Gov. Jared Polis has picked Kate Greenberg to be his first Commissioner of Agriculture. She acknowledged applause during the State of the State address Thursday Jan. 10, 2019.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

Agriculture is one of Colorado's biggest economic drivers. But farmers and ranchers are not immune to the challenges their industry faces across the country.

Kate Greenberg, Colorado's new Commissioner of Agriculture and the first woman to hold the post, knows that well. She was a farmer herself before working with the National Young Farmers Coalition.

Greenberg talked to Colorado Matters about the struggle to recruit young farmers and ranchers, mental health in the agriculture industry and working in partisan politics.

Interview Highlights

On how to recruit younger agriculture workers:

"Farmers nationwide over 65 outnumber those under 35 by six to one. We do not have enough young people going into agriculture, and this is a problem not only for who will grow our food in the future, but how current farmers and ranchers will be able to pass down their operations to the next generation.

I worked with the National Young Farmers Coalition, and we asked ourselves this question every day. There are avenues through policy, there are avenues through non-profit organizations, and education institutions. I think succession planning is a really key part of this, is, how do we enable the existing generation of farmers and ranchers to have the option to pass their business, their land, down to the next generation that might not look like it has in the past. We're seeing a lot of younger people who come from farm families don't necessarily want to go back to the farm, and those farmers are left to wonder, 'Well who, if not my kids, who will it be?'

There, of course, are lots of kids who do want to go back to the family farm. But, I think expanding what succession looks like, expanding the options, making it affordable to farm again, are all pieces of the solution."

On mental health among farmers and ranchers:

"The rate of farmer suicide is incredibly high. We here at the department have a program that we partnered with the Colorado Crisis Hotline, trained those crisis workers on how to engage with farmers and ranchers specifically, and have been doing all kinds of outreach to producers to make sure they know that these resources are here. That if they're struggling, that's okay, and that there is a broad community here to support them.

Of course, the hotline is confidential as well, so it's important for farmers to know that if they're struggling they can take their struggles to someone who will hear them out and provide them with resources. So we take that seriously. I think this is something we will remain committed to, to growing those resources for producers across the state."

On working with a partisan state government:

"Well, I think the way I see my post here at the Department of Ag, agriculture is nonpartisan, and this is how we do our work. This is how I do my work. We're here to support farmers and ranchers and the agriculture industry. Of course, we are weaving in and out of politics in all this. You can't take politics and policy out of agriculture, much like anything in our world. But where I come from is that this is nonpartisan, that regardless of your political beliefs, that we share the same goals and vision, and that's supporting agriculture and the state of Colorado, supporting family farmers and ranchers and continuing to be able to grow food and steward natural resources through agriculture."

Answers have been edited and shortened for clarity.

Full Transcript

Ryan Warner:  This is Colorado Matters, from CPR News. I'm Ryan Warner. Agriculture is one of Colorado's biggest economic drivers, but farmers and ranchers are by no means immune to the challenges that their industry faces across the country. Let's talk about the people who grow our food with Kate Greenberg, she's Colorado's new Commissioner of Agriculture. She's the first woman in that post and she's a farmer herself, although this job may mean more cubicle farms than she'd like. Hi Kate.

 

Kate Greenburg:  Hi there.

 

RW:  You say agriculture is the second biggest economic driver in the state but indeed there are challenges you want to tackle. So let's start with the big picture. Like what does Colorado agriculture look like today?

 

KG:  Well, as you mentioned, agriculture is among the top economic drivers in the state of Colorado. This is done by folks who are less than two percent of the population, so the impact is immense. We have producers all across the state, corner to corner, from the Eastern plains, the Western Slope, from urban and rural Colorado, who are growing food, continuing the legacy of agriculture and keeping their families on the land.

 

RW:  What are some of the pressures that they're facing today? Let's talk about the economic pressures, the environmental pressures, and even some of the demographic pressures.

 

KG:  Well you mentioned some in the introduction, trade of course is an incredibly huge issue right now. Commodity prices. Essentially the financial hurdles that farmers face every day continue to be challenges. We face issues of ongoing drought and climate change as you mentioned, that the impact of those really come down first and foremost on farmers and ranchers who are dealing with the weather and changing climate and how it impacts their bottom line and their business. Kind of the broader picture too is the risk that we face in losing the next generation of farmers and ranchers.

