteps of Jean-Martin Fortier – can potentially provide a white collar salary. Crop shares, on the other hand, are leases in which the tenant keeps a portion of the harvest, and the county takes a portion, which they sell to a local co-op or elevator. The size of shares are based primarily on the crop grown. In most cases, the county covers the cost of the seeds, half the fertilizer, and half the harvesting, thereby sharing the risk for commodity crop production and making it possible for many to get on the farm and stay there.

Despite its strengths, this program highlights an interesting new paradigm in the management of our food system. County-owned land that is leased to farmers adds complexities of local government; farmers not only have to comply with federal law, but also the whims of the county’s denizens. As an example, on November 30 of last year, the Boulder County Board of County Commissioners voted to ban the use of GMO crops on public lands after a long, contentious discussion between community members and tenant farmers. As the transition will occur over a 5 year period, it remains to be seen if the farmers using GE technology will adapt or fold.

Boulder’s OST land lease program is a promising, scalable model to address the issues of beginning farmer land access, urban encroachment, and an aging farmer population. Establishment of the program was largely dependent on people in the county, their desire to curb development, and their will to invest in maintaining the agricultural heritage of the region. Although it initially  took three ballots to pass an open space tax, each subsequent time the tax has been on the ballot, it has been renewed. However, in areas like eastern Colorado, a rural and largely agricultural region, development pressure is low and county open space land lease programs are unlikely to take hold.

Boulder’s program and others like it provide enormous benefits for the county by preserving agricultural land and economy. It also provides farmers support with operations and markets, as well as infrastructure such as fencing, efficient irrigation implements, and equipment. Boulder County is leading the charge and setting an example for what local governments can do to maintain open space and support the production of our country’s food, fuel, and fiber.  

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