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Serving: West

Colorado ag reflects on its history, future

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Snowmelt runoff fills a reservoir in the Rocky Mountains near Dillon, Colo.
A 50-page report examines the economic, environmental and cultural impact of local farming.

Some really smart guy years ago (he had a beard, wore a stove pipe hat, and went by the moniker ‘Honest Abe’) said words to the effect that the past was a prologue to the future.

“If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it,” Abraham Lincoln said.

As the Colorado Farm Bureau, the state’s largest agricultural organization, looked towards commemorating its first 100 years in the business of helping farmers, it authorized a look-back-and-look-ahead report called The Future of Agriculture and Rural Colorado to cover issues of importance to the ag industry and its impact on the state by 2025.

“We looked at the application of agriculture in Colorado’s future and came up with a report that can be used as a reference for leaders looking for ways to support agriculture and help strengthen rural communities,” said Chad Vorthmann, CFB’s Executive Vice President.

50-page report

The 50-page report, an expanded update based on a previous look at the economic, environmental, social, and cultural impact of local agriculture, is intended to define challenges, opportunities, and the importance of Colorado agriculture.

“If you look at farm gate receipts in the state, we run roughly an $11 billion industry with a good portion associated with beef cattle, so we have extensive grazing systems that make use of our mountain pastures and plains,” says James Pritchett, Ag Sciences Dean at Colorado State University. “To go with that, we have both large and small meat processors and packers that drive that sector.

“Colorado also has a vibrant fruit and vegetable industry from our Palisade peaches to sweet corn and potatoes, melons and cantaloupes, and a lot of dry-land wheat (about $400 million in revenue). Agriculture is truly big business in Colorado,” he said.

Like much of the West, agriculture has modified with evolution as the state’s population has grown, especially along the Eastern part of the Continental Divide that has become urbanized with natural food efforts from Fort Collins to Denver. “A whole foodie culture has developed in that space that’s pretty innovative,” he said.

“Here, in the last 15 years, the consuming public has really become a lot more interested in where their food comes from and the grower credentials associated with it,” he said. “How was the product raised? What’s its environmental footprint? It’s been neat to see those attitudes and preferences evolve over time and create a food industry more aligned with what those preferences are.”

A broader look

An earlier report (2006) developed by The Future of Agriculture in Colorado task force focused around details in the Farm Bill and production agriculture while the 2020 report reflected a broader look at rural communities and their development and interconnection with agriculture.

“We invested a fair bit of time thinking about infrastructure and not so much the vibrancy of agricultural production, but more broadly, it’s interconnection with rural population and rural economy and how to ensure resiliency for both rural and urban populations,” he said.

Acknowledging that similar issues existed in other Western state rural communities because of continuing growth, he added: “We wanted to ensure that rural communities had the needed infrastructure, from roads, water, and sewer to health, education, and high technology --- rural broadband for instance -- we need these things in order for rural communities to be a part of the societal evolution taking place. I think the themes in Colorado shown in our report are reflective of what’s taking place throughout the West.”

Based on past history and current conditions, Pritchett is optimistic of what lies ahead. “I think Colorado agriculture has a bright future in front of it,” he said. “The pathways we take are important and we need to decide what that is going to look like. People move here to enjoy the bucolic landscapes and a lifestyle associated with agriculture and management of working lands and natural resources. The question is how do rural and urban come together to form a trajectory that continues that quality of life.

“Increasingly, I think Colorado will maintain its agricultural production, make value-added investments, and maintain its stewardship of natural resources through cooperation between competing demands of urban and rural areas,” Pritchett said. “There’s a will to convene critical conversations about how we might able to partner in ways that allow for growth to take place in both. When one side makes a move, it needs to benefit the other.

“There’s a pretty wide political divide in our country these days, but when people sit down to talk about agriculture, there tends to be a consensus around values and the importance of preservation and enhancement and growth and that bodes well for the future,” he said. “I feel good about the next one hundred years in Colorado agriculture.”

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