BOULDER — There's not much happening on the northeast corner of Jay and Spine.
The fields are full of weeds and strewn with the remnants of plastic sheeting. A retention pond sits empty.
And yet, in the past five years, the 15 acres of open space have seen plenty of activity.
In that time, more than half a dozen farmers have put their hands to a plow in an ill-fated attempt at organic farming. Only one of them is still standing.
The same fate of those failed farmers has been repeated all across the county under an agricultural program meant to encourage and support organic farming by providing nearly $1 million in capital expenditures, temporary lease rate reductions, organic certification assistance, weed maintenance and farmer education courses.
Despite those extensive measures, 19 of 24 organic operations have ceased in the past five years, done in by weeds and weather and the sheer amount of work needed to keep a farm going.
The county insists that a program with an 80 percent failure rate is actually a success — and, for the most part, the failed farmers of Jay and Spine agree with them.
'We're at the head of it'
On a blustery day, Bob Poley and Adam Ivory surveyed the mostly vacant lot that has felled so many farmers.
Poley is the last man standing. A certified public accountant, he lives on the parcel with his wife, who helps run the you-pick berry and fruit tree operation on a few acres next to their house. It's a hobby farm, a labor of love never intended to pay the bills.
Ivory farmed fewer than 5 acres on the property for five seasons before throwing in the trowel, three for a now-defunct operation and another two solo.
Both men had nothing but praise for the county's program, initiated in the late 2000s and formalized in the 2011 cropland policy, which set forth a goal of having 20 percent of county-owned agricultural land be farmed organically by 2020.
"Agricultural land is so expensive," Poley said. "You have to be born into it, marry into it or lease it from the county. I think this (program) is one of the most amazing things I've ever heard of."
"We've got this whole infrastructure committed to helping us make it," Ivory added.
There are no national or state programs to copycat — and therefore no comparable success or failure data to use as a benchmark.
"I think we're at the head of it," said Rob Alexander, agricultural resources supervisor with the county's open space department.
Organic ag grows locally, shrinks nationally
According to surveys from the United States Department of Agriculture, organic acreage declined nationally by 10.8 percent from 2008 (4.1 million acres) to 2014 (3.7 million acres).
Colorado saw larger declines of 34 percent during that same time, from 153,981 acres in 2008 to 115,116 acres in 2014.
A number of reasons have been cited by different experts and farmers, including the recession and a change in USDA methodology that counts fewer growers as organic since many small operations do not pursue certification.
The most commonly cited reason is cost: The resource-intense nature of production eats away at profit margins and makes organic less attractive during a time of high conventional profits.
"The incentive to grow organically wasn't enough as conventional grown commodities were priced at very profitable levels" during that time, said Bill Meyer, director of the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service mountain region.
Similar data doesn't exist at the county level, but longtime farmers say organic farming grew during that time in Boulder County.
"The number of operators might have gone down, but not the acreage," said John Ellis, who has farmed organically (though without certification) for 53 years. "People are farming larger plots of land."
The county's organic acreage expanded during the time as well, with 1,692 acres added in the past five years. Around 2,416 acres are in production or transition to organic, representing 15 percent of the county's ag land.
That's proof, Alexander said, that the program is working.
The county has employed a number of tools to help increase organic acreage, including paying for a portion of organic certification costs and investing more than $830,000 in capital expenditures to build ponds, install electricity and remove prairie dogs.
Prospective farmers also get half-off land leases for the first five years. In 2015, rent reductions totaled $20,500. And two full-time employees manage weeds along the ditch systems that crisscross the county
'We pay to work'
All that help wasn't enough for former farmer Gheda Gayou.
Gayou and her husband attempted to run a market operation on four acres at Jay and Spine from 2011 to 2013. With full-time jobs and a small child to raise, the couple was too short on time and resources to win a constant battle with organic farming's biggest nemesis: Weeds.
"It was impossible to keep on top of it," Gayou said. "The weeds are just so aggressive. We bought a plastic layer and had plastic mulch, and that helped to a degree, but any pinhole of light in the plastic and you'd have something pushing through.
Labor to weed and harvest is one of the top expenses for organic operations — and the one most difficult to come by.
