Food producers and businesses adapt to triple threat

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Kate Greenberg
Bruce Talbott
Josh Niernberg
Kelli Hepler

Western Colorado food producers and businesses face a triple threat in a spring freeze, coronavirus pandemic and worsening drought.

But growers, restaurateurs and others have managed to weather both the weather and an outbreak by adapting to changing conditions and diversifying their operations.

“I’m seeing that all across the board and across the state,” said Kate Greenberg, Colorado commissioner of agriculture.

Greenberg was among the participants in a virtual panel discussion about the ag industry recovery hosted by Colorado Proud, a program of the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

The panel also included Bruce Talbott, manager of Talbott Farms in Palisade; Josh Niernberg, executive chef and restaurateur in Grand Junction; and Kelli Hepler, president of the Colorado Agritourism Association.

Talbott said an April freeze damaged a peach crop that accounts for about 65 percent of the production of his family’s farming and processing operation.

Niernberg said the pandemic and related restrictions have limited operations and sales at the restaurants he operates, including Bin 707 Foodbar.

Hepler said the pandemic similarly affected agritourism in Western Colorado, including lodging operations and farm tours. The Palisade Peach Festival and Colorado Mountain Winefest were cancelled for 2020.

Greenberg said a third threat has emerged in worsening drought. She said she’s leading a state task force to assess the effects of drought in 40 Colorado counties afflicted by severe and extreme conditions, including Mesa County.

Talbott said he hates freezes. But the timing of the freeze and pandemic was fortunate in at least one way in that it wasn’t difficult to implement social distancing measures for a much smaller crew. “If there’s a year to sit it out, this might be it.”

Talbott said a diversified operation has helped in responding to the freeze with additional markets and income streams. Talbott Farms also grows wine grapes and other fruit as well as produces ciders.

The problem, he said, is that insurance doesn’t cover what the peach crop is worth. Moreover, it takes work to regain lost markets for peaches and rebuild the crews that work on the farm.

Niernberg said he’s had to change operations at Bin 707 Foodbar and other restaurants he operates in the aftermath of closures and restrictions imposed because of the pandemic.

He reduced hours at Bin 707 Foodbar to dinner service five nights a week while also emphasizing takeout. He opened a walk-up window at Tacoparty. He also turned an adjacent operation called Dinnerparty into Bin Burger.

While sales have dropped, Niernberg said he’s been successful in achieving one of his goals in keeping staff employed.

Hepler said agricultural businesses are accustomed to dealing with freezes and droughts, but less so with the changing circumstances brought on by a pandemic. “It’s the stress of not knowing what’s next.”

Businesses involved in agricultural tourism have continued to market their operations in the midst of a pandemic through virtual tours, virtual wine tastings and even a virtual marinara sauce making presentation, she said. “They’re getting real creative.”

It’s a matter of converting online marketing into sales, she said.

It’s important for businesses that have customers onsite to know and follow the guidelines for social distancing, she said. That’s easy for some agricultural operations, but less so for others

Moving forward, the panelists said it’s important for food producers and business to maintain relationships.

Niernberg says he strives to work with local producers to identify what’s available and how to get that on his menus.

Hepler said businesses in the agricultural tourism industry should reach out to their customers and ask them what they need.

Talbott said producers also must remain nimble. “The game changes week by week.”

For more information about the Colorado Proud program promoting agricultural products in the state, visit the website at https://www.colorado.gov/agmarkets/colorado-proud.