Colorado ag producers emphasize adaptability

Steve Ela estimates he lost half the peach trees on his family farming operation near Hotchkiss to an October freeze.

Ray Moore figures he lost in one week in 2020 about 80 percent of the customers for bison from his Rock River Ranches operation when the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions affected restaurant operations.

Ag producers like Ela and Moore have weathered the weather as well as a pandemic, though, by adapting, diversifying and developing relationships that turn consumers into customers more interested in where their food comes from than what it costs.

“It takes price out of the factors that go into the decision,” Ela said.

Ela and Moore were among the panelists who discussed a variety of issues and answered a range of questions during a virtual roundtable hosted by Colorado Proud, a program of the Colorado Department of Agriculture. 

The panel also included Becca Jablonski, an assistant professor and food systems extension economist at Colorado State University, and Kate Greenberg, Colorado commissioner of agriculture.

Ela said it’s been a difficult couple of years for Ela Family Farms, a more than century-old operation growing more than 55 varieties of organic tree fruits as well as organic heirloom tomatoes.

A freeze in October killed about half the peach trees. The operation also has had to contend with hail and drought conditions, he said.

Ela said the circumstances have prompted him to consider moving away from some of the production of tree fruits and further diversifying the operation. Some of the possibilities could include more agricultural tourism on the farm. “We’re brainstorming.”

Moore, a third-generation rancher, said he lost 80 percent of the sales of his bison products in a single week when the pandemic affected the restaurants to which he sold meat.

Moore said he adapted by using social media to promote sales directly to consumers. He said he now sells more bison to consumers than he used to sell to restaurants.

In selling fruits, vegetables and meats to consumers, Ela and Moore said it’s important to promote personal connections between customers and their food suppliers.

Ela said his operation not only sells products at farmers markets, but also takes advantage of those events to communicate with consumers — to tell stories and build relationships.

Ela Family Farms also hosts tours and dinners. For many consumers, their values align with the values promoted on the farm, he said.

There’s also a matter of quality customer service, he said. “You want to provide what they want, when they want it and where they want it.”

Moore said Rock River Ranches promotes itself as a family owned operation and strives to differentiate its products with consumers.

Jablonski and Greenberg said the pandemic and drought conditions likely will have lasting effects on farms and ranches in Colorado.

Jablonski said the pandemic accelerated several shopping trends, increasing the proportion of consumers who purchase food online as well as promoting more awareness of local food sources.

Producers can take advantage of those trends, she said, by targeting markets and identifying what they care about. In many cases, customers care more about certain values than they do prices. “What do customers value?” she asked.

Farmers and ranchers have always faced variability in weather and extreme weather events, she said. But the ability to face those risks is tied to profitability.

Greenberg said both conservation and marketing efforts will continue as producers switch to low-water crops and new markets are developed for those crops to keep the Colorado industry competitive. Diversification will help as well, she said. “Diversification is an incredibly important tool for us.”

Other efforts are under way in Colorado to strengthen the connections between producers in rural and urban areas of the state, Greenberg said. “All of us have a stake in the future of agriculture.”

Read the entire article at The Grand Junction Business Times.