From cows and plows to horticulture and hemp, Colorado's agriculture is so diverse it can be difficult to bring everybody together around the same table.
That said, many of Colorado's agriculture leaders had a chance to interact earlier this week in Denver at the annual Governor's Forum on Colorado Agriculture, which was preceded by the equally diverse two-day annual conference of the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.
Among those attending both events was Glenda Mostek, who has worked in various capacities in the ag industry and recently took on a new job as executive director of the Colorado Nursery and Greenhouse Association.
Horticulture and nursery plants aren't the first crop that comes to mind when most people envision agriculture. But in value terms, they actually represent the biggest segment of the specialty crops industry in the state, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The industry is also growing rapidly, mostly due to the fast pace of residential development, Mostek said.
At the inaugural Colorado Food Summit in early January, members of Colorado State University's food systems team emphasized the importance of building linkages across diverse agriculture sectors. Becca Jablonski, a food systems economist who helped organize the food summit and also spoke about marketing opportunities during the CFVGA conference and at the governor's forum, said the goal is to make sure all voices are represented during discussions about the future of food and agriculture in the state.
It's also an effort to keep all parts of the industry alerted to emerging markets represented by new outreach efforts, such as the National Western Center and Denver's Sustainable Food Policy Council, which is working on adopting a pledge that would require institutional buyers to look at more than just price when making food purchasing decisions.
Mostek went into her position with the horticulture and greenhouse association looking for a chance to build bridges between agriculture and the general public.
"Somebody pointed out to me that the most connection a lot of city people will ever have to agriculture is going to a greenhouse to buy plants," she said. "I'm here to create partnerships. We are all in this together with the same goals and challenges."
Mostek grew up in a very traditional agricultural setting. She was raised on a ranch in South Dakota and attended a country school nearby. When it came time for high school, she boarded with a family in Rapid City and came home on weekends, just as her parents had done.
Though she initially planned on pursuing a career in music education, a job with the National Honey Board in Firestone, Colo., eventually brought her back into the fold.
Since then, she's also worked for Colorado Wheat and most recently as the specialty crops grant administrator at the Colorado Department of Agriculture.
"The takeaway from my years working in agriculture is that there are still lots of opportunities. There will always be jobs in agriculture," she reflected. "But those opportunities might not be in doing what our parents did. It might be in science or research or even working in horticulture, but those are still opportunities to work outside and grow and create things."
Dani Traweek runs the Colorado Ag Leadership Program, charged with organizing the Governor's ag forum each year. This year's theme, Brand It Agriculture, speaks to the idea that while the industry is broad, dynamic and constantly evolving, it is also united under one big umbrella, she said.
"The CALP class really felt like it was a good time to remind everyone of how much more effective we can be when we come together as an industry," she said.
The two-year leadership program itself casts a broad net when selecting applicants.
"We're looking for anyone who wants to go on and be an advocate for agriculture," she said. "We don't discourage anybody from applying. We recognize it's not just cows and plows and old-style agriculture anymore."
The class experience is enhanced by including professionals who didn't come out of traditional farm backgrounds, such as chefs, bankers and project organizers, she said.
Three agronomists in the current class work to some degree with the hemp industry, another new dimension of the industry that is providing opportunities to diversify for some and creating competition for land, water and labor for others.
In conversations with the program's educational sponsors, including CSU and Aims Community College, Traweek has learned there's a growing need for electricians and technology experts, many of which will probably come from nonfarm backgrounds.
Language and cultural differences are also important, as the industry's pool of employees and customers becomes increasingly diverse.
During a breakout session at the Colorado Food Summit, Mostek learned about research showing Spanish-speaking customers trust outreach messages more when they're provided in Spanish as well as English.
"There is a great expanding customer base out there," she noted. "We need to welcome that diversity at our farmers markets and garden centers."
The Governor's ag forum tapped into diversity awareness expertise at CSU, which has its own campus-wide initiative underway, by offering a breakout session on "stewarding a culture of mutual respect."
For Mostek, recent weeks have been filled with getting up-to-speed on several new issues, including calls to simplify the state's complicated sales tax structure and monitoring the implications of Denver raising the pH of its municipal water by one percent in March, a consequence of new coating being installed in lead pipes.
At the same time, she continues to be involved with the Colorado Ag Council and follows many long-familiar topics, such as statewide water planning and labor availability.
"We need to tell our story, and not only tell it, but tell it effectively, and make sure it's being heard," she said of ag advocacy efforts. "I think we're headed in the right direction with groups like Common Ground, where we have women messaging to women."
Her segment of the industry has its own consumer outreach campaign, which is kicking into high gear with the arrival of spring.
"We run an annual consumer promotion called Plant Something, which encourages our members to distribute free seeds and plant stakes at garden centers," she said. "It's just another opportunity to bring attention to what we do and make it more relevant to the general public."