Colorado ag industry issues a call to farms
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.”