View of Historic Splendid Valley in Brighton. Photo by Jay Weise Photography.
Anneli Berube, Ag Innovation Specialist
BRIGHTON, Colo. –The City of Brighton and Adams County, with the expertise of The Conservation Fund, have successfully preserved 79 acres of prime farmland in Historic Splendid Valley, the vibrant agricultural area south of Brighton and within the Greater Denver Metropolitan area. This partnership, along with grants from the Adams County Open Space Sales Tax program and Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), have enabled a conservation easement to be placed on this property to allow farming to continue while ensuring the land will not be subdivided or developed. The farmland is located south of Brighton along 144th Avenue and Sable Boulevard, adjacent to other preserved farms to the north and west. The preservation of this area furthers the mission of Historic Splendid Valley to protect one of the state’s last remaining areas of urban agricultural land with available water rights to ensure that food production can continue for the benefit of the local community and the region.
"This is a story of local community pride in a city with such rich agricultural heritage," said Greg Mills, Mayor of the City of Brighton. "This is a critical piece of the area’s identity and will now be preserved for future generations to come."
“The Historic Splendid Valley project benefits Colorado’s local food security, agricultural heritage and water conservation. It protects resources in an area identified as the single best place left in the greater Denver Metro area for growing, processing and distributing local food crops, as well as water rights from one of Colorado’s oldest ditches," said Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg. "Thanks to the foresight and commitment of the Morimitsu family, the prime soils and water essential to farming this land are being preserved, helping sustain one of Colorado’s most established agricultural operations.”
“Preserving these local farmland properties provides many immediate and long-term benefits to our community,” said Emma Pinter, Adams County Commissioner and Board Chair. “The fresh fruits and vegetables grown on these farms are distributed locally and regionally, including supplying our local food bank and pantries, and help sustain the history and heritage of the area, while supporting our local economy.”
The Conservation Fund, a national environmental nonprofit focused on conserving land and water in ways that make both environmental and economic sense, acquired the property when it came up for sale and brought the multiple partners together for an outcome that benefits the community and the local food economy. Grants awarded to this project from Adams County and GOCO were combined to complete the conservation easement permanently protecting the property’s irreplaceable soils, water rights, and open space resources. More than 80 percent of Adams County residents recently voted to make the County's Open Space Sales Tax program permanent, showing the popularity of this critical funding source for preserving important open space and agricultural lands and creating, improving and maintaining parks, trails and recreation facilities.
“With stiff competition from developers for these farmlands and water rights on Brighton’s edge, the urgency and threats are as high here as anywhere in the State,” said Christine Quinlan of The Conservation Fund. “Adding the Morimitsu family’s historic farm to the conservation effort in Historic Splendid Valley boosts the community’s economy and retains its agricultural heritage.”
“We’re proud to invest Colorado Lottery proceeds in the conservation of farmland for the production of local crops as well as a scenic buffer of land for people in cars and on bikes cruising by to enjoy,” said GOCO Executive Director Chris Castilian. “And we’re especially grateful to the Morimitsu family who made the permanent protection of the land possible.”
About the farm
Prior to this land being homesteaded, it was used by indigenous Arapaho and Cheyenne people who would camp near the South Platte River while following buffalo herds across the plains. The farmland was homesteaded in 1879 by Richard and Olive Talbot both of whom constructed many of the structures on the property. After leasing the land from the Talbots for six years, Suekichi “George” and Toi Morimitsu purchased it in 1939. The Morimitsu family owned the property for the next 80 years. George and Toi raised 12 children on the farm. They grew vegetables like onions, corn and beans to sell to the local pickling company, Kuners. Members of the Morimitsu family recall stories of the kids hoeing the rows of crops on their way to and from Pleasant Plains School on 144th Avenue and Potomac Street, including a trip back and forth for lunch each day. The family’s long tenure on the property saw them through World War II, in which three of the Morimitsu sons fought, while the second son, Kiyoshi, stayed home to tend to the farm. When George passed away in 1963, operations were turned over to his son Hayato, who went by Henry. Henry and his wife Taeko farmed the property, continuing to grow a variety of vegetables until Henry retired in 1986. They also raised three children on the farm. Following Henry’s retirement the property was leased to Petrocco Farms, which still farms it to this day.