Farmers nationwide, over 65 outnumber those under 35 by six to one. We do not have enough young people going into agriculture, and this is a problem not only for who will grow our food in the future, but how current farmers and ranchers will be able to pass down their operations to the next generation.

 

RW:  Let's unpack some of that. So with climate change, what specific effects are farmers feeling in Colorado?

 

KG:  Well for starters, irrigated agriculture in Colorado depends on the snow pack. Snow pack becomes, melts into water and that water irrigates the fields. Snow pack is changing, the timing of melt is changing, so a lot of the irrigation management, farmers are having to adapt. We are also a couple decades in to an ongoing drought. This of course poses huge challenges to farmers and ranchers across the board in terms of water access, and we're just seeing more erratic weather events, hailstorms, wildfire, all kinds of natural disasters that impact agriculture and impact farmers' bottom lines.

 

RW:  I'm so glad you mentioned snow pack there, because I think it's, for the first time, making a connection for me between snow pack and, like, soymilk. I mean, all of that is so important to agriculture and to what is produced in Colorado. And yet, farmers and ranchers don't universally embrace the idea of human-caused climate change.

 

KG:  Well, I think no matter kind of where you're coming from the bottom line is that farmers and ranchers are already stewarding natural resources. They are some of the most innovative, creative, resilient individuals, and no matter how you think about or believe in climate change, there are so many roles that agriculture can play in addressing water scarcity, soil health, food security. So that's really where we come at it is that farmers and ranchers are at the helm in conservation and innovation, and that will be our goal, is to continue supporting that.

 

RW:  Okay, so there's this six-to-one ratio of older to younger farmers, and owning and running a farm seems like a really expensive endeavor, so how do you get young people into this fraught field?

 

KG:  Well that's a, it's a great question. It's an extremely important question. I think, in my previous life I worked with the National Young Farmers Coalition, and we asked ourselves this question every day. There are avenues through policy, there are avenues through non-profit organizations, and education institutions. I think succession planning is a really key part of this, is, how do we enable the existing generation of farmers and ranchers to have the option to pass their business, their land, down to the next generation that might not look like it has in the past. We're seeing a lot of younger people who come from farm families don't necessarily want to go back to the farm, and those farmers are left to wonder, "Well who, if not my kids, who will it be?"

There, of course, are lots of kids who do want to go back to the family farm. But, I think expanding what succession looks like, expanding the options, making it affordable to farm again, are all pieces of the solution.

 

RW:  Well, that's fascinating. If succession doesn't look like me giving my farm to my kids, what would it look like?

 

KG:  Well, an example there is a land link program. So, we actually have this program in the state of Colorado, Colorado Land Link, they essentially connect landowners, farmers, and ranchers with those seeking land. This happens formally through organizations, it's happening informally through just relationships, communities talking to one another saying, "Hey, you know, I've got a farm. I've got a business set up. The infrastructure is there, and I need someone that I get along with, and want to work my property, to come work with me and we go from there. So, it's folks thinking outside the box, but really, I think what weaves everyone together is the desire to keep family agriculture alive and thriving in Colorado, and seeking creative ways to do it.

 

RW:  Yeah. It's almost like an apprenticeship for a certain period of time where they're working together. And then, I think you talked about making the cost of farming itself just more affordable. How do you begin to do that?

 

KG:  Well, that's another big question. It really starts with land access and affordability. The price of land is pricing out young people from agriculture. It's putting all kinds of pressure on existing farmers and ranchers who feel that they might not have an option other than to sell their land outside of agriculture. So I think addressing that is fundamental to making farming affordable again. There are, of course, other aspects of financing a farm operation that need to be addressed to make sure that it is a business that one can afford for their life and for their family.

 

RW:  It is, in the face of all of these challenges, that I know mental health in particular is an issue among farmers and ranchers, and in fact we've covered on this program training mental health counselors on a hotline to deal specifically with the needs of rural Colorado. What do you see as your mandate, your responsibility, in addressing that?

