Preserving ag, protecting the future in the midst of sprawl
Living and farming in Boulder County can be a challenge, as urban sprawl continues to grow and water disappears.
However, for many family farmers in the county, unique conservation programs have allowed them to continue doing what they love.
For Jules Van Thuyne, this could not be more true.
He grew up in Longmont, and has never lived anywhere else. Born at home just a half mile from where he currently lives, Van Thuyne’s passion is truly in farming.
“I grew up farming with my parents, and I never wanted to leave. I have been there my whole life. I committed to farming at a young age. I just knew it’s what I wanted to do,” he explained.
Van Thuyne’s grandfather first started farming in the Longmont area in 1917 for the Ludlow family, and on the Wilke property, and then on a farm on Niwot Road, where they had 80 acres. Then they bought the family farm where they are now in 1937, where they own 240 acres.
He raises corn, sugar beets, wheat, barley and alfalfa, and uses center pivot irrigation where he can to maximize water efficiency.
Van Thuyne bought his own share of a farm in 1997, after working for a lady that he had farmed for, for 17 years.
“I had the opportunity to buy 210 acres. She sold the land to me, and the conservation easement to the county. It took me 11 years to pay for it, but I was able to buy a farm at agriculture value, which was a lot cheaper than development value,” he said.
Conservation easements are not a new thing to the Van Thuyne family.
His parents sold one of the first conservation easements in Boulder County to the Parks & Open Space Department in 1992, and they still farm the land.
According to Boulder County, “A conservation easement is a voluntary agreement between a landowner and Boulder County to protect a property’s important conservation values. The landowner limits the development and allowable uses on the property and retains all rights not limited by the conservation easement. Boulder County monitors the property for compliance with the terms of the conservation easement. Conservation easements are usually perpetual and remain in effect when the property is transferred to a new owner.”
Boulder County acquired its first conservation easement in 1976 and maintains an active easement acquisition program today. The county has acquired conservation easements using a variety of methods, including market price sales, bargain sales, donations and dedications pursuant to land use regulations.
Funding sources for county open space purchases include dedicated open space sales and use taxes, county general fund revenue (“General Fund” money), Colorado lottery proceeds (“Conservation Trust Fund” money), state and federal grants, and funds from partner municipalities and local interest groups, such as the Eldora Land Preservation Fund.
Boulder County’s conservation easement program includes conservation easements held by the county over private property and property owned by other local governments. In some instances, the county and one or more local governments jointly hold conservation easements over private property.
Today, Van Thuyne farms about 1,800 acres. Of that, 700 acres are under privately owned with conservation easements, 900 is on open space land, and 200 acres are privately owned. On the easements, Boulder County owns the easement, and he owns own the land.
“I think conversation easements give family farms a tool to do estate planning, to keep farm families tied to the land, and to keep that land in agriculture for future generations,” he explained.
His family has used conservations to continue farming in an area that may otherwise been developed.
“My parents used it as a tool to keep our family farm in our family, and I hope to do the same thing with my family. In my opinion it’s one of the most unselfish things you can do in agriculture,” Van Thuyne said.
He continued, “It ties that land to agriculture for perpetuity, and allows it to be more easily passed on to family. The land is valued lower, at ag land prices, so that helps with estate taxes as well.”
Boulder County has been very proactive in their purchase of agricultural and open space land, and currently owns approximately 25,000 acres of agricultural land.
The county then leases the land to qualified operators, such as Van Thuyne. The Parks and Open Space Agricultural Resources Division oversees the land, manages the leases, and tracks rent and crop production.
Farming public open space and land on conservations isn’t always easy.
“We have to be very aware of the political side of farming. We cater to a lot of special interests and people’s emotions. When you are farming for open space, you are farming for an entity where people are involved in what you are doing. Part of the biggest challenge is educating the general public on what we are doing, and to show them that we are taking the right approach to farming,” he explained.
However, having that ability to farm and know that land will stay in agricultural makes the struggles worth it. “It’s been my whole life and where I grew up. It’s a beautiful area to live in, and we have close access to a lot of things. However, it is a semi-urban area, and there is competition with the growth and municipalities,” he said.
The conservation easements help to fight that competition.
“When they do buy conservation interests, they actually tie the water to the land. It will always be with the farms, and it’s very important to keep the water tied to the land,” he stated.
Van Thuyne is currently in the middle of harvest.
He loves harvest time, and looks forward to it every year.
“I think it’s a culmination of your efforts from the springtime on. It’s a wonderful time of the year to enjoy the benefits of your hard work,” he explained.
One of the issues farmers in Boulder County have had is with using genetically engineered crops. One crop that has benefitted immensely from genetic engineering is sugar beets.
“The majority of the beets grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered. Before, we had major weed issues and labor issues. We have eliminated all the hand labor that we had to use in the past,” he said.
He continued, “It also helps the environment. We can now use strip tilling, which creates less of a carbon footprint. We use less fuel, and the extreme tillage methods from before for weed control are no longer used. In the past we used four different herbicides and now we use one, once a year.”
Van Thuyne is part of the Farmers Alliance for Integrated Resources, which was founded when farmers were trying to get genetically engineered crops approved to use on Boulder County Open Space. “Part of the reason the FAIR group came to be was because of cropland policy that allowed us to grow sugar beets on public ground. We were up against a pretty strong political fight, and the commissioners approved it,” He explained.
He added, “We can grow genetically engineered crops on open space two out of four years. So we use genetically engineered corn and sugar beets, and use that with a rotation of barley and wheat, which is a good management practice,” Van Thuyne explained.
Using these crops has allowed him to use fewer resources, and raise a larger crop.
“I think we are much more efficient. We are using less fuel and less herbicide. We don’t’ stress the beets, so our yields have gone up,” he stated.
Normally it takes him several weeks to harvest his many crops including silage, sugar beets and corn grain. They usually finish up around the middle of November, and start in July.
Farming is truly in his blood, and he hopes that his work with conservation will allow him to pass on that passion to his children.
“It’s all I know. When you grow up in farming you are permanently tied to it, and that’s important to me,” Van Thuyne stated. ❖