Sep 10, 2020
Colorado ag industry challenged by multiple woes

Specialty crop growers are all too familiar with the vagaries presented by damaging weather impacts, pest and disease intrusions, market fluctuations, labor shortages and any number of obstacles that come their way in pursuing a profitable season.

Throw in the challenges that accompany a global pandemic, and the odds of potential failure rise to a level of unprecedented scope.

Colorado Proud, a program of the Colorado Department of Agriculture that champions statewide agricultural products, hosted a Zoom roundtable in late July that focused on Western Slope agriculture recovery and the triple disruption – peach freeze, COVID-19 pandemic and the state drought – and how it has affected agriculture and local businesses in southwest Colorado.

Related: Creative flair emerges in Colorado; government aid helps››

Overall, the three disruptors have played a significant role in the agriculture and business communities, including changes in demand, supplies, local consumer eating/purchasing and distribution, Colorado Proud stated in a press release. In particular, the Western Slope accounts for 40% of Colorado’s land area and 70% of the state’s water, playing a distinct and important role in Colorado’s food supply and agritourism.

It’s estimated the cold weather cost growers up to 95% of the 2020 peach crop.

The unusually cold weather spanned several days starting on April 13. Some of the coldest temperatures were measured on the morning of April 14 when Grand Junction fell to 19˚ F. That set a record for the date. The previous record was 21˚ F set in 1933. Temperatures were even colder in many of the surrounding valleys.

Peaches account for 75% of fruit production in the state, with the peach industry typically producing 17,000 tons (15,422 metric tons) of fruit with nearly $40 million in revenue.

Bruce Talbott, farm manager of Talbott Farms in Palisade, said the freeze likely wiped out as much as 80% of normal production at the peach farm.

Talbott Farms experienced a unique situation, Talbott said. Without freezing out, along with the pandemic disruption, the impact would have been much greater, he said, but with the freeze, many workers were sent back home, alleviating pressure on the farm to do more than necessary in the current situation.

Diversification pays off

Also, by investing in diversification, the farm is present in more markets, which means additional income streams. Having a grape crop will be helpful if other areas are struggling. It’s helped the farm from completely closing down.

“Different crops are really complimentary, and allow for a better employment environment, and makes us a highly interesting employer,” Talbott said.

Talbott addressed the struggle local farmers and producers have experienced, concerns that have leaked into different areas of the industry.

“Grocery stores have done quite well, but the farmers’ markets, fundraisers … our neighbors really have gotten hurt,” Talbott said.

Talbott noted that the freeze leads to a loss of revenue and impacts future access to H-2A seasonal farmworkers. “We spend years building crews of guys that know our (orchards,)” Talbott said. “They have to go elsewhere and we may not get them back for subsequent years.”

The third issue involves the farm’s marketing channels. Any time that there is a disruption in who the farm supplies, it may be harder to get those people back next year.

See more news from the peach industry››

Talbott Farms did have some orchards and peach varieties that produced plentiful fruit for the local market, although its commercial presence was impacted most.

“When it comes to our Western Slope fruit growers, I hope that consumers will still find ways to support them,” Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg said. “There is so much value-added product from our Western Slope fruit growers – peach jam, peach salsa and other peach products. There are also other revenue streams that producers have potentially developed – agritourism is a great option as long as it complies with state and local public health orders.”

“We (were) hopeful that we will see Colorado peaches this year,” Greenberg said. “It’s a little sad thinking about a summer without crates and crates of peaches to gorge ourselves on. Even with fewer peaches, there are ways that consumers can stay connected to Western Slope fruit and growers.

Marketing maneuvers key

Businesses, not just locally, but across the state are working through an “incredible” overhaul on marketing channels, Greenberg said in the online Zoom presentation. As a silver lining to the effects of the pandemic, businesses are rethinking business operations, marketing channels and thinking more about the customer experience. An increase in direct-to-consumer streams has been prevalent, too, due to consumer demand.

The pandemic, even with its negative effects, has given businesses a chance to flex marketing muscles and help elevate local Colorado businesses in Montrose, Delta and Mesa counties.

Greenberg also said local consumers have been able to invest in local Colorado products after businesses reached out to expose the wares of local ranchers and farmers.

Kelli Hepler, president, Colorado Agritourism Association, pointed to a local winemaker who offers virtual wine tasting.

“There’s a shift in how they want to market their business,” Hepler said. “It’s been kind of eye opening for them. They’re getting creative and you’re seeing that on the Western Slope.”

— Gary Pullano, managing editor


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