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Boulder County Commissioners Seek to Transition Away from Growing GE Crops on Open Space Lands

Boulder County, Colo. – At a public meeting today, the County Commissioners directed county Parks and Open Space staff to work with local farmers to develop a transition plan for phasing out the use of genetically engineered (GE) corn and sugarbeets on County Parks and Open Space agricultural lands within a time frame of 3 to 7 years, and for staff to bring a recommendation on the transition plan back for consideration as soon as practicable. Additionally, the Board expressed a preference for phasing out the use of neonicotinoids and greatly reducing the use of herbicides and pesticides on county-owned open space lands.  

The Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) further provided direction to staff to develop a work plan that includes the continued monitoring of soil health, water quality, and pollinator health on Boulder County agricultural land, and that also looks at developing an Agricultural Research Station in Boulder County, and studies other identified barriers to successful local farming in Boulder County. Finally, the Board requested information on what additional staff and resources may be necessary to make the transition successful. 

Understanding that requiring a shift away from GE crops will have an impact on some of the county's open space tenant farmers, the BOCC asked staff to set up meetings with the nine farmers who currently grow GE crops – or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – on county open space lands to ascertain what impacts might occur from a multiple-year transition period, and to find out what sorts of resources farmers might need to move to eliminate GE crops from their current crop rotation.  

Commissioner Comments

All three commissioners highlighted the need to work with the farming community to make sure the Board’s decision to move in a direction of banning GMOs on county-owned open space does not put undue burden on those farmers. They asked staff to explore other options to support local farmers, such as by providing expert help on alternative farming practices and looking to identify resources that would help keep local agriculture successful in Boulder County. 

The commissioners also expressed tremendous gratitude and respect for the Boulder County farming community. Each thanked the farmers for the partnership with the Open Space program they and their families have shown over many generations, and in maintaining the rich agricultural heritage of Boulder County.  

“I truly believe that transitioning away from GMO sugarbeets and corn is a move in the right direction, but I feel we need to do so in a way that works in close partnership with our farmers and helps remove barriers that might stand in their way to successfully farming on open space lands,” said County Commissioner Deb Gardner.  

“I greatly admire our farmers’ dedication to being good stewards of the land, and know how critical they are to maintaining our agricultural heritage and keeping our croplands productive,” added Gardner.  

County Commissioner Cindy Domenico expressed her immense appreciation and respect for the farming community and said she most closely aligns herself with the POSAC recommendation to continue with the existing cropland policy while working diligently to support alternative farming practices, help support the pollinator ecosystem, and do more monitoring and studying of soil and water resources in Boulder County. She also favors a longer time frame for the transition to non-GMO crops.  

“We greatly appreciate everyone’s participation in this process. It is clear from the widespread interest in this topic that many people have strong feelings about this issue,” said Domenico. “At the end of the day, I feel it is imperative that we support our local farming community in every way we can, and to make sure they have the tools they need to continue farming successfully in Boulder County.”  

County Commissioner Chair Elise Jones agreed with her colleagues’ support of the local farming community and said she sees a real opportunity for success for Boulder County and its farmers by moving away from a system that relies on chemicals to grow crops and instead models one that enriches the environment and enhances the production quality of open space croplands.  

“I also believe it is essential that as we transition to a different cropping system, that we help identify and pilot better alternatives that support our local farmers,” said County Commissioner Chair, Elise Jones. “I envision Boulder County to be a national leader in proactive, sustainable, regenerative agriculture, and this is a critical step to ensuring that farming practices on our open space lands serve as a model for addressing climate change and enhancing the quality of our air, soil, and water for generations to come.” 

All three commissioners verbally recognized the hard work of Parks & Open Space (POS) staff and stressed the strides our POS program has made in the past five years by: 

  • Expanding the number of acres of organic cropland from 724 (or 4%) in 2011 to 2,416 acres (or 15%) in 2015;
  • Offering incentives to farmers willing to grow organic crops, investing in infrastructure, expertise and training that support farmers transitioning to and growing organic crops;
  • Monitoring programs to improve soil quality and water conservation;
  • Coordinating pollinator protection efforts that bring open space tenants, bee keepers, and other pollinator protection groups together to improve the health of pollinators; and,
  • Promoting the growing and purchasing of local foods and more organic crops. 

Once the draft transition plan is developed, staff will take it to the Parks and Open Space Advisory Committee (POSAC) for review and input. They will then bring the draft plan and POSAC’s recommendation to the BOCC for consideration at a date yet to be determined. 

Background

The issue before the Board of County Commissioners on March 17, 2016, was to provide staff with guidance on the role of genetically engineered crops on the county-owned open space agricultural lands according to Section 6.1 of the Boulder County Parks and Open Space Cropland Policy* which expires on Dec. 20, 2016. 

The Board of County Commissioners along with the Parks and Open Space Advisory Committee held an 8-hour public hearing on Feb. 29 at the Plaza Event Center in Longmont to take public input on whether to continue or change the current policy.  

The commissioners also spent twenty hours in public meetings with constituent groups, reviewed hundreds of pages of written comments, read dozens of studies, books and reports that were sent to them over the course of the past two months, and took into consideration the recommendation of the Parks and Open Space Advisory Committee from their meeting on March 15.  

(Note: POSAC deliberated their recommendations to the County Commissioners at a special meeting on March 15 where they voted 5-3 to recommend that Boulder County continue to allow GMOs to be grown on a segment of county-owned agricultural land, but to carefully monitor the science and impacts of GMOs - on soil, bees, water, and other environmental factors - and to continue to promote organic farming.) 

Currently, nine farmers grow GE sugarbeets or corn on 1,179 acres (or 8% of county-owned cropland). Boulder County owns 25,000 acres of ag land, 16,000 acres of which are actively managed as cropland. A total of 116 leases (17 organic) are in place with 65 local farmers and ranchers. 

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