Last week I had the pleasure of attending an all-day agriculture education event that involved touring a dairy ranch, cattle reserve and vegetable farm, plus sit in on a panel discussion regarding controversial "ag" topics where we could ask questions and learn about daily operations. I couldn't wait to share just a snippet of my day! In the spirit of transparency, the event was hosted by the Western Dairy Association and sponsors included Colorado Beef Council, Common Ground Colorado, Denver Botanic Gardens, Great Western Sugar, Monsanto, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union and Sakata Farms. I was not compensated for attending or writing this post and all thoughts shared are my own.
What a cool event this was! Let me start from the beginning... I met the rest of the attendees in north Denver bright and early where we boarded a large charter bus and were transported to the first stop of the day, Lost Creek Dairy in in Roggen, Colorado. I had actually been on a tour here previously so had learned about most of the operations already, but it was still fun to hear the owners talk about their story and how much they care about the cows. They really seem like wonderful people who love what they do and take great pride in keeping the cows happy and healthy! From there we headed to nearby Huwa Cattle Reserve and were able to walk around the pastures and chat with the staff on some new breeding technologies they are working to develop (which involve choosing certain desirable traits they want to see in the beef they produce and sell). I'm not going to sugar coat things and pretend I love petting cows and hanging out at dairies and cattle ranches (haha!) but I did enjoy hearing about the operations at both of the first two stops of the tour.
From the cattle reserve we moved on to the Hudson Town Hall for lunch and a panel discussion featuring two different topics (livestock first, plants second). Discussions like these are helpful because it allows participants to get the perspective of farmer/rancher straight from the source. We were lucky enough to hear from the following experts who were all extremely intelligent and well-spoken:
Lily Edwards Calloway, PhD (Animal Welfare Advisor)
Debbie Preston (Dairy Representative)
Jan Kochis (Rocky Mountain Farmers Union)
Terry Heine (Egglands Best)
Robert Sakata (Sakata Farms)
Rebecca Larson, PhD (Plant Scientist)
Brien Darby (Denver Botanic Gardens)
After the panel discussion concluded, we got back on the bus and headed to our final stop of the day, Petrocco Farms in Brighton. Not surprisingly this was my favorite part of the day and the first time I had visited a produce farm. Our tour guide, Kate, was a wealth of knowledge and I learned so much from her. Apparently Petrocco is rare in that they are one of the few farms in Colorado that specialize in leafy greens because the weather here is so unpredictable. They sell locally but also ship vegetables to several other states and pride themselves on their food safety program and detail-orientated operation.
I appreciated the opportunity to be involved with this day-long event and while agriculture-related issues can get really personal/controversial sometimes, it's great that we as consumers have choices and can each make our own decisions about the food we want to eat and serve our families. Here are a few points from the day that I thought would be interesting for readers:
1. On milk - is it safe?
Most milk hits shelves within just two days of harvesting with any surplus going to manufacture whey protein powder, cheese and yogurt. It's is a highly-regulated market with milk getting tested up to 7-9 times before hitting grocery store shelves! If anything sub-par is detected, entire tanks are disposed of at the owner's expense. Whether you choose skim/2%/whole or conventional/organic - all are nutritious and safe choices if you choose to purchase it (which I think is pretty awesome).
2. On beef - what is "grass-fed" and should I be eating it?
The ranchers on the cattle reserve were very open with us that grass-finished beef tends to require more water, is less consistent in taste and takes longer to get to market as compared to conventional grass-fed/corn finished beef so they choose the former. There may be a slight nutritional advantage in choosing grass-fed (higher omega-3 content and lower fat content), however the jury is still out on whether this is significant (i.e. beef is still not a good source of omega-3 fats). I'm not a huge meat-eater so it's probably no surprise that this wasn't my favorite part of the day. However, after having pointed conversations with the staff at Huwa, I am completely confident that great precautions are taken to ensure a safe, nutritious and affordable supply. And while meat (specifically beef) has recently come under fire for being unsustainable because of the large amounts of water that are required to produce it, it is clear that these professionals are working hard to decrease waste and make their practices as efficient as possible, which was great to hear.
3. On technology and innovation - should we be concerned?
This seemed to be the recurring theme of the day. Genetic modification and other available technologies like GPS guidance can result in huge benefits including increased yields, decreased pesticide use and better weed control (which I think we can all agree are good things!). I asked specifically if there were crops that demonstrate higher yield when grown organically, and the response was that yes, it can vary by plant. Either way, I thought it was interesting that one method is not the end-all, be-all and some farmers actually grow both conventional and organic crops. In general, farmers and ranchers agreed that a huge challenge is trying to "do more with less" (meaning more production with less resources and environmental impact) while also being mindful of consumer perceptions about technology and working to find the best balance between the two.
4. On grocery stores - how fresh is the produce?
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the produce in our local grocery store could hit shelves as soon as 8-9 hours post farm pick-up. This is so impressive! Kate from Petrocco even said that sometimes grocery store vegetables are fresher than what you can get at the farmer's market, so if you are aiming for fresh/local, be sure to ask the vendors for specifics.
5. On fruits & veggies - is conventionally grown produce safe and nutritious?
The answer is yes! I purchase mostly conventionally grown produce because of the lower price point and because I feel really confident that it is just as safe and just as nutritious as anything grown organically. For reference: the average woman could eat hundreds of apples in one day without any adverse health effects related to pesticides (source). I know this can get really personal and we all have different opinions, so instead of getting into a battle of which method is "better" I think it's more advantageous to support all forms of agriculture and just promote eating fruits and vegetables, period.
To wrap things up, farmers take great care in their practices and work to be good stewards of the land, their crops, and other resources. This is their livelihood after all. They don't waste resources or overuse chemicals, medications or pesticides as is so often portrayed by the media because 1) they don't want to compromise the quality of the finished product and 2) these are all really expensive! Additionally, many of the farmers that I had the chance to hear from or interact with were so incredibly knowledgeable, it really was inspiring to hear them speak clearly and confidently about the science on these issues.
As I mentioned above, I took an insane amount of notes so if you have any additional questions or need clarification on anything, I would be happy to attempt to answer - just leave me a comment. Thanks for reading my recap, I look forward to more of these events in the future!