Kourlis inducted into 2018 Farm Credit Colorado Agriculture Hall of Fame
November 29, 2017
During the approval process for Tom Kourlis as the Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture, he was given an antidote that wouldn't be surprising if it was told today.
Kourlis was told a story about a man who was with his grandson at the store. The grandson noticed the vegetables were sprayed with water, and he thought that was how produce was grown.
Right there in the grocery store.
Kourlis was asked how he would work to eliminate that misunderstanding if he were to be the next commissioner. That was back in the 1990s and it's still an issue today.
“I think agriculture plays an important role in the United States, not just in providing food, but we’re stewards of the people taking care of the land. Frequently we are taken for granted and misunderstood.”
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Kourlis grew up in Craig, Colo., on the ranch his dad started in the 1920s. Both men were sheep producers, but his dad started the ranch when sheep and cattle producers were at odds, and while this happened before Kourlis' time, it still influenced his future career.
"My dad overcame some very difficult odds and circumstances, so in that sense, I felt when I began ranching on a full-time basis after school, I felt a lot of those things changed, but there always are and will be challenges," he said.
The range wars in Colorado and Wyoming included a series of battles between sheep and cattle producers, which led to deaths of sheep herds and even humans. The cattle producers were opposed to sharing the land with sheep producers for grazing purposes.
Kourlis said knowing what his dad went through and trends in agricultural conflict, made him an advocate for the industry, which is why he took the role as the Colorado Agriculture Commissioner. He later was named the first chairman of the American Lamb Board, which began in 2001.
One of the changes Kourlis has witnessed during his career was that his generation largely moved away from farming and ranching, losing that connection most had to the industry.
"There was this awareness of what agriculture was all about, especially for those people who became leaders in our country," he said.
He saw that, even as he was going into college. Kourlis attended the University of Denver rather than Colorado State University because of events like coal companies buying neighbor's land and oil and gas companies coming in and demanding access to land.
Kourlis decided DU was the right choice because he wanted to "familiarize" himself with the non-agriculture part of the population.
He got a finance degree, and after he graduated, he returned to the family ranch when his dad was 78 years old.
"I went back to the ranch after graduating and finishing my exams, I remember going back there and we were docking sheep," he said. "I was refueling the truck afterward, my dad walked out with his cane … he said, 'Do you see this' he kind of pointed around the ranch, 'run it.' He turned around and went right back into the house."
Kourlis already knew he would eventually run the farm.
Kourlis served at the Colorado Agriculture Commissioner from 1995-'99. His service to the ag community led him to be inducted into the 2018 Farm Credit Colorado Agriculture Hall of Fame.
He had four main objectives: provide safe food, insure integrity in business, develop good land stewards and make sure ag was profitable.
To maintain those objectives he started a group that represented all aspects of the agriculture industry to provide one voice to the legislature. He said it was necessary because far fewer lawmakers had a connection to agriculture.
"I think agriculture plays an important role in the United States, not just in providing food, but we're stewards of the people taking care of the land," he said. "Frequently we are taken for granted and misunderstood."
But he said there also is great reward working in the industry. ❖
— Fox is a reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at (970) 392-4410, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @FoxonaFarm.