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Paul Schlagel drives a vertical tillage tractor on his farm where he grows barley and beets on Dec. 23, 2021, in Longmont. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

LONGMONT– A thousand Canada geese peck at Paul Schlagel’s corn field on a warm early winter morning. They stab at the red, sun-dried cobs in search of a snack on their way south, before Schlagel scatters them with his 5-ton John Deere tractor making a shallow tilling run.

The geese don’t care that the stray kernels they seek are from genetically engineered corn. Or that the corn will be followed this spring by barley for Coors Brewing. Or the next year by pesticide-coated sugar beet seeds.

But the neighbors across Boulder County care – enough of them to have whiplashed county farming policy for years. 

Schlagel and the winged scavengers are on public land. Boulder County long ago decided to preserve more than 25,000 acres of Open Space lands and world class views by leasing most of them to farmers like Schlagel. Like his father and now his son, Schlagel tills 1,000 acres of Boulder County Open Space, plus about 500 acres more owned by his family in nearby fields. 

County residents opposed to conventional seed engineering and pesticide use had over the years persuaded leaders to outlaw the methods on public land, hoping those acres would become a utopian garden of organic vegetable plots and locally in-demand crops. 

Schlagel knows full well that farming public land in Boulder County is performative, visually and politically. As he wheels the John Deere around the cornfield he harvested in November, third-floor patients from UC Health’s Longs Peak Hospital on the east side of Longmont can watch him make the dust fly. He’s been willing to work within that constant judgment of Boulder County consumers. 

But he’s not willing to lose his family farm raising crops that people won’t pay for.

“It’s hard for people living in the city of Boulder, and even on the western side of Boulder County, to understand what real agriculture even looks like,” Schlagel said. The crop bans were “a mandate from somebody that we’re going to transition to something better that is very naive. Because if there was something better, we would already be there.”

Now, after years of debate and voluminous series of reports and public comment, Schlagel and other Boulder County lease farmers can plant what they want. The farmers convinced Boulder County leaders that they couldn’t survive while adhering to prohibition of genetically engineered corn and pesticide coatings using controversial neonicotinoids.

Paul Schlagel drives a vertical tillage tractor on his farm where he grows barley and beets on Dec. 23, 2021, in Longmont. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Romanticized farmland

Some Boulder County residents are still angry. They feel a new slate of Boulder County Commissioners sold them out after years of detailed public debate and a consensus to slowly restrict engineered farming methods. Based on staff recommendations and their own research, the commissioners voted 3 to 0 in December to reverse the scheduled bans and restore choice to the leasing farmers. 

“There are alternatives. You don’t have to use those chemicals,” said Rich Andrews, himself a semi-retired farmer in the county who favors farming hay and vegetable crops that are locally consumed. “That’s the overriding big picture. Really, thousands of people in this county have expressed those same concerns and they’re ignored.” 

Schlagel, for one, is relieved that he can go back to planning crops he thinks make both market sense and environmental sense for land that he loves. On the spaces buffering Boulder County’s growing population centers, he said, “at least for my lifetime yet, it’s going to be agriculture.”

Boulder County Commissioner Claire Levy said county leaders have always heard from strong voices advocating for natural foods and against chemicals. But the commissioners’ December vote, she said, came after careful consultation and deliberation about a fair balance. 

Supporting farm culture, Levy said, means policies that allow growers to “actually earn a livelihood and be able to farm in an economically viable way. 

“People have this romanticized view of what farming should be. We have thousands of acres of irrigated cropland in Boulder County that are going to be farmed with row crops,” Levy said. “And there is absolutely no way that all that land is going to become little 10, 15, 20 acre organic plots.”

Questions over GMOs mirror national debate

County residents have been debating how farmers who lease public land should behave for at least 10 years, through multiple rounds of study and public forums on sustainable land use. Questions over genetically engineered foods — also known as genetically modified organisms or GMOs — and herbicide and pesticide use mirror a national debate, though controversies elsewhere have largely passed. Colorado State University plant scientist Patrick Byrne estimates more than 90% of corn now grown in the U.S. is from GE seed

The most common crops in the U.S. are modified to be “Roundup Ready,” meaning they will continue to grow after farmers use the glyphosate weed killer Roundup to destroy all other plant growth in a field. Many crop varieties are also modified to kill insect pests that munch on them; sugar beets raised under growing contracts with the Western Sugar cooperative are coated with a controversial pesticide containing neonicotinoids that some claim hurt bee colonies.

Consumers and advocacy groups have objected to the conventional farming methods for multiple reasons over the years, including concerns about human health hazards from the herbicides and pesticides. Some farm advocates have also worried unwanted traits from genetically engineered crops would contaminate other crops through pollination and cross-breeding. 

Conventional farmers, and most of the agricultural research community so far, have responded that decades of use in fields and consumption by humans and animals have put to rest many objections to GE foods. The attention of the average consumer has shifted to more pressing problems, like the COVID-19 pandemic now in its third year, or ongoing climate change, CSU’s Byrne noted. 

