Colo. Land Link Program connects new farmers and ranchers with landowners
For The Fence POst
Chaffee County, Colo., organic vegetable and flower grower Beth Telthorst tried her hand at farming in more affordable states, but “we kept on being drawn back to Buena Vista.”
The rural resort region in the Arkansas River Valley, known for its busy summer tourist season, is where Telthorst met and fell in love with her husband, Alex, then a raft guide. She worked for other local farms, but by age 25 she was craving her own plot of land.
“I know that finding a good piece of farm land that has water and access is difficult and expensive, but I really wanted to get going with my farm,” Telthorst said. “I was ready. To be a farmer you have to be very optimistic.”
The issue the young farmer was not hopeful about was a bank loaning her money to purchase land, so she started to search for a good lease opportunity. She located potential pieces of property and went to the county assessor’s office to find the owners’ contact information. She sent out letters and eventually made a match, what some call a land link. She found a landowner who raised alfalfa on 300 acres with a center pivot irrigation system, so not all of his land was being utilized. Plus, the owner stayed busy with another family business.
Telthorst carved out her own corner, two-acre Trout Creek Farm and is entering her fifth year of operation.
The Colorado Land Link program, an arm of nonprofit Guidestone Colorado based in Salida, would like to foster connections between more up-and-coming farmers and ranchers with existing landowners.
“We need to have organizations and individuals on the ground locally who can provide more technical support to both landowners and land seekers,” said Jennifer Visitacion, executive director at Guidestone.
Telthorst said the Land Link director was a supportive resource when planning her farm and balancing her dreams with reality.
The nonprofit organization’s strategy is to convene a Land Link Forum in different regions of Colorado each year to determine the best linkage approaches across the state. The fifth annual conference of Land Link is set for March 18 in Steamboat Springs, co-hosted by Colorado State University extension service in Routt County. The event is open to current farmers or ranchers interested in strategies to transition land, landowners seeking options for farmland tenure, agriculture or conservation leaders interested in learning about Land Link as a tool for farm succession, and prospective farmers or ranchers seeking opportunities in agriculture.
Extension agent Todd Hagenbuch said growth in partnerships and capacity of land link programs represent a creative way to fight three current trends: the increasing average age of American farmers and ranchers, the decreasing amount of land available for production and the increasing amount of population to feed.
Hagenbuch hopes growing land link in northwestern Colorado can be a mutually beneficial solution for landowners and new farmers and ranchers to help stem the loss of acreage in production. One common situation he describes is when aging landowners can no longer handle the work and their children are away pursuing other career paths, but everyone still wants to keep the land in the family.
“It’s an opportunity for the entire family to develop a relationship with someone who is going to love the land like they do and make sure the land remains in ag,” Hagenbuch said. “It’s positive for the community in keeping land in production and keeping open spaces open, provides opportunities for younger working folks to continue to be part of community and is an effort not to lose the component of local food production.”
Extension agents also see Land Link as an endorsed pathway to try to keep some land in ag production when a deep-pocketed outside individual buys an old family ranch to become a private retreat.
In addition to the matching service, Land Link serves as a clearinghouse for technical resources, educational and training opportunities, and networking connections for support programs. For example, Guidestone is partnering with the Colorado Building Farmers Program to offer a Vision Course for Aspiring Urban Farmers on March 11-12 in Centennial, Colo., for folks dreaming about starting an urban farm business.
LOCAL FOOD PRODUCTION
Weathervane Farm’s Seth Roberts, another vegetable and flower grower in Buena Vista, operates on leased land owned by developers. His harvest is sold at farmer’s markets, area restaurants and through a CSA. Roberts said his landowners “see the value of local food production and how that stimulates the type of community they would like to see here in town.”
Low food prices and high land prices make it difficult for farming as a small business, Roberts said.
“The value of land here is definitely an encumbrance for young people coming in to start operations,” Roberts said. “The ownership of valued resources is challenging. It’s more burdensome to look at creating a small farm as opposed to any other small business in another industry.”
Some public entities operate land link programs, such as Boulder County Parks & Open Spaces that serves as a landowner leasing to small farmers and ranchers. Local Food & Public Outreach Specialist Jennifer Kemp said the county program currently has 65 tenants leasing 25,000 acres for active production from ranching to crops such as corn or sugar beets. Prospective tenants sign up for a bid list and are notified when a lease opens.
“I think it’s important to keep our land productive,” Telthorst said. “Open space is very important and beautiful to our state, but working land is also very important.”