While hosting a field trip at her family's farm, Kate Petrocco's polished and professional look triggered a flood of tears from one little boy who was expecting to meet Old MacDonald.
While hosting a field trip at her family’s farm, Kate Petrocco’s polished and professional look triggered a flood of tears from one little boy who was expecting to meet Old MacDonald.
Her memory of him, wailing with disappointment, still stings.
Adults, too, have preconceived notions about who farmers are or how they should be.
“I get phone calls a lot from people wanting to know if we’re a ‘real’ farmer,” Petrocco said. “There’s a perception sometimes that if people are buying through regular retail stores they are not supporting family farms, and that's just not true.”
Creating ways for farmers like Petrocco to reach out to consumers — and fill in some of the gaps between fantasy and reality — is what this month’s Colorado Proud campaign is all about.
Consumer surveys reveal an interesting shift: consumers are becoming more interested in the people behind their food than in the products themselves, according to Wendy White, longtime coordinator of the state’s Colorado Proud program. Using that nugget of insight, her team developed a promotional campaign that puts the farmers, their faces and their stories, front and center.
In addition to setting up displays and informational booths at several venues around the state, the department is also posting online videos captured by ordinary farmers who took GoPro cameras along as they went about their day.
State officials are also using this month’s campaign to remind the public that the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo, which opens on Aug. 25, is a chance for visitors to reconnect with their rural roots through an extensive array of agricultural exhibits, while kids can immerse themselves in hands-on activities that allow them to be a farmer for a day.
It’s all part of a sweeping effort to promote the 2,400 homegrown products and businesses that are signed up to use the Colorado Proud sticker at a time when consumers are raising more questions about how their food is produced.
“We’re almost too good at our jobs,” lamented Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Don Brown. “The more distanced consumers have become from agriculture, the less they hear about how we produce their food. Too often we’ve kept our heads down, digging in the dirt, instead of explaining what we do.”
Increasingly, the nonfarm public is looking to farmers to provide more than just food. In a survey question about why it is important to keep water tied to agriculture, more consumers chose open space than the creation of jobs or even food production, a statistic Commissioner Brown finds somewhat bewildering.
Still, there’s an upside. Metropolitan consumers enjoy having farms around, even if they don’t always understand who those farmers are or why they do what they do.
Petrocco, who rose at 4 a.m. to help get things lined out at her family’s 101-year-old produce farm near Brighton so she could participate in the Colorado Proud month kickoff event, demonstrated by showing up just how important she considers consumer education.
She explained that her fifth generation farm has to hire hundreds of employees, mostly through a foreign guest worker program, to handle the fragile, time-sensitive crops like lettuce that grow on the farm’s 3,000 acres along the South Platte River northeast of Denver.
“It’s back-breaking work,” she said.
Those products are then sold in bulk through large chain stores like Kroger, another anomaly now that farmers markets are commonplace, with more than 100 operating around the state.
Like Petrocco, Brooke Proctor married into a farm family and became a full partner in the business, a reflection of the diversity within agriculture that sometimes gets overlooked. Women in agriculture are less likely these days to think of themselves as the wives or daughters of farmers, but as farmers in their own right, ag officials pointed out.
She, too, managed to break away from the family farm near Rocky Ford during the busy season to participate in consumer and media outreach.
“So much of the confusion surrounding what farmers do I think is just a matter of education,” she said. “As farmers we are so overwhelmed with our work. How do we get out there and meet with our customers?”
Programs like Colorado Proud are intended to ease the burden, by creating new avenues for farmers to share more about who they are and what they do.
Earlier this summer, Colorado Proud teamed up with the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association to print and distribute seasonal crop calendar displays in stores like Sprouts and King Soopers, with the goal of creating better-informed consumers who know when to look for locally grown produce so they can “buy local.”
Proctor’s family’s melons, which are sold through large grocery chains, carry a sticker with the name Hirakata Farms, the farm where the melons are processed and packaged for shipping.
“I think agriculture as a whole is diversifying and evolving to meet today’s demands,” she said.
One example of that is the Rocky Ford Growers Association, of which Proctor Farms is a member, which began diversifying into organic melon production two years ago. Proctor said that project has been successful and will continue.
She added that every one of the eight families involved in the co-op have next generation family members who are actively involved and eager to carry on the farming tradition.
Through promotional efforts like the Colorado Proud campaign, state ag officials are hoping to ensure they’ll get the opportunity.