By Erin Cuseo, Owner & Operator of Erin’s Acres Farm
As a first generation vegetable farmer in Colorado, one of the main challenges I face is accessing land. With increasingly high prices and a lack of available agricultural land, finding a long-term solution may take a farmer like myself many years. Not every property will suit a farmer’s needs; infrastructure, such as greenhouses, propagation space, washing stations, cold storage, and tool space, are key to operating a small market farm. Although these components can take many forms, if there isn’t space to create a system that works for the farmer, he or she may struggle for many years.
I moved Erin’s Acres Farm, the market farm and CSA I started in 2016, to a new location this year. I am thankful to have previously committed to just a one-year lease, giving me the chance to move on to a more suitable growing space. I saw nothing but possibilities moving forward. However, many of the landowners I spoke with didn’t know how a lease with a farmer should look. Rocky relationships with landowners can make leasing land more trouble than it is worth, since running a small market farm and CSA is difficult enough as is, without day-to-day interactions to add to the work load. When signing a lease, make sure there is a clear division between your business and the landlord’s hopes and intentions for the land. If you are paying and putting in the work, you should call the shots, within reason.
Starting from the ground up, for the second time, has been difficult. I can tell you, with near certainty, that I may not have the stamina to do it again. Knowing this, I have made negotiating a fair and comprehensive lease a top priority. If relations with a landowner ever change, having a lease with a clear explanation of the agreement can save your farm and ease your concern. Starting a dialogue with farmers in your region about their leases can help you create one that works for your operation.
After stumbling a bit on our journey to find the ideal land to lease, Erin’s Acres is subleasing Pitkin County open space that has been zoned for agricultural use. The leaseholder is a well-respected friend and peer with a thorough understanding of the hardships we have faced and will face each year. With room to grow and adequate space for infrastructure, we hope to remain here for at least 5 more years.
In order to make the land work for a farm long-term, it is wise to insulate your operation not only with a good lease but with diverse use of the land. Season-extending structures that provide a space to grow food during unpredictable weather are a worthy investment, especially at higher elevations. A 3+ year-long lease makes most farmers eligible infrastructure resources through organizations like the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
By continuing to highlight the difficulty farmers face accessing land, we can encourage change amongst landowners and work toward creative solutions. Limited access to agricultural land affects everyone, whether or not they can see it. Collaborating with fellow farmers is a great way to gain insight on how to navigate challenges in your region and discover what resources are available. Check out Erin’s Acres on Instagram @erins_acres or on Facebook to follow us as we settle into our groove in Old Snowmass, Colorado.