Alternative Agriculture in Fort Collins: Growing A Local Food Production Ethic

In the 1970s and 1980s, significant changes occurred in Colorado’s agricultural sector. As cities annexed land and purchased water rights traditionally used for agriculture, farmers felt the full weight of urban development. Many farmers felt squeezed by dropping crop prices, making the cost of farming increasingly difficult to sustain, and some opted to sell-out and retire. In turn, urban growth on the Front Range swallowed up agricultural properties, as cities and urban environments marked the landscape. Today, new homes, condominiums, grocery stores, and shopping outlets all sit on previously productive irrigated farmlands.1

In conjunction with these developments, however, some Americans expressed a growing dissatisfaction with the methods of large-scale agribusiness. The slow food movement emerged in the 1980s as people advocated for fresh, locally grown produce. New farming models, including organic farms, the community-supported agriculture (CSA) model, and community gardens all emerged in response to people’s growing anxieties towards their food supplies. However, today’s conversations surrounding local food seem divorced from the history of urbanization and land development. Increasingly, people are placing competing pressures and priorities on the land and its natural resources, including water, in urban environments.2

As Fort Collins matured into a city in the mid-twentieth century, economic sectors like education and manufacturing overshadowed the county’s agricultural sector. Even though agriculture remained important to Cache la Poudre River communities throughout the 1990s, farmers searched for new ways to stay viable as social and cultural perceptions towards agriculture changed. One major strategy that farmers utilized was to embrace different forms of alternative agriculture as a viable business model. Since the 1990s, the “locavore” movement gained momentum as more and more people expressed their desire to know where their food was coming from and how it was being produced. Farmers markets, CSAs, and community gardens provided popular ways for city dwellers to support nearby farms. Since the 1980s, over a dozen small to large organic farms, community gardens and CSAs established themselves within Fort Collins.3

To keep food production close to home, however, Fort Collins and local communities across the country need to reconcile three competing processes: access to agricultural land, its continuing conversion into urban uses, and resulting changes in water use. The conversion of farmland to urban residential, commercial, or industrial uses all contributed to the decline of large acreage agriculture in and around Fort Collins. In turn, cities have responded to these pressures and concerns through planning and managing growth. Since 2007, the City of Fort Collins has been in dialogue with its residents to update its existing land use codes to reflect citizen’s desires to produce food locally.4

Citizens cited water and its usage as one major concern throughout the process of updating Fort Collins’ code. In a letter to the city’s senior’s environmental planner, one citizen expressed her worries towards urban agriculture, stating that “… I believe there are larger and more important issues that should be addressed more rapidly such as water usage, availability, and conservation.”5 Thus, the city’s effort to update its land use codes reflects efforts to navigate citizen’s desires to pursue urban agriculture in an environmentally responsible manner.

In particular, citizens cited the issue of water during droughts as a major concern. Justin Reynier, an active member of the Happy Heart CSA wrote to the city stating that, “We are using so much water and energy growing grass in our front yards while we live in a high windy desert. We need to focus and use our limited water in wise ways. Supporting local farms and supplying them with the water that is needed is far more important than green grass.”6 In response to statements such as this, the city updated its land use codes to mitigate these anxieties. During droughts, the city will not restrict urban gardens and farms in the same way as homes and yards, which reflects a higher priority for local food production rather than lawn watering.7

This does not mean that urban agriculture is exempt from standards that regulate farms’ water usage. The city requires that urban gardens and farms minimize their usage of sprinkler irrigation systems between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. whenever possible; however, farms can use drip irrigation or water by hand at any time of day. Moreover, the city regulates that urban gardens must be designed so that water-run off from farms is conveyed into city drainage systems, which is intended to prevent downstream properties from being harmed. This regulatory measure was put in place because many community members expressed unease over the use of chemicals on urban farms.8

In 2013, fifteen percent of citizens surveyed by the city worried that chemicals, including fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides would negatively impact the environment and the city’s watershed. In order to mitigate the negative effects of chemicals, the city requires that all urban farms clearly identify what chemicals or pesticides are used in the growing process. This is to address citizen’s concerns such as those of Kelsey Moony, who advocated that food should be grown with “proper soil care and water use. This is possibly the most worthy use of our own water and land resources.”9 Statements such as this reflect the local community’s desire to know where their food comes from, how it is produced, and what resources are used to grow food.

By engaging in a dialogue with citizens about the shape, nature, and composition of urban agriculture in Fort Collins, the city is able to create a land use and municipal code that better reflects the local community’s values and attitudes towards its environment. Many of the alternative agriculture models currently operating in Fort Collins represent an active and growing contingent of community members who are motivated to practice local, sustainable food growing methods. Finally, many of the urban farms and gardens in Fort Collins are located near existing irrigation structures that have been or are still used for agriculture, and the land itself has returned to agricultural use. In some ways alternative agricultural models and pursuits represent a type of middle ground as cities navigate shifting and often competing waters uses with their limits, while also drawing on Fort Collins’ agricultural history. It is possible that the popularity of urban agriculture in Fort Collins can bridge some of the conflicts that arise from the transfer of water rights historically associated with agriculture towards urban uses and consumption.

  1. U.S.D.A. Agricultural Census; Amanda Jessie Weaver, “Fresh Squeezed: The Dilemma of Local Food Production along Colorado’s Front Range Urban Corridor,” (Dissertation, University of Denver, 2013): 1-10.
  2. Slow Food USA, “History of Slow Food,” http://www.slowfoodusa.org/history; Weaver, 12-21.
  3. McWilliams, Agriculture in the Fort Collins Urban Growth Area, 29; Beeman and Pritchard, A Green and Permanent Land, 88, 112, 136-137, 147; Brian Halweil, Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket (W. W. Norton, 2004) 17, 54; City of Fort Collins, “Work Session Item, Fort Collins City Council,” May 14, 2013.
  4. City of Fort Collins, “Urban Agriculture: Public Open House,” January 31, 2013.
  5. Laurie Rochardt, “Letter Regarding Proposed Urban Ag Land Use Code Change,” Thursday February 19, 2013.
  6. Justin Reynier, “Re: Urban Ag Update – P&Z Hearing and Council Work Session,” Monday March 18, 2013.
  7. City of Fort Collins Urban Agriculture Open House Meeting Minutes, “Open House Feedback,” January 31, 2013.
  8. City of Fort Collins, Land Use Code Division 3.8.31. Updated March 3, 2013.
  9. Kelsey Mooney, “Letter to Lindsay Ex, Senior Environmental Planner,” March 20, 2013.

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