"I can't get enough help," said Wyatt Barns, who runs Red Wagon Organic Farm on 70 acres of county-leased land and 20 privately owned acres.
In a place as expensive as Boulder County, there's nowhere to house workers who are only needed for a few months out of the year. And Boulder's high-tech workers aren't going to pick veggies for $10 an hour.
"It's hard to tell people their wage doesn't pay for anything (in Boulder County)," said Jason Condon of Lafayette's Isabelle Organic Farm, a 400-acre operation primarily on open space.
Paying for labor can be particularly challenging for new operations, which can go years before being profitable.
Barns, who started farming 13 years ago, made $13 profit on sales of $45,000 his first year. Real profits didn't start coming in until his eighth year, and even now he pockets less than $30,000 a year.
"We pay to work," Ivory said.
The county has faced some criticism for granting land to small operators with no experience in commercial farming.
"Some of the people applying are unrealistic," Barns said. "They want to grow on two acres, and you just cannot grow enough vegetables on it to make it work.
"They don't have a viable business and have no chance of success" — in some cases, they've never driven a tractor.
"I'd say inexperience is the biggest reason" for failure, Ellis said. "They get in with the county with grandiose ideas and then have to face reality."
The county evaluates prospective farmers' business plans before approving a lease. They also require beginning farmers to take a development class from the Colorado State Extension Office in Boulder County.
Isabelle's Condon likens new farms to any startup venture: There's a high chance of failure no matter what the industry.
"At the core it's a business, and business is hard," Condon said. "Starting a small business is a disastrous odds."
"Small farms are kind of like restaurants," Gayou added. "I don't think very many of them make it, unfortunately."
Alexander said that demand from new farmers has slowed recently, making it more likely that the program's success rate will improve over the next few years.
No 'magic bullet'
Numerous farmers have suggested tweaks to the county's program to help small farms be more successful, including altering lease terms, loosening regulations on agri-tourism and better preparing lands before farmers move in.
Moving forward, Alexander's office will be trying all sorts of tricks to improve the odds for farmers, including rotating lands in and out of organic production to reduce weed pressure and converting acres into pasture for organic beef.
Rotating fields in and out of organic production is a technique employed by larger organic operations, which have acres and capital enough to spare fields for the minimum three years it takes to convert land back to organic from conventional growing methods. The improvement in land quality is well worth the lost revenue, farm and county officials said.
At Jay and Spine, staff will use a combination of herbicides, cover crops and mechanical control to tame the property's rampant weeds, with the hopes of returning the field to production in the next couple of years.
"We're looking at everything," Alexander said. "We've got our eyes wide open. So far, we haven't found anything that is just a magic bullet."
Ellis, just back from a national farming convention, said there was much discussion over GMOs and organic methods. The general consensus was that conventional growers aren't ready to convert, and the market for organics in Boulder County — though large and growing — still isn't big enough to support more than a couple hundred acres.
"I think maybe it's a little too early to be devoting organics to as much land as the county would like," he said.
Too much to ask?
Commissioners remain dedicated to the project, said Elise Jones, and to supporting organic agriculture in the county.
"The organic industry is seeing greater and greater demand for products. It makes sense to figure out how to tap into that," Jones said. "Do we want to do better? Absolutely. The fact that we're on a steep learning curve (is) not a reason to give up."
That's a tough call when those lessons cost families thousands of dollars.
Gayou and her husband just repaid the loan they took out, which she characterized as roughly the cost of a college education.
"Leasing a piece of open land to farmers without a lot (of) experience, we're finding out, is not a recipe for success," said Peter Volz of Oxford Gardens.
Volz spent one season on Jay and Spine before packing it in due to weeds. He now runs a six-acre market farm on private land near Niwot.
"It's a good idea on paper and has had some success," he continued. "It's just too much to ask of people."
Still, both Gayou and Volz characterize their experiences as positive, and are generally supportive of the county's efforts, as are Ivory, Poley, Condon and a host of other area farmers.
"There's room for new farms, and I think most farmers would like to see more people farming," Condon said. "There's reason to be hopeful. But if you force it, it's not going to go well.
"Forcing it is an un-organic way of creating an organic system."