I like to grow things. I want to try a variety of things as time goes by, but right now I split my time fairly evenly between growing food and xeric plants that attract pollinators and birds. I like to think of myself as pretty experienced with plants. I have grown garlic for years but only bought seed cloves once, I have propagated things by cuttings, I know how to pollinate sweet corn, cucumbers and squash by hand, I've done delicate surgery on pumpkin vines to excise grubs, you name it.
Taking a job at a school out on the Eastern Plains with an ag department changed my mind on that pretty quick, however. It didn’t take long to see I knew pitifully little about plants and farming on a commercial scale. Some of this was my upbringing: I grew up in Delta surrounded by orchards, but we moved to Denver when I was young (and oil shale failed). Some of it is just plain ignorance. Food comes from the store and if you don’t ever talk to producers, usually your knowledge ends there.
Moving out here let me give way to my curiosity though, so I took full advantage of talking to people and learning about farming, ranching and feedlots. My colleagues in the Ag Department were also great to talk with. I’ve learned a lot, but, as I said above, mainly what I have gleaned so far is an understanding of how complex production agriculture is.
That's why I am baffled to read about our governor's approach to agriculture in Colorado. I don't know the man, but I gather that he, like me, doesn't know very much about production ag. That's okay. I've never been the type to believe that my elected officials should be polymaths, but — and this is the important part — I do expect them to be honest enough and not partisan enough to recognize their limitations and surround themselves with advisers who do know a subject. I do expect them to hold off on new policy until they have had a chance to learn or confer with those who know the business.
I don't believe our governor has done either. Recently, state Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Kerry Donovan mentioned in a meeting with producers “ … there’s ‘no base knowledge’ of production agriculture among ruling Democrats. I think I’m the only (Democrat) who could spot a posthole digger in the back of a pickup," she said. This ignorance coupled with a seeming unwillingness to reach out to those with experience has not been good for agriculture or our state as a whole: It's kept our producers out of the loop and driven the already-existing wedge between urban and rural Colorado in further.
There are many examples to point to, but let me give you one that’s literally close to home for me: Gov. Polis’ (and these are favorite terms for him) “bold” and “innovative” push to help Colorado farms move into the future with hemp and other specialty crops. Growing hemp or lavender sounds wonderfully creative; I’m sure he and his PR team can hammer it into beautiful campaign spots.
The problem — and this would take only seconds to determine if he were to sit down with commercial growers — is that there is no market for these commodities at the scale of commercial agriculture. The few that have tried this in my own immediate region have learned the hard way. They have fields full of bailed hemp, mountains of plastic groundcover and drip line, and no revenue to offset their cash outlay.
I am not against the idea of exploration, but there are wise ways to foray into new territory and not-so-wise ways. Markets are complex and they don’t happen just because we want them to. Perhaps an exploratory committee looking into specialty crops is a good idea for the present, but farmers and ranchers need to have things that sell now. If Gov. Polis wishes to help production ag as it currently exists instead of making “bold” things to put in campaign spots (and I have no reason to think he’s out to hurt producers), then he needs to keep his focus on the here and now. That starts with seeking out advisers who know the business.
The good news is that this is easy to fix. There’s nothing written in stone about Gov. Polis’ current trajectory. It is possible to meet his goal of increasing diversity on state boards and panels while at the same time having competence and experience; our state abounds with women who do know what it looks like to farm on a commercial scale or who know how to run a feedlot. I hope you join me and others in urging him to rethink his policy and to closely examine what his actions and words look like to those who live in the rural parts of our state.
Cory Gaines of Sterling, who runs the Colorado Accountability Project on Facebook, lives for what Richard P. Feynman called “the pleasure of finding things out.”