“The genetically modified crop issue has really settled down on the list of things that people are concerned about, and the fact that so many years have passed,” Byrne said. “Without any evidence of a clear danger from the crops.”

In fact, Byrne said, there’s more evidence of clear benefit, including the ability of some farmers to use less herbicide and pesticide overall when employing genetically engineered crops and seeds with protective coatings. The newer farming methods also allow for less tilling of the soil, which reduces erosion and keeps carbon sequestered in root systems. 

Utopia never arrived

What Boulder County had settled on until early December was a sort of holding-pattern compromise. The county policy was to phase out genetically engineered corn and sugar beets and the neonicotinoid coatings by 2019. The existing leaseholders kept objecting, though, and pointing to their sugar contracts requiring certain kinds of seeds, and the phaseout was extended to 2021. 

Boulder County commissioned a new land and marketing study this year to see if the phaseout was realistic. The conclusion, said county Open Space agricultural manager Mike Foster, was that any dreams of chopping up 20,000-plus acres of county land into organic vegetable truck farms were wishful thinking. 

Some of the open space was dedicated to heritage wheat as an experiment, Foster said by way of example. Some varieties of pre-engineering heritage wheat have lower gluten or other qualities prized by bakers. A farmer grew heritage wheat on 40 acres. 

“And the wheat that was produced off of those 40 acres was greater than the entire demand for heritage wheat in the state of Colorado,” Foster said. Other experiments included pinto and garbanzo beans, and other small-acreage crops. 

“What we found was that there are very few, if any, mature markets or supply chains to accept these alternative crops and get them into markets,” Foster said. 

The pleas for alternative crops also don’t take water or labor into account, said Schlagel, one of more than 60 farmers who lease Boulder County open space. Vegetable crops as a rule take far more water per acre than row crops irrigated with modern drip systems. And even if you can grow them well, Colorado’s tight labor market would offer no help in the field-intensive work of weeding or picking, Schlagel said. 

Alternative crops are also much tougher to bank a family living on, agricultural experts say. 

While there is still much weather and luck involved in row crops, science and decades of training provide high-acreage farmers a reliable “band” of productivity to plan out their financial year. The harvest swings are much wider for specialty or vegetable crops unprotected by engineering, herbicides or pesticides. 

“I think there are some people that have an ideal of what they’re looking for in agriculture,” Foster said. “And when you are actually farming the land and understand what it is and what it takes to grow crops, to market those crops, to sell those crops, I think there’s a disconnect between the ideals and the practical realities.”

The new county crop policy supports the phaseout of neonic pesticides in other crops, but has a carevout for the sugar beet leaseholders to continue using the materials, Foster noted. 

“We had to acknowledge that complication, that there are contractual relationships that were put in place that the county really can’t do anything about because it’s a private contract between those growers and Western Sugar,” he said. 

If leasing farmers want to try new varieties of genetically engineered crops in future planting, they can apply to the county for permission, Foster said. 

Andrews and other objectors say the December commission vote shuts off avenues of progress for Boulder County, and also leaves all residents vulnerable to legal action. 

Andrews is among those who think glyphosate, developed by Monsanto before it was taken over by Bayer and which quickly became a universal herbicide, should be banned on all Boulder County land – private or public. He points to multimillion-dollar lawsuit judgments against the manufacturers in personal injury cases from people who worked closely with glyphosate, and says every public entity who uses the chemical or allows it is exposed. 

Boulder County is also missing the chance to feed tens of thousands of county residents who are food insecure, Andrews said. The biggest row crops grown on county Open Space land don’t feed county humans, he noted. Schlagel’s corn goes primarily to Eastern Plains animal feed supply. Barley goes for big corporate beer. The beets are refined into white sugar, often for processed foods. 

“Open space lands don’t serve the population in need in our county,” Andrews said. “That huge asset should in fact be managed for the public good.”

The commissioners and the Open Space managers do not feel the county is ready to take over the food chain in that way. 

“There’s a component of our community that desires that the county actually go build grocery stores and supply chains for these farmers. And again, I’m not sure that’s necessarily the role of local government,” Foster said.

Schlagel is using his winter pause – after a bountiful late-fall harvest and the commission vote – to fine-tune his crop rotations and make irrigation repairs. The automated overhead irrigator in Boulder County’s Longmont field, just south of the St. Vrain Creek, takes four days to crawl 1 mile east along the corn field and then reverse course. 

The views to the west from Schlagel’s high tractor cab are spectacular, but all around him are car dealers, public ball fields, a popular bike path and a massive former sugar mill

He knows that getting along with neighbors is key to his family’s farming future. That’s why his goal this particular morning has nothing to do with crops and everything to do with community relations. He’s tilling under the chopped corn stalks and leaves that blow east onto nearby properties in this winter’s gale-force winds from the Indian Peaks.

He is glad that, for now, the county is letting the family plan its own work. 

“You do what you know,” Schlagel said. “And my family knows sugar beets. We grow some of the highest quality sugar beets in the world. Same with barley.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “the science has to win.” 

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...