By Candace Krebs

Local food advocates in Colorado Springs need to expand their vision to include the entire Southern Colorado region and extend their concern to growers of feed and grain as well as food crops.

That was the challenge issued recently by Rebecca Jewett, a native Coloradoan and executive director of the Palmer Land Trust, one of about a handful of groups that administer permanent conservation easements in Southern Colorado.

Jewett also serves on the board of the Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts and the Land Trust Alliance’s National Land Trust Leadership Council.

“Our agricultural work in particular is something I’m really passionate about,” she said, speaking at a local foods forum in Colorado Springs.

“If we want to keep farmers farming, how we define ‘local’ matters,” she added.

Palmer Land Trust was founded in Colorado Springs in 1977 with the goal of preserving open space in the Pikes Peak region. In the decades since, it has broadened its reach, opening a satellite office in Rocky Ford in 2013.

The shifting focus accelerated in response to the transformation occurring in rural communities south of town, she explained, as more water was transferred out of agriculture to supply the growth of Front Range cities.

Farming in Southern Colorado can’t be done without irrigation, she emphasized, making irrigated agriculture an emerging focus for her group.

The trust currently holds easements that protect 75,000 acres of working farm and ranch land in ten counties from residential development.

Crowley County farmer Matt Heimerich, who was hired to run the Rocky Ford office and serves as Lower Arkansas Valley Conservation Director, operates one of the few remaining farms in his immediate area after 90 percent of the water was sold off to municipalities starting in the 1970s. Now the same land that once grew melons, tomatoes and sweet corn produces little but tumbleweeds and desert sagebrush.

Hearing Heimerich share his story has had a huge impact on her and other supporters of the trust, Jewett said. The high poverty rates that now exist in Cowley County should be a concern to the entire region, she said.

“These are our neighbors,” she stressed. “They lost their economic base when the water left the county. Without agriculture, there’s no economic base in rural communities. And preventing this is not only an economic argument, it’s an environmental argument.”

In his own outreach efforts, Heimerich emphasizes that agricultural communities are a complex tapestry of livestock, feed and food crops, including a number of commodities consumers don’t purchase and consume directly.

“In the Arkansas Valley, we use water to grow feed and grass to produce protein (livestock), and I think that’s good,” he said during the forum. “Essentially these are all family farms we’re talking about.”

Using Crowley County as a cautionary tale, Jewett said the land trust is trying to find ways to reduce the negative impact from water transfers, although she admitted much of the Lower Arkansas is already in “a post-sale landscape.”

“We are focusing a lot of our time and effort on Eastern Pueblo right now,” she said, noting that approximately one-third of the Bessimer Ditch has been sold off to municipalities that paid roughly $60 million for those rights. Unfortunately, “the best of the best” farms and the larger parcels tended to be sold first, she noted, which is particularly detrimental to the local farming community.

“What we are looking at is, can we strategically work to save the best farms or create a framework to actually move some of this water back to the core production areas?” she said.

Part of her message was also about the need to support existing farms so they can remain in business. She challenged the notion that Colorado Springs lacks local food sources by pointing to the abundance of locally grown produce, meat and other items produced just an hour or two away in surrounding counties.

“The best farming is right here in our region,” she stressed. “This area is a gem when it comes to local agriculture.”

She’d like to see Colorado Springs leaders think of the city as part of a broader regional community, she added.

“To manage the land, we have to look at it from a regional perspective, as a watershed that extends all the way from Leadville to Granada,” she implored. “We have to strengthen our partnerships between urban and rural communities.”

Over the years, the trust has used its resources to share stories of positive agricultural developments in the Arkansas Valley. Nothing makes Jewett prouder to identify with the Southern Colorado region than the way determined farm families in the Rocky Ford area came together after a listeria scare in 2011 to revamp and rebrand the local cantaloupe industry by working together at the grassroots level.

The land trust formally recognized the Rocky Ford Growers Association for its food safety and marketing initiatives at an awards ceremony in 2016.

Jewett and Heimerich both noted a general shift in the land trust community away from keeping open land pristine and untouched by human hands toward seeing it as part of a vibrant, dynamic, sustainable working landscape.

“I think most land trusts understand that our job is not to turn the world into a big zoo, that humans have to be a part of it,” Heimerich said. “Our concern is more about how people interact with land and what we can do to make it positive, vigorous and educational for them.”

In a time of low farm profitability, he’s also hopeful that the land trust can play a role in helping relay information about what consumers want back to farmers who are ready and eager to respond to market signals.

“We need to help farmers figure out where they need to be in terms of positioning themselves for the future,” he said. “We need to help farmers make decisions about how to make the best use of their assets.”