“Our family is honored to be given the opportunity to leave a legacy in Historic Splendid Valley. It was a long and sometimes difficult process to bring all parties together to sell our farm to The Conservation Fund, but in the end we feel that it was worth the work to see this prime farmland preserved for the benefit of future generations,” shared Amy Bokn, daughter of Henry Morimitsu.
With the conservation easement in place, the parcel was recently purchased by Petrocco Farms, a local farm with deep roots in the area. The Petrocco family has been farming since the early 1900s and in Splendid Valley since 1960. Headquartered near Brighton, today their operation comprises over 3,000 acres in Adams and Weld Counties. Petrocco grows a variety of vegetables, from cabbage and onions to leafy greens and sweet corn. These crops are largely distributed from the Petrocco Farms processing facility, located approximately one mile as the crow flies from the Morimitsu Farm property. This abundant variety of vegetables can be found in many of Colorado’s largest food chains and food service outlets. The farm also donates thousands of pounds of produce to food banks throughout Colorado, including Food Bank of the Rockies and Colorado Care & Share, and to local events like Welby Days and Mt. Carmel Summer Festival.
“As farmers, we are the stewards of this land,” said Dave Petrocco, Sr. “We take great pride in our growing practices and the vegetables we grow. Preserving this farm, which is central to our operation, helps ensure that high quality food can continue to be grown in this area for many years to come.”
Historic Splendid Valley and District Plan
This project is part of a larger strategy of farmland preservation outlined in the award-winning District Plan, which highlights the importance of preserving irreplaceable prime farmland soils with available water rights. This farmland area, known today as Historic Splendid Valley, is just south of the City of Brighton and is characterized by acres of farmland growing fruits and vegetables in the historic floodplain of the South Platte River. Residents and visitors alike can experience agritourism like you-pick fruits and flowers, farm festivals, and local farm stands. Farms in the area also distribute their produce to grocery stores throughout the state and the region and sell locally through seasonal CSA (farm share) opportunities.
This farm property was a priority for the City of Brighton and Adams County to preserve due to its location in the heart of Splendid Valley, its large size surrounded by other farm properties (many of which are preserved for continued farming as well), USDA prime farmland soils, senior water rights and visibility along Sable Boulevard in the heart of the Valley. A number of historic structures still stand as reminders of previous generations, some of which continue to be used for farming operations. The preservation of this property brings the total land preserved by the City of Brighton and Adams County in Historic Splendid Valley to 444 acres, which includes both privately-owned lands under agricultural conservation easements and lands owned by the City or County for agricultural preservation. These preserved farmlands are sandwiched between two other regional conservation corridors— Barr Lake State Park to the east and the South Platte River Greenway to the west.
The “buy-protect-sell” model used to preserve the Morimitsu Farm is a key strategy for preserving farmland. In this case, The Conservation Fund bought the farmland, protected it with a conservation easement now held by the City of Brighton and Adams County, and then sold it to Petrocco Farms for their ongoing management. Maintaining private ownership means a smaller investment of resources on the part of the City and County and can ensure more stability for the farmer. By placing a conservation easement on the property, the agricultural use is still allowed and is protected in perpetuity even if it is sold. It also ties the water rights to the land, which are essential to the fruit and vegetable production prevalent in Splendid Valley.
A key to food security and a sustainable local food system
The preservation of this property is critical to the local food system. This area has the major components of a successful food system intact, including productive farmland and adequate water rights for irrigation, processing facilities and access to regional transportation channels as well as local markets. As the COVID-19 pandemic exposes the weaknesses and inefficiencies in our global food system, shoring up our ability to produce food locally is more important than ever.