Posted: August 01, 2013
Frackers and farmers
Oil & gas and agriculture look for common ground
Story and Photography By Lee Buchsbaum
As the tents go up at Front Range farmers’ markets each spring, it’s a sure sign of the immense and healthy bounty to follow. Beginning with bags of locally produced, organic, leafy greens, followed by bulbous tomatoes and an assortment of zucchinis, peppers and squash, the farmer’s market season along the Front Range culminates each fall with truckloads of peaches and fresh apples driven in from Western Slope fruit baskets like the North Fork of the Gunnison Valley region surrounding Paonia.
The popular outdoor retailers that dot the Front Range comprise the bread and butter for a budding subset of Colorado’s agricultural producers. Increasingly, adjacent to the farmers’ booths you’ll find Western slope-vinted wine, Front Range produced high-quality and small-batch beef, eggs, poultry and other meats and cheeses.
“The image of our farm is important because we direct market to a consumer who is concerned with who and how produce is grown, the purity of it and the story behind it,” said Mark Waltermire, owner of Thistle Whistle Farm in Hotchkiss and the spokesman for the (North Fork) Valley Organic Growers Association. “Many of our buyers want to know us, how we grow our food and how we operate. We charge a little more for our product, in large part because the economies of scale don’t work for smaller producers.”
But even though agriculture and oil and gas production have coexisted since the state’s first oil wells sprung up in Boulder County more than a century ago, today organic producers and activists are worried about impacts on water and air quality. They are increasingly getting involved in efforts to slow the rate of oil and gas drilling expansion – fueling tensions between two industries central to Colorado’s health and economy.
“What concerns many of us about hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and unconventional oil and natural gas development is the potential for air and water pollution and the general industrialization of the lands surrounding our region,” Waltermire said.
The mating of horizontal and deep directional drilling with conventional oil production has helped unlock untold trillions of cubic feet of natural gas throughout the nation, accelerating energy production, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs and propelling the nation to energy independence. Overall, gas production has been a boon to many of the state’s farmers who own mineral rights. This gives their operations another source of income and helps tremendously when agriculture endures rough patches, such as low commodity prices and droughts. Besides bolstering local economies, royalties “can help make up for that loss of crop production or provide enough money for a rancher to buy hay for his cattle so he does not have to sell off his herd that he and his family spent a lifetime building,” said Nick Colglazier, director of public policy, state affairs, for the Colorado Farm Bureau.
But earlier this year, following an uproar from local citizens, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency that oversees oil and gas development from Federal lands, decided to withdraw more than 10,000 acres from possible oil and gas development in the North Fork and has postponed further leases for an indefinite period. In June the Boulder County Commissioners – pressured by local citizens and citing new data from recent findings and ongoing studies on the health impacts of oil and natural gas production – determined to extend the county’s moratorium on new development through 2015. Other Front Range communities like Colorado Springs and Fort Collins are wrestling with fracking as development begins knocking on their respective doors.
However, on the Eastern plains in Weld County – by some estimates the fifth-most productive agricultural county in the nation – fracking persists unabated. With more than 20,000 producing wells, Weld is also the No. 1 oil and natural gas producing county in the country. While the extraction process supports thousands of jobs and contributes billions to the overall economy, Weld is also the heart of Colorado’s beef and dairy industry. Though fracking’s impact on the rural landscape is obvious throughout the richly producing Wattenberg oil and gas field, objections to drilling are few and the industry enjoys a strong relationship with most ranchers and producers there.
Air and Water Quality Concerns
Mark Guttridge, owner of Ollin Farms in Longmont, wastes no time sharing his take on the situation. “Fracking is the number one threat to organic and safe farming practices in Boulder County and throughout the state,” he said.
Born and raised on land his grandmother farmed, Guttridge established Ollin after working as an environmental engineer and earning a master’s degree in water resource engineering. He also completed contract work for the Environmental Protection Agency, among other clients. Today his 8-acre farm feeds hundreds of local families and its produce is sold at several regional farmers markets.