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That's what she said

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How Do We Grow Organic Farming in Boulder County?


By

Sol y Sombra Farm (from http://www.solysombrafarm.com/about.html)

At a PLAN-Boulder County forum about organic farming on the evening of January 28, 2013, a panel of experts suggested that the current farming culture, promoted by Monsanto and other agri-business companies, is the main obstacle to the growth of large-scale, organic grain farming, while small-scale, organic vegetable farming is mostly limited by the size of local markets.

The panel consisted of Dean Chapla, a bee-keeper and lawyer for Nature’s Organic Grist, L.L.C., a large buyer and seller of organic grains and dry edible beans; Allison Edwards, the owner and operator of Sol Y Sombra, a three-acre organic farm in Hygiene; Paul Repetto, an organic foods entrepreneur who has worked as president of Westbrae Natural Foods, co-founded Horizon Organic Dairy,  participated in the formation of the current incarnation of Alfalfa’s, helped start the Organic Foods Alliance, and served on the board of the Organic Trade Association; and Mary Von Breck, who is a partner in the GMO-Free Boulder campaign.

Chapla declared that the organic grain business is now booming around North America and that it is a highly opportune time to be growing organic grain. He reported that regular wheat sells for about $8.50 a bushel, while organic wheat sells for $14-16 a bushel. He said that Nature’s Organic Grist currently buys all the organic wheat it can. Most of its producers are located in the upper Midwestern states and Canada. He said that some organic grain is grown in the San Luis Valley, but none that he is aware of in Colorado’s Front Range or eastern plains.

Von Breck recounted that the Boulder County Open Space Department had recently tried to lease 600 acres for organic farming on very favorable terms that included significant rent reductions during the first three years. It also offered to teach farmers organic methods. But no farmers bid. Von Breck asserted that the big agri-business companies provide a total program to farmers—seed, fertilizers, herbicide, pesticide, and connections to customers—and have habituated them to their current practices. She remarked that it is hard to teach them to change.

All the panelists agreed that yields drop during the first three years when farms shift from traditional methods to organic, but that they tend to rebound after that period. However, in the instance of the 600 acres in Boulder County, the Open Space Department offered to adjust the rent as compensation. Repetto declared that several northern European nations have subsidized farmers for three years during the transition to organic methods and the result has been a major increase in organic crops.

Chapla noted that several organic farming trade associations in the upper Midwest and Canada provide education and cooperative support to organic farmers in those areas. He said that a recent organic farming trade show in Wisconsin attracted 800 farmers.

Repetto commented that extensive capital, including the cost of land, is needed for large-scale agriculture. He observed that the city and county open space programs in Boulder County had reduced that burden by, in effect, stripping off the development value of land from the agricultural value and leasing it to farmers on the basis of the agricultural value alone. He also asserted that several socially conscious Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITS) have purchased farm land in various parts of the United States and leased it to farmers at relatively modest rents, while seeking only a two to three percent return on their investments.

Edwards declared that her three-acre farm is “more of a passion than a money-maker.” She, like Chapla, grew up farming. She said that she “sweats like a pig and works like a dog” on Sol Y Sombra, but that it does not turn a profit. She disclosed that she and her husband depend on their landscaping company for their livelihood.

Edwards said that she and other small organic farmers each have to develop niches in the local food market. She said that hers are heirloom tomatoes and what she called “Southern” crops, like okra. She said that she typically harvests her heirloom tomatoes a week before her competitors and has to sell them within that time period. Her main customers are restaurants, and she drives from buyer to buyer vending her vegetables. She said that she usually sells about 80 percent of her crop and the remainder goes to waste. She rarely is able to sell to grocery stores, she said, apparently because they demand more steady volumes than she can supply.

Repetto observed that small farmers tend substitute their own labor for capital. He also advanced the opinion that “if you can just create a good atmosphere for farming in general, organic will take care of itself.” He claimed that organic crops should ultimately account for at least 20-30 percent of the total market. He asserted that the “suburbanization” of America had hurt farming in general, not only by increasing land prices and vehicular traffic, but also by causing local governments to impose more regulations on farms to mollify homeowners’ complaints about noises, smells, rickety buildings, and other aspects of agriculture. He did concede, however, that Boulder County is now much more responsive to farmers’ interests than in the past.

Repetto contended that there is pent-up demand across the nation for “agri-tourism” and that Boulder County farmers could easily offer this service. He asserted that many city dwellers would love to live for a week or two on a farm. He also called for more farm stands and commended recent changes to Boulder County regulations which allow for up to 12 “farm dinners” a year on a farm. But he and others contended that even more “farm dinners” should be allowed. Repetto also called for the relaxation of building codes for some types of farm buildings.

Repetto said that a group called Slow Foods Boulder, as well as other organizations, conducts bicycle tours of Boulder County farms. Edwards reported that she had been visited by some bicycle groups, but the contacts had not led to any direct sales.

Repetto proclaimed that every local farmer would produce more crops if she could sell more of them. He predicted that an iPhone app will soon be tested to connect local food producers with local customers in Boulder County. That innovation should help farmers to access the market, he observed.

Some members of the audience asserted that greenhouses would significantly lift the incomes of small, organic farmers, allowing them to sell to restaurants and grocers during the whole year. Others commented that greenhouses cost a lot of money to build. Some audience members claimed that Boulder County’s regulations discourage greenhouses.

The panelists and members of the audience noted that Boulder County has recently adopted a comprehensive set of regulations concerning agriculture. However, some audience members complained that they impeded cooperation between farmers, by, for instance, prohibiting storage of another farmer’s equipment on a farm and the handling of another farmer’s crops. Greater cooperation between farmers, these critics claimed, will be critical to the growth of agriculture.

Audience members also lambasted Boulder County’s new Cropland Policy for failing to deal with “chemical trespass” by pesticides and threats to pollinators. Chapla, who keeps bees, said that every year those bees which visit alfalfa fields during the month of May all die.

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