Getting down and dirty: The Montezuma Land Conservancy tackles a new challenge: farming

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FOZZIE'S FARM IS OWNED AND MANAGED BY THE MONTEZUMA LAND CONSERVANCY

Ken and Kathy Lausten and their family recently moved Ferdinand the bull and some cow-calf pairs onto Fozzie’s Farm for summer grazing. This is the first grazing lease for Fozzie’s Farm, owned and managed by the Montezuma
Land Conservancy. Photo courtesy of MLC.

There’s a new farmer in Montezuma County, but this one doesn’t wear a cowboy hat. That’s because it’s not a person but a non-profit organization, the Montezuma Land Conservancy (MLC), which is known for helping farmers keep their land in agricultural production rather than doing any farming itself.

There are several reasons the nonprofit’s board decided to venture into farming and ranching, but the most important was to reach a new generation of potential land-lovers. Getting a younger generation on the land to more deeply experience and appreciate the local agricultural landscape is the goal of MLC’s investment in Fozzie’s Farm.

The 83-acre tract near Lewis, Colo., includes 60 shares of Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company water. The land had a conservation easement to keep it in agricultural production and was designated to be passed on to MLC eventually. The former executive director of MLC, Jon Leibowitz, asked the owners to make this donation sooner rather than later to give the organization an opportunity to implement the community conservation concept, understood in the non-profit world as “people support what they care about.” MLC took ownership of the farm in October 2016.

As MLC board vice president Betty Janes put it, “We are in the business of conserving land in perpetuity. That means that MLC must be a going concern well into the future and we must be looking at who will support us in the long term. Fozzie’s Farm gives us the opportunity to expand our funding portfolio and to foster a connection to the land with young people.”

A new business model

The opportunity to take on Fozzie’s Farm came at time when MLC was rethinking its business model. After almost 20 years, MLC has considered or completed most of the “low-hanging fruit” of conservation easements in Montezuma and Dolores counties.

MLC recently began offering landsuccession planning to help families make conservation decisions. Rather than dividing the property into a section for each child, succession planning with both generations makes it possible to keep the property intact and renders it more feasible as a conservation project. Furthermore, working lands such as farms and ranches must be managed to keep the agricultural easement sustainable in the long term.

“Fozzie’s Farm helps MLC understand the challenges of managing large land plots,” said Jay Loschert, MLC’s outreach and education coordinator (and de facto manager of Fozzie’s Farm). “It connects and grounds the organization to the community and landscape that we are serving.”

Duncan Rose, MLC board member and part of the farm operations committee, said there are three functional areas defined for Fozzie’s Farm: commercial production; research and demonstration; and education.

Commercial production of hay and leasing of pasture land offer new cashflow opportunities. In addition, MLC plans to use the farm to research new crops and growing methods as well as to demonstrate to the community how to sustainably operate an 80-acre farm. However, education is the most important goal.

Since March more than 400 students have visited the farm to learn about soil health, water, wildlife and more. “Classroom lessons come alive when they are connected to the real issues facing our community’s farmers and ranchers,” says MLC’s website.

“The current focus of Fozzie’s Farm educational programs is on older kids,” Loschert said. “It allows younger kids introduced to agriculture in the School to Farm program in elementary school to grow into commercial-scale production with irrigation, hay, and animals in high school.”

For example, Future Farmers of America (FFA) groups in local high schools have completed projects taking soil and water samples at Fozzie’s Farm. Southwest Open School has also completed several “service-learn-ing projects” there installing raptor poles that invite raptors to help control the local prairie dog population.

Another student group studying water visited the farm with local water managers to understand the workings of the local irrigation system.

The most rewarding part of Loschert’s job is programming. “I like to tailor the educational opportunities to teachers’ and students’ needs. At Fozzie’s Farm, we have agricultural land and natural areas that can be used to support a diversity of learning opportunities.”

Facing reality

Loschert freely admits that before MLC took on the farm, “we had no real concept of what it takes to manage land.” Some of the management challenges include efficient and effective management of MVI water, weed management in problem areas, the established prairie-dog colony on part of the property, and management of natural areas to preserve species health and diversity. In addition, MLC’s staff had to negotiate a grazing lease and figure out how to get the hay field cut, baled, transported, and sold in the local market.

Like many local farmers, MLC has relied on expertise from local government and non-profit agencies for support navigating these thorny management decisions. Loschert sees it as “an opportunity to deepen MLC’s connection to the agricultural community.”

“We have worked with Colorado State Extension agents, High Desert Conservation District, the Farmers’ Union, Montezuma County Weed Department, and others, he said. “Fozzie’s Farm provides a way for MLC to strengthen the bridge between the agricultural producers and other parts of the community.”

One of the biggest challenges facing MLC is making Fozzie’s Farm financially sustainable. For the 2017 farming season, that means covering out-of-pocket costs to operate the farm. These costs are currently being covered by income from a 15-acre hay field and a grazing lease held by Ken Lausten of Cachuma Ranch. When asked why he chose to lease on Fozzie’s Farm, Lausten answered, “I hold a similar philosophy to land management as MLC. This is productive ground. Our cattle are doing well here. It has good soil and clean water.”

To support the educational programs, MLC has applied for funding under the GOCO Community Conservation grant program. In addition, MLC received a private donation to support development of infrastructure for educational programs at the farm, such as an access road, structures, and septic system.

Like any other beginner

With long-term financial sustainability a major challenge, MLC has turned to Cindy Dvergsten of Whole New Concepts, LLC. Dvergsten, a local Holistic Management-certified educator, teaches whole farm and ranch business planning and runs local classes for new and experienced farmers. She is working with MLC to develop a farm business and operations plan.

“MLC is just like any other beginning farmer,” Dvergsten said. “They need to determine goals for the farm and develop enterprise plans to meet those goals.”

She notes that MLC faces an additional hurdle not faced by most farmers. “As an organization, rather than a private owner, MLC must also determine who the decision-makers are (rather than advisors) and create a transparent decision-making process.”

She sees the organization moving forward with Fozzie’s Farm by taking in data. “They have already completed some baseline surveys of soil and water quality as well as vegetation surveys. They need to determine what they have now.”

After that MLC will need to create a decision-making process and use that to set goals for the farm and prepare a management plan defining how to reach those goals and monitor progress. Dvergsten is confident that MLC is up to the tasks ahead.

The success of the farm may look a bit different than on other 80-acre farms in the area. When following holistic management principles, financial sustainability is based on long-term sustainability of soil and water.

But Fozzie’s Farm is also a community conservation project. To Janes, “Success is seeing kids out there, being outside, having fun.” She would like to see “school groups clambering to get a day at Fozzie’s. Maybe in the future every third-grader spends a day out there.”

Rose agreed, saying he finds this “a fascinating project. It gets under your skin and into your soul.”

To learn more about Fozzie’s Farm visit MLC’s website at https://montezumaland. org/ or participate in MLC’s annual Harvest Brewfest on Saturday, Sept. 9, at Parque de Vida in Cortez.

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