Predictability is critical for Colorado’s farmers and ranchers, who are grappling with increasing volatility related to climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Extreme weather is not new,” Colorado State University professor Becca Jablonski said during Colorado Proud’s “Growing, Evolving and Thriving Colorado Agriculture: Farmers and Ranchers” roundtable held Wednesday. “But it’s arguably getting worse.”
Wildfires and droughts have become annual features of the summer growing season and unexpected freezes during the spring and fall are becoming increasingly common.
“We’re really concerned about climate change and variability,” said Steve Ela, owner of ELA Family Farms. “We farm in small microclimates here in Colorado, and those microclimates are shrinking.”
Ela’s operation lost half its peach crop during a freeze last October.
“Mother Nature is throwing everything at us,” he said. “… If climate change continues, perennial fruit trees won’t do well with the variation.”
Adoption of low water-use practices and crops could “help keep agriculture alive and keep farmers and ranchers on the land,” Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg said.
To complicate matters further, the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on supply chains, making it more difficult for farmers and ranchers to source supplies and get their products to market.
Community-level networks “were really critical for learning to adapt” during the pandemic, Jablonski said.
Making quick pivots in response to unanticipated challenges requires a willingness to assume quite a bit of risk, she said, but farmers who are barely scraping by often cannot afford to take big chances.
Using controlled environment agricultural practices or shifting to heartier crops could help mitigate some risk, Jablonski said.
Even under the unpredictable and challenging conditions they’re working in, there will always be a place for small and independent farmers and ranchers in Colorado, said Rex Moore of Rock River Ranches.
“People are looking for a personal connection to their food supply, and I think we’ve lost some of that to corporate America,” he said.