The state of agriculture

Consumers are buying more local food, but the trade war, weather and mental health in rural Colorado are impinging on the industry's growth

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Luke Trautwein

Now’s a good time to talk about the state of agriculture in the state of Colorado. Colorado Proud — a program of the Colorado Department of Agriculture that raises awareness of locally grown and raised food — is celebrating its 20th year with events at farmers markets across the state. Plus, August 4-10 is Colorado Farmers Market Week. And Colorado Proud takes its festivities to the Boulder Farmers Market on August 28.

But it’s also a time when trade wars are directly impacting Colorado farmers and ranchers, and, by extension, the communities in which they operate. Older generations of farmers and ranchers are retiring or selling farms, extreme weather events have impacted some farms and ranches in the last few years, and lack of access to mental health care in rural Colorado — as in other parts of the country — is impacting the vitality of the state’s agricultural communities.

Let’s start with the good news. About 83 percent of Coloradans are buying some locally grown or raised products when they go shopping. Just 10 years ago, only 77 percent of Coloradans said they bought locally, and Wendy White of Colorado Proud, who’s been with the program almost since its inception, says the number was “significantly less than that 20 years ago.”

White says there are multiple factors that have contributed to the growing public awareness and reception of local foods.

“It’s a combination of things. It’s sort of interesting as we have a population that’s more generations removed from having a connection with a farmer [or] rancher. There’s this disconnect, yet there’s this desire and yearning for a connection with the producers who grow and raise this food. There’s this natural direction of seeking out information. Consumers are certainly asking more questions — where was my food produced and how was my food produced?”

White says the state helps to build that connection by supporting local farmers markets and educating the public about Colorado-grown food. For instance, White says one of the program’s most popular resources is a produce calendar so the average consumer knows when and where they can get locally grown fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy.

Colorado Proud also asks consumers in the state every five years about their perceptions of and experiences with local agriculture. The findings are interesting at least, but also help the program direct educational outreach efforts. For instance, Colorado Proud recently asked consumers what they think the state’s top agricultural goods are; they answered, in order, corn, peaches, melons, vegetables and cattle. In reality, the state’s top products are, in order, cattle, dairy, corn, hay and wheat. The disparity in those answers represents a divide between the producers themselves and what people find, and buy, in their local grocery stores and farmers markets.

White says there is a further disparity in how people perceive agricultural producers and their realities.

“I like to talk to people who have gardens. I’ve talked to several people at the markets, [who say], ‘My garden just got hit by hail and I had to replant,’ and I ask them now think about your garden and think about a farmer who’s out there growing food who gets hit by hail and how do you think that impacts them? There continues to be those basic challenges of weather and [also] finances, and unfortunately the mental health crisis in rural Colorado is definitely there.”

White says the state has resources in rural Colorado to connect those suffering from mental health issues to help. In sparsely populated areas, too, access to locally grown produce can be a challenge, and so White says the state tries to educate people in those communities about where and when they can get local produce. 

One of the most pressing concerns for Colorado producers is the impact of tariffs and Trump’s trade war with the rest of the world. Tom Lipetzky, director of marketing programs and strategic initiatives at the Colorado Department of Agriculture, says although exports of the state’s agricultural products totaled $2 billion in 2018, it’s 17 percent lower from January to June this year from last, and that the trade war is to blame.

“Much of the decline can be attributed to markets that we’re hearing about in the news almost daily relating to trade.  The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement has yet to be ratified by the U.S. and Canada, and until it is, there is still uncertainty in the markets. Buyers in Canada and Mexico are cautious about committing to purchases of new products and making longer-term commitments,” Lipetzky says.  

Lipetzky adds that China has been the fifth leading importer of Colorado goods in recent years, bringing in mostly beef and then hides and skins for manufacturing. But on Aug. 5, China announced it would stop importing U.S. agricultural products in response to new tariffs on $300 billion worth of Chinese goods set by the Trump administration and set to take effect on Sept. 1.

“The announcement [on Aug. 5] that China’s state-run enterprises will stop purchases of U.S. food and agricultural products is going to hurt farmers and ranchers at a time when they are already experiencing lower net incomes and depressed market prices. The impact reaches well beyond just our farmers and ranchers but also to main street businesses all across rural Colorado,” Lipetzky says, adding that the Chinese markets lost to South American and European producers who pick up the slack “may take years to win back when the dust settles on this trade dispute.” 

Now certainly there are arguments to be made about keeping agricultural products in the U.S., and further arguments to be made about the environmental and social sustainability of large commodity farms in Colorado. But at the very least, the unraveling of the system, if the trade war escalates, will have serious impacts on one of the state’s largest revenue-generating industries and the communities in which they operate. Everyday folks will be hurt most by the escalating tariffs.

Many conventional Colorado farmers and ranchers have been making the effort to stress the environment less and operate on tighter budgets, all while new generations of farmers seek to implement organic and sustainable practices on existing farms or the new farms they’re launching. Over the last 20 years, technology has helped set that foundation to meet these new challenges.

“Agriculture has always been an early adopter of technology,” White says. Producers are, “utilizing technology to be as efficient as possible. Farmers and ranchers are producing more food with fewer inputs, less water and smaller acres.”

White says producers are also diversifying their crops, implementing agritourism into their business models, and selling directly to consumers as much as possible.

When we talk about the future of farming, though, we’re talking about people. Yes, the future is in sustainable and organic food — it has to be because more consumers are demanding it and because the world will continue to get hotter if we don’t upturn conventional agriculture processes. In this regard, the state is doing a lot to help get new farmers up to speed, helping them with planning and getting their wares to market, and helping consumers continue to see the merit in local food, by slapping the Colorado Proud label on produce in grocery stores so people can choose to eat local, and by, for instance, hosting cooking challenges with Colorado produce, as the Colorado Proud program did this week at the Broomfield Farmers Market. It sounds basic, but by showing people how to use local produce and allowing them to taste food that hasn’t sat on a truck or in a grocery store for months, the department is hoping locality speaks for itself.