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Virtual roundtable discusses a tumultuous season for agriculture

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On Tuesday, Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Colorado Proud held a virtual roundtable to discuss the challenges local agriculture faces this growing season: peach freeze, pandemic, and drought. The discussion featured four panelists from various sectors of the agricultural scene and a moderator. 

Kelli Hepler, the president of the Colorado Agritourism Association, detailed the pandemic’s impacts on the state’s agritourism business. 

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“We’re seeing a lot of virtual tour types of things taking place,” Hepler said. “We’re seeing a shift in how [people] want to market their business, how they’re going to talk to people. It’s been kind of eye opening for them. They’ve been real creative and watching each other, and they’re working together a little more.”   

Hepler noted some of the creative virtual tours that have taken place recently, such as wine tastings, lavender bunching parties, and even a marinara making class. “That gets your product still in the mind of individuals,” she said. “Those virtual tours can translate into direct sales, kind of like a little wishbook.” 

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Josh Niernberg is the executive chef and owner of Bin 707 Foodbar, Tacoparty, and Bin Burger in Grand Junction, restaurants that aim to source all their food locally. He discussed the changes that were made to his businesses due to coronavirus. 

“From the beginning… the most important thing was to try and keep all of our staff on,” Niernberg said. “[We changed] our menus to something we could do for take out and delivery. … [and] we did a couple different versions of meal kits.” 

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Niernberg noted that “without some of the quick-acting implementation of liquoring licensing laws we’ve seen in the state, we would have been dead in the water months ago.” When coronavirus hit, he said that his restaurants’ net sales dropped from about $60,000 to $20,000 overnight. 

Another panelist was Bruce Talbott, the manager of Talbott Farm in Palisade. He detailed the adverse effects the April peach freeze had on his crops this season. 

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“We hate to freeze out. We have about 15 percent of our crop, and that’s the hardest we’ve been hit since 1999,” Talbott said. “When we are not a reliable supplier to Kroger, to Safeway, to Walmart… they [have to] go elsewhere. Fortunately, Colorado has a strong enough reputation that I think we can build those things back, but still.” 

Talbott noted he was glad the pandemic hit in March as opposed to the middle of the summer. “If it had happened July 15, [that’s] right when we’re all hands on deck,” he said. Spacing people out to effectively social distance means that “they’re running at a fraction of the speed they normally run… Anytime you affect efficiency, there’s going to be a bloodbath.” 

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Kate Greenberg, the Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture, also spoke at the roundtable. “A lot of our work throughout COVID… [has been] to keep consumers engaged with Colorado agriculture, [and] keep folks connected with their producers and the products that are grown, raised, and processed here,” said Greenberg. 

“Maybe one of the hardest moments was when I reported about the freeze, in the early days, and had to tell people that we might not have a peach crop this year,” she said. “Watch[ing] the faces just drop, and the hearts sink—I think folks really do have a connection. We built that brand, we celebrate that brand, and we want to keep building on that momentum.” 

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Greenberg said the biggest question that remains is to what extent the demand for local food will persist after covid. “We’re looking to firm up that demand. …Capitaliz[ing] on this excitement and investing in local food systems… remains a really big opportunity for us.” 

To support Colorado agriculture in these challenging times, people should go to coloradoproud.com to connect with local producers.

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