 

KG:  Well, it's a great question, and it's something the department has been addressing beginning with my predecessor, Commissioner Don Brown. The rate of farmer suicide is incredibly high. We here at the department have a program that we partnered with the Colorado Crisis Hotline, trained those crisis workers on how to engage with farmers and ranchers specifically, and have been doing all kinds of outreach to producers to make sure they know that these resources are here. That if they're struggling, that's okay, and that there is a broad community here to support them. Of course, the hotline is confidential as well, so it's important for farmers to know that if they're struggling they can take their struggles to someone who will hear them out and provide them with resources. So we take that seriously. I think this is something we will remain committed to, to growing those resources for producers across the state.

 

RW:  Do you know if they're using it?

 

KG:  They are using it. We hear anecdotally from the Crisis Hotline, they have received many more calls than prior to this program from the agricultural community. So, we're heartened to hear that.

 

RW:  You're listening to Colorado Matters. I'm Ryan Warner, and we are meeting Colorado's new Commissioner of Agriculture. That's Kate Greenberg. And Kate, I'd like to get into a little bit of your background. So you're a farmer yourself. You spent formative years in rural Minnesota, and I've heard you say that you've always loved the land, but that it took some time for you to learn to love agriculture, which is an interesting distinction. What does that mean to you?

 

KG:  Well, so just a clarification. I'm not currently farming. I was farming before my previous work with the National Young Farmers Coalition. Since that time I've been sort of a road warrior, driving around to farms and ranches across the state and across the intermountain west. With regards to loving the land and loving agriculture, I wasn't raised on a farm, so I'm one of those who came to agriculture later in life, much like many people out there.

And I think what changed for me was I realized once I left Minnesota and came west that I had been the beneficiary of the labor and work of farmers and ranchers my whole life, eating three meals a day without having to worry about where they came from. And once I realized that, I realized that agriculture really is the work of loving the land, and that's when I began to put my work into agriculture and into advocating for farmers and ranchers.

 

RW:  You were at a certain period in your life an intern on a draft horse farm. Tell us what that is.

 

KG:  A draft horse farm is a farm powered by draft horses. I was an intern then, and the farm has since grown into a pretty incredible operation, but it's when you work with a team and cultivate your fields with horse power.

 

RW:  And why do people opt for that over, I don't know, John Deere?

 

KG:  Well, I think it's like most things in agriculture, each farmer and rancher has their own way of doing things, their own vision, their own desire for their business and the way they work the land, and this is just one of those many ways of doing it.

 

RW:  What are the inherent politics in this? Because when you talk about climate change, when you talk about trade and tariffs and potential trade wars, inevitably the question arises about Democrats and Republicans and how one administration has handled this versus another. Just talk to me about navigating that.

 

KG:  Well, I think the way I see my post here at the Department of Ag, agriculture is nonpartisan, and this is how we do our work. This is how I do my work. We're here to support farmers and ranchers and the agriculture industry. Of course, we are weaving in and out of politics in all this. You can't take politics and policy out of agriculture, much like anything in our world. But where I come from is that this is nonpartisan, that regardless of your political beliefs, that we share the same goals and vision, and that's supporting agriculture and the state of Colorado, supporting family farmers and ranchers and continuing to be able to grow food and steward natural resources through agriculture.

 

RW:  How much is the trade war with China hurt Colorado farmers and ranchers and what do you hope comes out of the upcoming talks between the two governments. I'll say that the director of the White House's National Economic Council, Larry Kudlow, suggested that the U.S. and China were not close to a new trade pact. But what's your sense of how it's affecting things on the ground?

 

KG:  Without a doubt, the trade war has impacted producers. It's been a big challenge, kind of stacked on all the other challenges that producers here are facing. You know, at the Department of Ag, we focus on market development for farmers and ranchers, with a focus on international market development, as well. And we're sort of buckling down in that regards, seeing our responsibility to producers across the state to make sure they have good, sufficient market access, despite what might be going on outside of our control.

So that's really where we're moving, keeping fingers crossed that things move, that the pain points start going away for producers in the state, and we keep doing our role to alleviate that.

 

RW:  Kate Greenberg is Colorado's new Commissioner of Agriculture. She has also been a farmer. This is Colorado Matters from CPR News.