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State ag leader: Outbreak has exposed long-existing challenges

Even in the best of times, uncertainty is a fact of life for Colorado’s farmers and ranchers. The repercussions of COVID-19 are just an extension of perennial concerns like weather and fluctuating market prices. One of the most visible disruptions among many was the coronavirus outbreak at the JBS meat-packing plant in Greeley in early April, prompting temporary closure of the plant after 50 positive tests and two deaths were reported at the 3,000-employee facility. Other plants across the country were shut down.

“Colorado stock producers are dealing with a lot,” says Colorado Department of Agriculture Commissioner Kate Greenberg. “There’s a lot of uncertainty in the commodities markets as it is, and then you add this uncertainty on top of it – facilities either shut down or reeling in their operations due to outbreak. There’s only a limited number of options for livestock producers in terms of where they ship their livestock, and Colorado’s a big hub for that.”

COVID-19 has impacted producers of livestock and crops, large and small. Greenberg says the state’s direct-to-consumer market – local farmers connecting with consumers via farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSAs), for example – have seen huge changes as a result of COVID-19 restrictions.

“In a lot of ways, they’re more nimble because of the scale and infrastructure of the local food system,” Greenberg says. “A lot of those producers have really been hustling to pivot their market opportunities. Those who are reliant primarily on restaurants, of course, lost the bulk of their revenue and have been looking at other models like CSAs – pre-boxed, direct to consumer.”

Greenberg notes that farmers and ranchers around the state are forming regional coalitions to exploit marketing opportunities at a time of mandated social distancing. One example is the Southwest Producers Directory formed by farmers and ranchers in the Four Corners area to connect directly with consumers at a time when farmers markets and many restaurants have been forced to close temporarily. Colorado Proud lists wholesale distributors statewide.

“They’re essentially building a whole new food system in the middle of all this,” Greenberg says. “There is an incredible amount of innovation and creativity going on. That does not mean we’re not dealing with all sorts of challenges left and right. But what producers are doing is thinking, ‘We’ve got product; we’ve got food coming out of the ground.’ It’s the marketing channels that are different.”

In pre-COVID-19 times, 40% to 50% of meals were eaten outside the home, according to some estimates. Now, about 90% of meals or ingredients are bought at retailers and prepared at home.

“The supply chain really can’t flip on a dime,” Greenberg says. “We’ve got ample supply. Our producers are doing an amazing job producing food. The question is, throughout our various supply chains, can we pivot to continue getting that food to the consumer? That’s what everybody across Colorado agriculture is doing in one way or another right now.”

In some ways, COVID-19 has merely exposed vulnerabilities that ag producers have been dealing with for years, if not generations.

“I think where the rubber’s going to meet the road is how we emerge from COVID-19,” Greenberg says. “We’re in this immediate crisis that has us marking time by days or weeks. But really, for our food system, it’s going to be a question of where consumers want to be putting their food dollars. Producers are getting creative and collaborating and cooperating to reimagine in real time Colorado’s food system at all scales. But I think what’s really going to be telling for us is to what extent consumers are in this with us.”

Perhaps consumers will emerge from these times of COVID-19 with a heightened appreciation for their access to good, safe, healthy and abundant food. That’s Greenberg’s hope.

“If there’s a silver lining, it’s that producers and consumers and all of us across the supply chain had the opportunity in this pandemic to recognize our inherent reliance on each other, and that, as the state moves through this, we’ll see that agriculture and the people who work the land – the farmers, the ranchers, the farm workers and the land itself – are all part of our identity as Coloradans. And I think that will help determine what market avenues and market infrastructure we need to keep agriculture thriving in Colorado.”

This article is part of the feature, State of Disruption, is which ColoradoBiz explores the impacts of COVID-19 on the state’s industries. The articles feature insight from industry leaders into what businesses throughout the state are up against, as new coronavirus numbers and strategies for reopening the economy are adjusted and reported daily.
Read more about the impact of  COVID-19, and see what the industry experts are doing and saying in the following industries:
Food & Beverage | Real Estate | Travel & Tourism