Expect the unexpected: Forum offers ag outlook

Phil Castle

Phil Castle, The Business Times

As a fourth-generation rancher on a century old family operation in Eastern Colorado, Wil Bledsoe brings a long-term perspective to the agricultural and food industry in the state.

His takeaway from 2020 and his prediction for what could happen in 2021? “Always expect the unexpected.”

Bledsoe was among five panelists who participated in a virtual symposium hosted by the Colorado Department of Agriculture in which they shared what they learned in 2020 and the ways they believe the industry will respond in 2021.

Farmers and ranchers face challenges nearly every year. But 2020 was even more challenging, Bledsoe said, with a pandemic and drought. “This year was more like one, two, three punches in the gut.”

Adam Schlegel, founder of Chook Chicken restaurant in Denver and co-founder of the Snooze brunch chain, put it another way. “My word or thought is to buckle up.”

Tom Vilsack, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Dairy Export Council and former U.S. secretary of agriculture, said the agricultural and food industry remains resilient. The Colorado industry is even more resilient given the diversity of products produced in the state, he said. “That’s a plus. That’s an advantage.”

Dawn  Thilmany McFadden, a professor of ag resource economics at Colorado State University, said farmers, ranchers and others could have to rebalance their operations in response to not only short-term circumstances, but also long-term trends.

Virgina Till, a coordinator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency involved with efforts to reduce food waste, said it’s important for the industry to connect with consumers. “Communication is my theme.”

By one estimate, the agriculture industry contributes $47 billion a year to the Colorado economy and employs nearly 200,000 people.

Vilsack said the ag industry had to “pivot” in 2020 to respond to the pandemic.

McFadden said more farms and ranches launched websites and some launched online ordering.

So did restaurants, Schlegel said. A transition in technology to accommodate direct online ordering that might have taken place over five years happened instead in a year. He estimated takeouts went from 5 percent of his sales to 90 percent.

Those kinds of changes are likely to continue, Schlegel said. “I think we’re going to continue to need to be innovative and adaptive.”

McFadden said some restaurants might not offer brick-and-mortar dining establishments anymore, but rather operate kitchens with takeout and delivery. That could afford opportunities for more restaurateurs to enter the marketplace because less capital will be required.

Schlegel said he also expects more so-called ghost kitchens to open, but restaurants still must promote a name and brand to compete.

Restaurants have an opportunity to capitalize on the demand for convenient meals brought on by the pandemic, he said. “Every restaurant became a grocery store overnight.”

McFadden said farms and ranches similarly have responded to trends in offering consumers online shopping and pickup and delivery.

Till said it’s important for producers to make connections and find ways to tell stories about how they produce food. “It’s such a wonderful story you can tell.”

It’s also important, she said, to find ways to reduce food waste and keep food out of landfills.

Bledsoe said there’s a growing interest among consumers about where their food comes from, a shift that should give U.S. producers an advantage. “We have the best product in the world.”

He said labeling that indicates country of origin would help, because U.S. consumers likely would prefer U.S. products and be willing to pay a premium for them.

Vilsak said it’s important to remember the agriculture and food industries are connected. “This is a single industry.”

Combined, the ag and food industries constitute the largest single industry in the country, he said.

In addition to changes brought on by the pandemic, the agricultural industry also faces changes in addressing climate change.

Vilsak and McFadden said there could be opportunities for producers to earn additional income in providing carbon storage or ecosystem services.

Bledsoe said producers will continue to respond to challenges, whether that means cutting expenses, adding value to products or adjusting operations in other ways. “Every year there’s going to be at least one thing coming your way.”