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'Keep Families On The Land': What The State Is Doing To Help Farmers, Ranchers In 2020 And Beyond

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Jon Hurd
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Creative Commons

Between the pandemic, wildfires and a record-breaking drought, it's been a long and difficult year for many of Colorado's farmers and ranchers.

Agriculture experts and producers will gather on Thursday to look back on this difficult year and look ahead to the next. The virtual symposium, “Iconic Times for Colorado Agriculture: 2020 Learnings and 2021 Futureproofing,” will feature Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg. She spoke with Colorado Edition about how the state is working to help support Colorado’s producers through the pandemic and beyond.

Erin O’Toole: What are some of the biggest issues the COVID-19 pandemic has created for Colorado's agricultural sector?

Kate Greenberg: I think, like so many sectors, our ag sector has been hit with the impacts of COVID-19 up and down the supply chain. So many of our producers have had to pivot overnight. We saw this early on in the pandemic with the closing of restaurants and food service. So much of that demand had to change to grocery stores, which means farmers, ranchers and everyone along the supply chain had to pivot almost literally overnight.

That's put an incredible strain on businesses that are obviously critical to the rest of us being able to eat. So, they found a way to make it through. But it's not without additional costs, not without additional stress. Keeping workers safe all across food and agriculture is essential. And that responsibility has, of course, come onto the shoulders of producers as well. They've been changing operations and implementing protocols to keep people safe because folks in ag go to work every single day, regardless of what's going on with the pandemic. And so, we've got a great responsibility in agriculture to keep people both safe and well-fed.

On top of the pandemic, there was also a record-breaking drought, wildfires and hard freeze events, which hit fruit producers on the Western Slope pretty hard. How did extreme weather impact the sector?

Farmers and ranchers are always dealing with different events. We had the bomb cyclone last year, but we saw so many stacked events this year, back-to-back events that were happening one after the next, or even sometimes at the same time. That's on top of COVID.

And then, of course, additional impacts. We didn't get monsoons this year. That's been the case in many recent years. And a lot of ag, especially our dryland producers, rely on that late summer moisture. The wildfires have impacted ag directly, both on public lands and private folks having to move livestock directly out of the way of fire, losing that forage and also losing structures, losing homes and barns and worrying again about what will come in the spring with spring runoff and erosion, and headwater and watershed health.

So a lot of those issues have come from this year, but aren't only packaged within 2020. We don't suspect that 2020 is an anomaly anymore. And we expect to see a lot more of this due to the impacts of climate change, aridification in the West, ongoing water scarcity and tension within our water supply across sectors and across states and even countries. Ag is at the center of that.

Colorado Proud has been a critical part of support for the ag industry since it started back in 1999. What should we know about the program?

Colorado Proud is our vehicle to show consumers how incredibly diverse, delicious, innovative, and entrepreneurial our ag sector is here in Colorado. We just celebrated our 20th anniversary last year, which of course feels like a long time ago now. But we're so glad we have this program in a time like this, because we've been able to help connect consumers directly with producers. We promote local products. Fresh produce or meat or dairy can also be value-added; salsas, barbecue sauces, et cetera, that are made here by Colorado businesses.

So it's really an effort to grow that local food economy, to support small midscale family businesses across Colorado and really expand that sense of community around agriculture, which is the second-leading economy in our state and really drives so much of who we are as a state.

How has the role of the program changed to meet this moment, and what are you doing to actually connect producers with consumers?

We publish maps and guides online for how you can buy local. We've got a gift guide out right now that allows consumers to shop local. We also, at the beginning of a pandemic, launched a campaign called Keep Colorado Strong. And that was really to, again, drive consumers to Colorado producers. We listed on our Colorado Proud website, dozens and dozens of producers and ag businesses across the state where consumers can buy direct, delicious, bountiful, healthy food from Colorado farmers and ranchers.

How has the program's membership changed this year?

You know, we're seeing folks who haven't been a part of the local food system look to the local food system as new market opportunity, whether they were planning to or not, COVID has certainly forced a lot of folks to reconsider what is possible for them in their business. I know a lot of ranchers who have started selling direct to consumer because they have been getting phone calls from strangers who found them on the Internet. And so we're seeing those those businesses, those producers move in to a local food system, at least for part of their business.

Why should people get their food directly from local producers right now?

For starters, as a consumer, it is the most delicious, healthy, delightful food you're going to find. You have so many options of varieties that you maybe will never see in the grocery store. And I can tell you that more of those food dollars go directly to the producers. Farmers and ranchers are living on incredibly thin margins, whether they sell locally or into the commodity market. They are incredibly entrepreneurial, incredible business people. But they're dealing with a really tough ag economy right now.

Buying local helps support those family businesses who are stewarding our land, our soil, our water, who are bringing in the next generation, who are keeping these beautiful open spaces open for wildlife or hunting, fishing, recreation for vistas. All of that comes back to making sure that agriculture can stay in business and thrive.

How will this Thursday’s virtual symposium benefit the industry?

This symposium is a culmination to a number of others we've done online this year. This symposium this week is really a chance to both pause and reflect on 2020. What happened this year? And how do we make it through, you know, nine months in now, just about? We've crossed some incredible territory that's never been crossed before.

So it's a chance to reflect and then really take what we've learned from this year and apply it to what we expect is coming down the line, which is more uncertainty in both the marketplace and the climate, greater opportunity for local food expansion, but also other market expansion, thinking how do we diversify, how do we build greater resilience? How do we support our friends, families, neighbors, strangers in agriculture, up and down the supply chain, from the field to the warehouse to the processing line, to the grocery store; and really building that sense of community around our entire foodshed here in Colorado.

Part of the focus is “futureproofing” the industry in 2021. What does that look like?

It's really kind of sitting back and saying, “Okay, we've made it through this year, and this year threw us a lot of curveballs.” That's not to say that ag isn't used to curveballs. I mean, (if) you're a farmer, a rancher — every year is going to throw you things that you weren't expecting and you plan for that to the greatest extent you can. Winter's always a time for planning for the next season in ag.

Again, if it weren't for COVID, we'd be meeting every other week with ag organizations at their annual conferences. Those are all online right now. But still, it's a time to connect. It's a time to plan. It's a time to reflect and think about, how do we build stronger from here? You know, we've seen our strength tested. We've seen where our vulnerabilities lie. We certainly have them. And how can we build out of those to become more resilient, become stronger, become more inclusive, more vibrant and more economically sustainable for people to make a living in agriculture?

Do you think changes can be made to reduce the distress — financial and otherwise — that Colorado farmers and ranchers find themselves in after events like a pandemic or a drought?

Absolutely. And at the Colorado Department of Agriculture, we work every single day to advocate for those resources, help educate folks on what's available to them, work with our federal delegation and federal partners on those resources. A lot of them that pertain to wildfire or drought do come from the federal government. We were able to get over a million dollars in CARES Act funding directed out to farmers, ranchers and processors to help stem the impacts of COVID-19.

We're working as a state drought task force to address the impacts of drought and wildfire and essentially present to the legislature our findings on how to improve the resources available to producers. So those are just a few examples. But this is a large reason why we exist as a State Department of Ag and again, stay on our toes. Keep ag driving Colorado's economy as one of the top economic drivers in the state and keep families on the land.

This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for Dec. 2. You can find the full episode here.

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