Farmers, businesses accelerate innovation in a tough 2020

Candace Krebs
Special to Ag Journal
Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg, upper left, moderated a Colorado Proud panel that included, clockwise from upper right, Wil Bledsoe, fourth generation rancher from Wild Horse; CSU professor of agricultural economics Dawn Thilmany; former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack; Denver restaurateur Adam Schlegel; and EPA sustainable food and materials coordinator Virginia Till.

It’s hard to predict the future when you can’t be sure what will happen between now and New Year’s, as one restaurateur recently put it, but he and other food and agriculture leaders did their best to distill what they’ve learned and how it will help them “future-proof” the coming year during a virtual symposium hosted by Colorado Proud.

For restaurant owners like Adam Schlegel, whose Denver holdings including Snooze and Chook Chicken, the pandemic compressed five years of adaptation and technology innovation into one.

“This is just a crazy roller coaster that we’re on, and I don’t think that’s going to change for the beginning half of 2021,” he said.

Like all facets of the food industry, restaurants confronted enormous challenges when businesses were widely shuttered following the outbreak of the coronavirus in March.

Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg, the panel moderator, described the current moment as “an opportunity to think differently about how we do business.” But for Schlegel’s sector, rethinking everything was an absolute necessity.

“It’s moving so fast. I’ve never seen the need to innovate go like it is now, with restaurants changing what they do overnight,” the 15-year veteran of the dining scene said.

In 2019, take-out sales made up 5 percent of his business. Now that figure is closer to 90 percent, he said. Direct ordering and use of delivery apps has exploded.

“There are efficiencies that are being learned through this crisis,” he said.

Still, he emphasized those gains come at a cost to overall employment. So-called “ghost kitchens,” for example, operate without any dining space or service crew, relying entirely on delivery apps or online sales to generate business.

Existing restaurants have put their own spin on the delivery-app model. Within Colorado, several of them came together to create Noco Nosh, “an independent delivery service for independent restaurants” that keeps the profits local.

The state legislature also took action recently to allow local governments to restrict food delivery fees charged to retail food establishments.

Other tweaks to the food delivery model include all-local meal kits and direct-order websites and curbside delivery at farmers markets, Commissioner Greenberg noted.

Schlegel said the long-term trend toward direct-to-consumer marketing, convenience, and value-added and prepared food items is only accelerating.

Colorado State University agricultural economist Dawn Thilmany described 2020 as the tipping point that pushed many farmers and food businesses to build out websites and move more of their business online. The good news is that such a setup can lower the barriers to entry for entrepreneurs who lack access to capital, providing a means to address equity, diversity and inclusion issues in food and agriculture.

“Disruption tends to seed innovation,” she said.

She also lauded the Farmers to Families Food Box program, which, while still in need of refinement, forged closer working relationships between farms and the food insecure.

That’s another space where Schlegel has been innovating too. To avoid laying off workers, he and other restaurants formed Colorado Restaurant Response, a cooperative fundraising campaign with the ride hailing service Lyft, which kept people employed cooking food for the growing numbers of those in need.

In six months, the effort raised over $3 million and served more than 300,000 meals.

“That was the most heartwarming thing that happened to me during this time,” he said. “It shows what we can do when we put our minds together to address challenges.”

Despite the past year’s extreme volatility, Wil Bledsoe, the fourth generation on his family’s ranch near Wild Horse, insisted lack of predictability is nothing new. His takeaway— expect the unexpected — is a mantra that kept his family in business for 103 years, through multiple hardships and sacrifices.

Still, Bledsoe said it was a bit unusual to take three “gut punches” in 12 months: a packing plant fire a year ago last August, which cratered the cattle market; another market crash following the viral outbreak in March; and intensification of severe drought.

To survive, ranchers have to watch their costs and try to keep expenses low, use risk protection in their marketing plans and work hard to produce a high quality product, he said.

Meanwhile, consumers got a wake-up call earlier this year and now they simply want re-assurance there will be plenty of beef and other necessities available at the grocery store, Bledsoe said. That requires keeping farmers and ranchers in business with supportive policies, he added.

Asked to share his wish list, Bledsoe said he’d like to see mandatory country of origin labeling on meat, which would help differentiate USA-raised products in a marketplace crowded with imports that carry the USDA inspection stamp — which he said was misleading — and reforming federal farm subsidies to make sure the money flows to the farmers and ranchers who need it most, including beginning farmers and ranchers.

Federal subsidies currently account for nearly 40 percent of all farm income.

Ranchers have been forced to be adaptive and proactive, and now it’s time for the federal agriculture department to step up and be more proactive too, Bledsoe said.

“We’d love to expand the ranch, but our rural communities are drying up and dying, and corporations are eating up the smaller operations,” he said. “It’s something we need to fix.”

Considering the hard work, energy and resources that go into producing food, none of it should ever go to waste, emphasized Virginia Till, sustainable food and materials coordinator for EPA’s region 8.

She’s involved in several unique consumer education programs with the ultimate goal of spreading appreciation for fresh food and reducing waste.

“Often discussions between various groups around agriculture become heated or contentious,” she said. “But if we frame the conversation around keeping food out of landfills we’ll have a more robust and collaborative conversation.”

Commissioner Greenberg agreed that there’s never been a better time to scrutinize polices and build in redundancies needed to ensure food chains are flexible, reliable and resilient.

Rising consumer interest in food and agriculture also presents a special opportunity, she said.

“So many people have a newfound appreciation for the work of our farmers and ranchers and everyone involved in food and agriculture,” she said.

Till picked up that drumbeat as well.

“Farmers need to find ways to tell their stories,” she said. “In 2021, I invite all agriculturalists to communicate with consumers more.”