It has been a bit of a whirlwind the past few weeks for Kate Greenberg.
After spending six years in Durango working to galvanize a new generation of farmers with the National Young Farmers Coalition, Greenberg put her name in to serve as the state’s next Department of Agriculture commissioner for incoming Gov. Jared Polis.
On Dec. 21, Polis chose Greenberg, marking the first woman to ever hold the position. And at age 31, Greenberg is also likely the youngest person to be ag commissioner, though a spokesman with the department could not confirm that.
“Up until the last few weeks, I did my best to never leave Durango,” Greenberg said. “But I’ve seen on the ground what we’re losing in agriculture in Colorado, and I see this as a moment to play an important role for a thriving future for farming in the state.”
The issues facing farmers in Colorado are long and complicated, from low commodity prices making it hard for farmers to hit their bottom line, to the pressures of drought and water shortages, to Greenberg’s specialty: a lack of a new generation of farmers.
Colorado Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, who serves as chairman of the House of Rural Affairs Committee, which has legislative jurisdiction over the Department of Agriculture, said the appointment of Greenberg marks a turning point for the department, which has usually been led by longtime, traditional ranchers.
“I think it’s a symbolic nod to the young farmers and a younger generation in ag,” Roberts said. “She’s a fresh face that hasn’t worked in government bureaucracy that can bring new ideas to the department, which is very exciting.”
Ranching and farming are part of what built Colorado’s economy, and they still play a major role, employing an estimated 173,000 people. And, according to state records, agriculture contributes $41 billion to the state’s $323 billion economy, about 12 percent.
But increasingly, the industry is facing mounting challenges, and it’s not possible to pin it on one smoking gun.
For starters, it’s increasingly less profitable for farmers to operate. A 2017 state report, the latest data available, estimated that Colorado’s net farm and ranch income was projected to fall to $392 million, far below the $1.3 billion reported in 2015 and the lowest since 1986.
Commodity prices have also fallen, a story of high yields and low prices. Wheat, for instance, cost about $12 a bushel in 2008. That price dropped to just $4 a bushel in 2017. Cattle, too, dropped to its lowest prices in seven years in 2017.
These stats have a twofold effect: older farmers are forced to cut costs on an already shoe-string budget, and in worst-case scenarios, fold up shop. And, younger people are less enticed to enter a career that doesn’t have the most promising outlook.
Don Shawcroft, president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, said that for the most part, past commissioners with the Department of Agriculture have done a great job promoting farmers and ranchers in the state. Previous commissioners include former Congressman John Salazar, 65, and John Stulp, 69, a rancher from the eastern plains.
“They have been very much attune to what it’s like to be an ag person with family heritage,” Shawcroft said. “This is what we do because we love it. It’s part of our gene pool handed down to us.”
Shawcroft said the Colorado Farm Bureau is excited to work with Greenberg, and said her age and background presents both advantages and some challenges.
“Even though her experience to date has been with smaller farms, there is a connection on how you value agriculture and the lifestyle it provides,” Shawcroft said. “And I believe she has an attitude of one who’s willing to listen and learn.”
Greenberg, for her part, certainly thinks she’s up to the task. She has worked with plenty of large-scale farms, and she’s excited to learn and work with all different types of farm operators in the state.
“I have a deep desire to learn and build those relationships,” she said, “so I can understand how to help make their lives better and make ag stronger.”
Greenberg grew up in Minnesota near the Twin Cities, escaping to her family’s country home for vacations. It’s there she said she first developed an intimate love of the land.
Moving west, Greenberg wanted to help promote the next generation of farmers. According to a Department of Agriculture 2012 report, the average age of the Colorado farmer is about 59 years old.
“I hope to bring more energy to agriculture in our state,” she said. “I have an inherent love of agriculture and a deep respect for people who work the land. In that way, I am carrying on that piece of the legacy that’s been built.”
Mike Nolan, owner of Mountain Roots Produce in Mancos, certainly thinks Greenberg is up for the job.
“She’s got a great head on her shoulders and a great support network,” Nolan said. “The Polis administration is trying to get fresh eyes on things without totally shaking everything up. With Kate, she’s great at balancing a respect for what is seen as more traditional growers and the new generation of young farmers.”