Community Agriculture Alliance: Going virtual isn’t really an option for today’s ag producers
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Virtual reality is a contradiction in terms, yet this best describes how we are living our lives. Zoom meetings and online business marketing, however, aren’t working as well in the nation’s food supply chain.
Despite the convenience of GPS, farmers can’t “just call it in” when it comes to spring planting and fall harvest. Ranchers can’t work cattle from a smartphone. Producers — those who grow food from the ground up — need boots on the ground and seats in the saddle. The realities of farming and ranching are anything but virtual in nature.
And so it goes on down the line. Processing plants, especially for meat, work best when working hands are on the line. Transporting and unloading grain isn’t as simple as clicking a mouse. The ingredients for tonight’s meal don’t magically show up in grocery bags or restaurants, even if Instacart and UberEats make it seem seamless.
During the past 10 months, Americans have faced a bewildering series of changes in the food supply chain. There have been bright spots. Consumers (that’s you and me and restaurants) increasingly turned to local food sources. We collectively wanted to buy breads and beef and veggies and fruits closer to home. We even began buying flour and using our kitchens to make meals rather than unbox and heat them.
There have been downturns, too, as restaurants scrambled to fill customer orders if not dining rooms. Some products, such as meat, became scarce. Bulk buying based on the pandemic caused shortages. This situation was compounded when the few, incredibly large meat processors saw COVID-19 cut into their workforce. No one could predict what would happen next. New questions popped up every day. But answers were in short supply and lagged behind.
The shock to the food system is still rippling across the industry. How 2021 will play out remains to be seen. What all of us learned is that food production is the most essential industry in our nation. Food security is equal to economic and military security, which is why President Abraham Lincoln created the United States Department of Agriculture.
During the past handful of years, making a living in agriculture has been difficult. Farm income that supports rural economies had dropped alarmingly. Drought in Colorado is threatening to make things worse in the coming year. Regardless, farmers and ranchers (and Broncos fans) are optimists, hoping that this year will be better. We all want it to be, of course, and maybe this year will be the one that pencils out. The same goes for tourism, which also has been hit hard by the pandemic and by uncooperative weather.
Time indeed will tell if this will be the year of recovery. But time is running short for independent small businesses, small town main streets and family-run farms and ranches. Instead of assuming production agriculture will always be there, 2020 was the year we recognized and fully appreciated the value of farmers and ranchers. This past year, we understood that the end products in grocery stores and restaurants begin in the fields and pastures mostly beyond the city limits. It is a fact we needed to be reminded of. And one we need to take to heart in the months ahead.
It looks like life will begin returning to normal this summer. It can’t come soon enough. Hopefully, many of us will continue our new shopping patterns of buying locally. Local restaurants and farmers markets need you to show up. While others will do their best to figure out the failings of the national food chain, you can add a new link that directly connects producers to consumers.
It’s how things used to be. It’s how things ought to be. It’s how things can be again.
Bob Kjelland is the director of communications for Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, a general farm organization whose 20,000 member families call rural Colorado home.
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On a sunny morning in October, 50 people either walked or ran 5 kilometers along Routt County Road 44, in hopes of winning a gift certificate for some locally grown beef.