Colorado ag in­dus­try is­sues a call to farms

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Erin Dou­glas

Coloradans want to know where their food comes from — and they want it to come from nearby fam­ily farms — but find­ing out is harder than it should be, say farm­ers and agri­cul­tural in­dus­try lead­ers.

Younger gen­er­a­tions are lead­ing the charge on de­mand­ing lo­cally sourced food. They’re start­ing farm-to-ta­ble restau­rants, mak­ing farm­ers mar­kets trendy and pay­ing a premium for lo­cally sourced food. But get­ting the most ac­cu­rate mes­sage out to con­sumers about where their food comes from and how it is grown is eas­ier said than done.

As part of Colorado Proud month — as pro­claimed by Gov. John Hick­en­looper and cel­e­brated with a cam­paign theme each year — part­ners in Colorado’s agri­cul­tural in­dus­try will tour the state this month to show the faces of agriculture.

The Colorado Proud pro­gram pro­vides a guar­an­tee to con­sumers that their food was grown, raised or pro­cessed in the state. The pro­gram started in 1999, but its pur­ple-andyel­low moun­tain sym­bol is be­com­ing more pow­er­ful. This year’s Colorado Proud sur­vey re­sults sug­gested that con­sumers want to “feel more con­nected” to farm­ers and food sources.

“Buy­ing lo­cally has be­come more of a fo­cus from younger gen­er­a­tions,” said Chris Wise­man, the deputy com­mis­sioner of the Colorado Depart­ment of Agriculture. “I know peo­ple who look for th­ese la­bels in gro­cery stores be­cause they feel like they’re help­ing a neigh­bor.”

The la­bel is one way to con­nect con­sumers to the right prod­ucts, but pro­duc­ers at a Colorado Proud panel at Union Sta­tion on Wed­nes­day said per­cep­tions of farms can make or break the suc­cess of Colorado’s agri­cul­tural in­dus­try – an im­por­tant piece of the state’s econ­omy. It con­trib­utes $41 bil­lion to the gross do­mes­tic prod­uct each year, or about 12 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to Colorado Proud.

Petrocco Farms’ Kate Petrocco, whose land spans 3,000 acres from Brighton to north of Gree­ley, said that con­sumers don’t nec­es­sar­ily un­der­stand how their food is pro­duced. She said peo­ple ask her whether Petrocco Farms is a “real farm.” With more than 100 em­ploy­ees and dis­tri­bu­tion to gro­cery stores, the oper­a­tion dis­rupts per­cep­tions of a tra­di­tional fam­ily farm, even though it would be im­pos­si­ble to com­pete other­wise.

“There’s a dis­con­nect,” Petrocco said. “If you buy from a gro­cery store, peo­ple think that it’s not from a fam­ily farm.”

Per­cep­tions of farm­ing and an ex­tremely high price of en­try, which can re­quire mil­lions of dol­lars, are hurt­ing the in­dus­try’s abil­ity to re­cruit young farm­ers, said Don Brown, the Colorado com­mis­sioner of agriculture.

“Young peo­ple con­cern me,” he said. “A lot of us have been in the business a long time, so we will be OK. But the young ones who we so des­per­ately need in the in­dus­try are re­ally strug­gling.”

Brown said he was con­cerned that young peo­ple are un­able to break into the in­dus­try, and with an ag­ing work­force, a farmer short­age is a se­ri­ous con­cern. Petrocco said she finds it dif­fi­cult to re­cruit U.S. work­ers for man­ual la­bor, par­tic­u­larly with Colorado’s low un­em­ploy­ment rate.

But rancher Todd In­glee, owner of Ralston Val­ley Beef, and other pan­elists said they are hope­ful that cam­paigns such as Colorado Proud month and the grow­ing de­sire to learn where food comes from will help the in­dus­try re­verse pre­con­ceived no­tions. He said even his young chil­dren have no­ticed the lo­cal food move­ment’s im­pact on the per­cep­tion of farm­ers.

“Lit­tle nu­ances make a big dif­fer­ence, and some­times peo­ple mar­ket­ing prod­ucts ex­ploit the con­fu­sion con­sumers have,” In­glee said. “So, I see that as a big ef­fort of mine: to in­flu­ence, ed­u­cate and make sure peo­ple are ask­ing the right ques­tions. All it takes is for some­one to have a bad ex­pe­ri­ence and then we all lose cred­i­bil­ity.”

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