By Lisa Young
West Slope farmers, ranchers, retailers, chefs and food businesses are learning how to cope with the triple threat of a crop-killing freeze, water-depleting drought and a puzzling pandemic.
A panel of West Slope experts met last week via Zoom to talk about the unique challenges they face in 2020. The Western Slope Ag Recovery: Discoveries and Growth, from Peach Freeze to Pandemic, sponsored by Colorado Proud, also included growing drought conditions across the state.
Panelist included Wendy White, marketing specialist, Colorado Proud; Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg; Bruce Talbott, Talbott Farms, Palisade; Josh Niernberg, executive chef and owner Bin 707 Foodbar, Tocoparty and Bin Burger, Grand Junction; and Kelli Hepler, president, Colorado Agritourism Association.
While Colorado ag producers expect to deal with occasional freezes and droughts, they along with retailers and food-related businesses are also busy forging their way through the confusing and frustrating COVID-19 pandemic maze.
“It’s the stress of not knowing what’s next. We had two things and now we’ve got three. The farmers and ranchers are used to freezes and droughts, now with this virus at play we’ve got rules and regulations coming down changing and rearranging things,” said Hepler.
The Colorado Department of Agriculture has also had to make modifications to how it functions during the pandemic. Most employees at the agency are working remotely these days. With all the disruption, Greenberg emphasized the ongoing need to “pivot” and make adjustments all across the state during COVID-19.
“Some of the earliest pivot points were around grocery stores. We did a lot to manage consumer expectations around the food supply chain, making sure folks know we have ample food, ample product even though we’re seeing incredible change,” Greenberg said.
In mid-April, peach farmers across the region were hit by a devastating freeze causing widespread loss. Among those hardest hit was Talbott Farms in Palisade which estimated losing over 50% of its crop. Despite the hard luck, Talbott said the early freeze may have been a blessing in disguise in light of COVID-19.
“If there is a silver lining it’s that covid occurred March 15, not July 15 because if it happened on July 15... we would have been in the middle of harvest. So, if there was a year to sit out, this might be it,” he said.
The peach crop loss and the pandemic forced some Grand Junction restaurant owners to change their business models including price points, take-out and limited menus. Many like Niernberg took advantage of technology, social media and government grants to keep the doors open.
“I will say that without the technology that we’ve been able to implement, without some of the quick-acting implementation of some liquor licensing laws through the state we would have been dead in the water months ago,” he said.
“Because of the freeze this year we haven’t been able to use peaches at all and I don’t know if we will be able to, it’s something a lot of our local guests look forward to... so we’ve been trying to change our menus based on what’s available to us.”
If a freeze and a pandemic weren’t enough, the state is slowly seeing the ominous “red” shaded drought creeping up both sides of the state. Delta County is almost entirely in the D3 zone while Montrose and Mesa counties have significant drought areas as well. The recent monsoon moisture has provided some relief, but it’s unlikely to stop the spread.
“The drought task force and related impact task force has been activated by the governor, so we are essentially dispatching ourselves into the field... that’s where the rubber meets the road,” said Greenberg.
In spite of the challenges, area farmers, ranchers, ag retailers and food industries have proven they are resilient and creative. Talbot said the key to success is creating numerous income streams before trouble hits.
“Diversification has big values to us. One is we are obviously spread in more markets and more income streams so, if we do get beat up in one area, we have a lot of opportunity to make up some of it elsewhere,” he said.
All panelists said another key to surviving downturns in the markets, or facing the unexpected freeze, drought or pandemic is maintaining relationships with everyone up and down the supply chain.
“It’s really important during these unusual times to keep those working relationships together. Keep in contact with your clients, let them know that you’re still in business, that you’ve got a plan and reach out to them to see if they’re okay too,” Hepler said.
Talbott echoed his colleague saying, “You need to maintain your relationship with your suppliers, with your customers, keep a dialogue going. The other thing I would say is be nimble... the game changes week by week, be very willing to change the direction you’re going if the game changes.”
Greenberg, representing CDA, said from the regulation side of things that everyone needs to keep checking in on their local public health orders.
“We’ve been an advocate for ag and supporting our public health both state and local but really trying to find that needle thread where we can keep business going on the ag side while keeping people safe and healthy while supporting public health,” she said emphasizing the need to keep relationships strong.
Looking to end on a positive note, Greenberg put the present troubles of freeze, drought and especially the pandemic into perspective.
“You know covid won’t be around forever, at some point we’ll emerge from this time and then the historians will get to work...I when think about where we want to land at the other side of covid it’s with an incredibly vibrant food and ag system in the state, it’s a thriving food and ag businesses, it’s an incredible sense of interconnection between consumers and producers and the businesses that connect them and serve them,” said Greenberg, adding, “If we think from that end point and anchor ourselves there, working backwards throughout covid and the pandemic will guide us like a north star… (and we’ll) make it thru in a way that supports Colorado ag.”