Farming the valley’s open space

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The Glassier Ranch is outlined in yellow and the Red Ridge Ranch is outlined in red. The Roaring Fork River is in blue, and the Willits area is across the river to the right.

Source: Pitkin County Open Space and Trails

The Glassier Ranch is outlined in yellow and the Red Ridge Ranch is outlined in red. The Roaring Fork River is in blue, and the Willits area is across the river to the right.

BASALT – The “locovore” movement, which is all about growing food locally, is getting a major boost in the Roaring Fork River valley thanks to two large open space acquisitions.

The Glassier Ranch and the Red Ridge Ranch in the Emma area have the potential to become more than scenic amenities to the rural landscape. If plans can be formulated, both ranch properties will be put back into food production by local farmers who may not own the “back forty” but still want to grow commercially viable crops.

Spearheading a viable plan that meets the requirements of public land managers is Michael Thompson, a Basalt architect and farming aficionado. Thompson, who could be called the “Michael Pollen of the Roaring Fork Valley” is convening a public meeting on Jan. 23 from 5:30-7 pm. at the Basalt Library Community Room.

Thompson is inviting anyone who has an interest in creating an agricultural project to submit business plans utilizing some of the best farming land in the area. The Glassier Ranch in particular was known for growing potatoes and other food crops. The ranch is reputed for its rich soil and it contains some of the best water rights in the valley.

“It’s a fascinating piece of property,” says Dale Will, executive director of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, “because the Glassiers were farmers more than they were ranchers. One local rancher claims that 10 acres on the Glassier ranch could produce half a million pounds of potatoes.”

Will says the ranch, which was purchased recently as public open space through a partnership with Pitkin County, Eagle County, and Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), came with valuable water rights that can be applied to irrigation.

“The ranch has 4.35 cfs [cubic feet per second] of water, dating to the 1890s, which makes it one of the best water rights in the valley. That water can translate into nutrition by growing local food,” Will said.

Pitkin County Open Space and Trails will form a steering committee to help draft a management plan for both the Glassier and adjoining Red Ridge Ranch, which is also part of the valley’s expanding open space portfolio.

“We’d like a committee comprised of roughly 15 people that includes representation from neighboring property owners, agricultural and recreational interests,” a recent open space and trails press release stated.

Anyone interested in the steering commitee should attend an organizational meeting on Monday, Feb. 3, from 5-7 p.m. in the community room at the Basalt Regional Library. The committee will address recreational and agricultural opportunities, wildlife protections, parking and other issues.

At the January meeting about business plans for the open space farms, Michael Thompson will ask for ideas on what’s possible for local agronomists given the opportunity to work fertile, irrigated public lands.

“We will begin to organize ourselves into a group that will work with land managers as a unit,” explained Thompson, who is widely known as an accomplished beer brewer.

“Our goal,” says Thompson, “is to design an organization that will manage farming leases on public and private land around the valley, and to integrate the business plans of the farmers who want to begin on open space farmland. We will formulate a cohesive plan we can present to investors and land managers.”

While conserving agricultural lands is part of the county’s open space and trails mission, active farming by freelance growers represents a new venture.

“I’ve been told there wouldn’t be ranching in this valley 20 years from now,” recalls Will, “but that’s not the case. The demand for local beef is adding livestock to local ranches. For us at open space and trails, nutrition is another link to the land.”

“I think people will respond well to the opportunity at Glassier Ranch,” says Gary Tennenbaum, assistant director of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, who heads management and stewardship of the 4,400 acres of land owned by the county program.

“Look at Whole Foods,” Tennebaum said. “Most of their beef now comes from Crystal River Farms. Market drives the demand for local food.”

Thompson is excited by the prospect of giving small, start-up farmers a chance to scale up their gardens. “We are just at the beginning of our new local food future,” he says, “and ‘Open Space Farming’ is going to be an essential rung on the ladder to get there.”

Thompson’s vision is to use open space farmland for a wide diversity of food crops by forming what he calls a farm co-op. After the January meeting, interested growers will gather in smaller groups to imagine and plan the farming operations they would like to practice such as annual vegetables, perennial fruits, and animal husbandry.

Prospective farmers will draft business plans to implement their visions. These initial plans will be presented to the larger group for review and comment, then go back to the drawing board before combining them into the farm co-op to present to the open space and trails steering committee.

This is all possible because of the open space acquisition on Monday, Jan. 6, when Pitkin and Eagle counties jointly purchased the historic 137-acre Fredrick L. and Freda L. Glassier Ranch for $5.9 million.

The purchase drew a $1 million grant from GOCO, a state fund that uses lottery proceeds for open space conservation.

The Glassier Ranch is bordered by the 145-acre Red Ridge Ranch open space parcel, acquired by Pitkin and Eagle counties a year ago in partnership with the town of Basalt, GOCO and the Mid-Valley Trails Committee. Also bordering the property is the 70-acre Emma Farms conservation easement, held by the Carbondale-based Aspen Valley Land Trust.

The Glassier and Red Ridge properties originate from land initially homesteaded by Fredrick H. Glassier in the late 1800s. This was a heyday for local farmers and ranchers who produced food during the silver mining boom in Aspen and the coal mining boom in Carbondale and Redstone.

The open space properties comprise 282 acres, reaching from the Roaring Fork River up to about 8,000 feet on the slopes of the Crown, some 9,600 federal acres situated at the juncture of Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties. Of that land, about 140 acres are irrigated. The Glassier Ranch comes not only with valuable water rights in the Home Supply Ditch, but has about 500 feet of Roaring Fork River frontage.

The combined properties are located in Eagle County. Red Ridge Ranch, a 145-acre tract, borders Bureau of Land Management property on the Crown. These public lands see both recreational and ranching uses, and provide wildlife habitat.

Farming was long the focus of the historic Glassier Ranch on the valley floor, where the Rio Grande Trail now runs alongside both the Glassier and Red Ridge properties.

Fred L. Glassier was among the second generation of Glassiers to ranch along the base of the Crown. He and his wife, Freda, ran a successful potato growing operation and raised other crops and cattle.

“Mom and daddy would be very happy that it will stay the Fred L. and Freda L. Glassier Ranch,” said their daughter, Joyce Glassier Smink, at the closing ceremonies in Eagle.

“My grandparents would be grateful that it’s being preserved for ranching and farming purposes,” added Tracey Smink Vangolen, Joyce’s daughter.

“Glassier Ranch is now preserved and it’s wonderful,” said Temple Glassier. She is the daughter of Fred J. Glassier, son of Fred L. and Freda.

It’s not even a month after the purchase and plans are already in the works to apply farming to traditional farming lands. By all appearances, the timing was right for this acquisition.

“This is some of the most fertile land in the Roaring Fork Valley,” said Dale Will at the closing, “and we see these open spaces as key to encouraging local food production on what remains of our historic agricultural lands. We’re excited to see what ideas come forward as we begin seeking input on a management plan for the two properties.”

In addition to farmland that once made the midvalley a significant potato-producing region, the Fred L. and Freda L. Glassier Ranch also comes with a historic, Victorian home and associated outbuildings that will be a discussion point during the management plan process.

Both properties will be closed to public access while the planning is underway.
Agricultural pursuits, recreation and wildlife habitat protection will be considered as the management plan is drafted.

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