Colorado ag commissioner leads panel discussion on next generation of ag
Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg welcomed a crowd to the Colorado Proud Next Generation of Ag Symposium at Balistreri Vineyards, a Colorado Proud member business, prior to moderating the panel discussion.
Greenberg told the crowd the Department of Agriculture is focusing on serving all ag producers along all portions of their journey, whether they are beginning farmers, minorities, hemp, organic, conventional, or focusing on keeping the next generation of producers on the land through succession planning. Her goal, she said, and the goal of the Department of Agriculture is to have more people in agriculture, not fewer through profitability and opportunities.
“We advance and encourage stewardship every day,” Greenberg said. “It’s something we talk about, we promote, we uplift farmers and ranchers.”
Greenberg closed her remarks with the issue of mental health in rural Colorado, something she said her predecessor, Don Brown, was committed to improving. Brown launched a mental health support system several years ago when the markets began to mirror the 1980s, she said.
“The stress is real and the conversation needs to happen,” she said. “At the department, we want to be advancing that conversation and making it feel normal to ask each other how you’re doing, to lean on each other, to come back to that community that I think makes Colorado ag the absolute best not only sector in Colorado but in the whole world. It’s such a privilege to be working in this field with all of you.”
Panelists included Will Johnson, CEO, Flying Diamond Ranch, Kit Carson, Colo.; Kris Staaf, senior director of public affairs for Safeway; Roberto Meza, cofounder, Emerald Garden Microgreens, Bennett, Colo.; Amanda Weaver, professor, University of Colorado, Denver and owner of Five Fridges Farm; Don Marvin, chairman of Concentric Ag Corporation; Tighe Brown, president of Big Green; and Commissioner Greenberg.
Through her work with Big Green, Tighe Brown helps coordinate learning gardens in urban school districts to allow students to learn in a hands-on way about their food. She said she learned quickly that the community’s buy in is important to the success of the school’s outdoor classroom. Food literacy, she said, is beyond how a food tastes but how it gets to the plate and its effect on the environment. Through conversations with students, Brown said she is hearing more students who have a garden at home or visit a farmer’s market as opposed to eight years ago when students were connected to agriculture more distantly.
From a retail perspective, Kris Staaf said customers value local products and those who grow or create those products, be it beer, soap, beef or produce.
“As retailers, as we continue to strive to be innovative and listen to our customers and listening to them in the sense they want to support the local farmer, they want to support the local grower so I think as retailers, we’re able to keep that alive and well and moving because it’s something our customers demand.”
Emerging technologies that have the potential to most significantly impact producers and consumers, according to Don Marvin, is vertical farming, or greenhouses stacked vertically, often in an urban environment. Areas of automation and robotics, he said, will also help regulate water usage and labor costs and availability to increase efficiencies.
“Improved crop traits will drive health and nutrition through the food supply chain,” he said. “Here I mean oleic soybean oil is healthier for you, high fiber wheat is another.”
Marvin also said he anticipates an increase in demand for plant-based foods but also anticipates the demand will level, leaving cattle producers little to be concerned with. With that increased demand, he anticipates an increase in peas, beans and lentil production and demand for inputs. Marvin also said consumers’ increased interest in knowing where and how their food was raised can translate into a premium to producers who are willing to capitalize on the demand through production practices.
It’s data that drives farming, said Roberto Meza, who thinks of his operation as an informed experiment. The door to the operation he runs as a partnership is open to a tech start up that has developed sensors traditionally used in cannabis production to gather plant data. He also works with regenerative soil biologists to analyze what the plants may be missing through metrics. This information can be used to increase yields and minimize input costs.
Plant-based protein, another emerging technology, is evolving in the retail sector and popular with young customers. According to Staaf, it is a growing category that is difficult to predict future demand. Currently, she said, it’s difficult to determine placement in the retail store. Though she said Safeway is listening to customers who are requesting plant-based options, she said it is beef they’re advertising on the front page of the circulars.
“Beef really drives our customers into the store and as we look at these plant-based products we just take it all in perspective,” she said. “Yes, it’s something we’re going to continue to listen to our customers and we’re going to look at other suppliers as they become available but it’s a balance knowing that our core customer is still shopping the front page for the beef ad.”
As a cattle producer, Will Johnson said it’s important to determine what message about plant-based products is resonating with consumers so those questions and concerns may be addressed by the beef industry.
“We can do a better job of showcasing or adapting some of our practices to answer those concerns and I think they’re legitimate concerns coming from the younger demographic out there,” he said. “I see that as a wake-up call for the industry.”
Johnson said there are incorrect assumptions out there but said it’s appropriate for the industry to communicate about the benefits to the environment and the quality of animal care on family-owned operations to communicate that side of the story.
Meza said moving forward, he sees less emphasis on a product and more emphasis on the supply chain and associated values, transparency and a relationship with consumers.
Marvin said he anticipates trade with China to mirror trade with the former Soviet Union following the grain embargo of the 1980s.
“Just like the Soviet Union, Russia, once those tariffs were lifted, it never returned to what it was for the American farmer in terms of grain production and export,” he said. “You’re going to see probably the same thing from China. China’s not going to be held hostage to the United States. They’re going to move their business to Russia, they’re going to move their business to Brazil for soybeans and wheat and corn.”
His recommendation, especially to farmers in the “I states” is to plant crops other than soybeans to diversify crops as he doesn’t believe grain exports will return to the levels prior to the trade negotiations.
In addition to diversification, Weaver said innovation in meeting the desires of consumers is vital. She frequently offers products from her urban farm at farmer’s markets and said packaging in unusual ways — bundling homegrown cucumbers, dill, garlic spices, and a recipe as a pickle pack rather than offering the jarred pickles — is key to meeting consumers where they are.
In terms of stewardship the panel suggested reducing food miles, waste, and continuing to use and define best practices, especially when it can also bring with it premiums, traceability and transparency. ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at email@example.com or (970) 392-4410.