Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg details efforts to ‘elevate agriculture’
Government priorities and investments are shifting, along with the political environment, across Colorado and beyond in the wake of the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic roughly one year ago.
Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg gave an overview of the ag department’s priorities and goals during the recent Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers annual conference, which was held virtually this year.
Aside from all of the state’s counties being in some level of drought to start the new year — and a number of them still recovering from devastating wildfires or late spring freeze events — much of recent attention has been focused on successfully subduing the COVID-19 outbreak.
“It’s something that’s front and center for all of us,” Greenberg said.
The state is currently gearing up to administer vaccines to essential workers, with that stage of the rollout expected to begin on or near March 5, she said.
“Employers will pay a key role in that, helping us to get the word out about safety, and general information on getting the vaccine,” Greenberg said.
One particular challenge is how to address migratory workers. Greenberg said workers who are routinely on the move might end up getting priority for a one-shot vaccine, such as a candidate from Johnson & Johnson that is currently poised for authorization.
She also said she was meeting with the veterinarian community to discuss how they can support the vaccination effort in rural areas.
COVID-related economic relief is bringing new resources to the state, and Greenberg highlighted $300,000 in federal money that will be earmarked for processors and manufacturers to improve food system resiliency.
“We want to strengthen and diversify small businesses in the middle of the supply chain,” she said, adding that her department was still seeking input on where to best expend those dollars.
The likely possibilities include infrastructural investment, market opportunity development, agriculture education events and equipment or technology grants.
After CFVGA president Robert Sakata, of Brighton, complimented the state’s specialty ag block grant program, which is funded through the Ag Marketing Service, Greenberg said she hoped to do something similar with the new processing grants that would allow them to remain broad enough to capture a wide range of ideas.
She also cautioned that while pandemic relief is bringing new funds to the table, it’s also putting a crunch on the state’s budget.
“We are not in the clear at all, we have hard times ahead still,” Greenberg said. “We’re going to have to make some tough decisions, and that’s just kind of the moment we are in right now.”
She said her department was looking into ways to gain additional operational efficiencies by moving more services online and streamlining existing functions related to its chief responsibilities of water quality testing, registration and inspection, and food safety.
But the department is also forging ahead with several new priorities, including climate resilience, soil health, industrial hemp oversight and a department-wide diversity and inclusion campaign.
Creating a climate resilience office won’t involve any new expenditures for the department, thanks to a partnership with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, she said.
Under that same umbrella would fall a new soil health initiative, with its own statewide coordinator and a mission to provide more technical assistance to producers. The new program would mimic one in Illinois, called Saving Tomorrow’s Agriculture Resources, or STAR, which establishes an evaluation system that assigns points for beneficial activities related to cropping, tillage, nutrient application and soil conservation. The practices and point values are determined by a group of scientists and researchers, including progressive farmers.
“A big reason we are building this pilot project is that we know we have gaps in research for Colorado, based on our soil and climate type, in terms of what is possible for carbon sequestration,” Greenberg said.
The soil health project is essentially working on three things at once: building out a better research network, which would include the SPUR Center at the National Western Center and research stations across the state; cultivating greater producer awareness and support; and exploring potential payments for ecosystems services, she said.
“Are there ways to draw on the opportunity here, so producers are actually paid for advancements in stewardship, even if we are in an arid region and that doesn’t look the same for us as it does for other geographies?” Greenberg said.
The department will continue to focus on market expansion and diversification, through programs ranging from Colorado Proud to international market development, she said.
But it has also stepped up outreach on rural mental health, including development and dissemination of a mental health tool kit and promotion of the Colorado Crisis Hotline, a free resource for anyone needing it.
A more futuristic big-picture goal involves how to respond to the growing urban-rural divide, which is particularly pronounced in a place like Colorado.
“What’s our role in facilitating dialogue?” Greenberg asked aloud.
During a Q&A session, she was asked to provide more detail about the department’s diversity and inclusion efforts.
“We’re at the very outset of this inclusionary diversity work and how to institutionalize it across our department,” Greenberg responded. One area getting particular scrutiny is hiring procedures and protocols, she said, as well as recruitment practices.
The department is considering such changes as accepting work experience more readily as a substitute for higher education degrees.
But many questions remain, she added, including how to determine “who we are not reaching” through existing channels.
For such an expansive re-envisioning effort, “feedback is going to be a guiding principle,” Greenberg said.