Agriculture showcases Colorado pride

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When Adam and Shawna Shapiro set up a booth selling locally produced mead and wine at last weekend’s Black Forest Festival, they told their volunteer salesperson he didn’t have to explain each of the products to potential customers.

“Tell them about the family and the products will come through,” she said of one winery. “Tell them about their history in Colorado and why that’s important to us.”

The Shapiros opened a small shop at Black Forest and Shoup roads in April to display not only the wares they produce at their small farm and meadery, but those of about a dozen other companies that make home-grown products in the Centennial State. Many of those products are emblazoned with the purple and yellow Colorado Proud logo.

Adam and Shawna Shapiro sit in front of their small shop at Black Forest and Shoup roads. The Shapiros sell their mead, Colorado wine and other products made in state from their store.

PROUD OF COLORADO

Colorado Proud is a program of the Colorado Department of Agriculture that promotes food and agricultural products that are grown, raised or processed in the state. Colorado Proud representatives will be at Colorado Farm & Art Market beginning at 3 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 24, in front of the Pioneers Museum as part of the department’s Follow Your Fruits & Veggies Journey.

“Agriculture continues to be one of the state’s top industries,” said Wendy White, Colorado Department of Agriculture spokeswoman. “It contributes $40 billion to the state economy on an annual basis, but also 173,000 jobs and $2 billion in annual exports.”

The number of farms in El Paso County has gone down in the past year, White said, but the value of production has gone up.

“Demand for local products is driving some of that,” she said. “Consumers are interested in buying local products and supporting local ranches.”

That demand is seen not only at farmers markets, but also at retail grocery stores, restaurants and schools, she said.

Colorado Springs School District 11 Executive Chef Nate Dirnberger (front) with sous chefs Mark Painter and Jason Mathis, tour the Galileo School’s crops with Master Gardener Scott Wilson.

‘WORSE EVERY YEAR’

The Shapiros oversee a few businesses just miles northeast of Colorado Springs. In addition to their adult beverage production, their 5-acre farm includes chickens, turkeys and sheep. They started small-scale farming years ago and soon were unable to consume all they produced, so Shapiro Family Farms was born.

The couple today sells and uses Colorado honey in their mead, and make available cider from Cañon City and jellies from Durango.

“It’s very important for our products to be local because there’s accountability to the [customers],” Adam said. “Customers trusting your product is No. 1. And if it’s grown locally, you’re giving right back to your community economically.”

But selling the idea of hyper-local production can be difficult, Shawna said.

One dilemma is having to educate consumers about local availability, as well as raising expectations regarding small-scale production, she said.

“A lot of people don’t know you can get good lamb in El Paso County,” she said. “They think you have to get it from New Zealand. Customers tend to think of [Colorado ranchers] as beef people, but this is good lamb, and it’s fresh. New Zealand lamb is probably 6 months old — and ours are bigger.”

There are few shops that focus exclusively on Colorado agriculture, Shawna said, and none with the personal connections of their shop.

“There’s not a product in here where I don’t know the family who makes it or can’t tell you about them and their story,” she said, “the wine, the honey, the jellies.”

The Shapiros said there are some very real challenges facing Colorado agriculture — and El Paso County specifically.

“Ranchers selling property in the county is a concern,” Shawna said. “The lights of the city get brighter out here every year.”

But as larger farms and ranches move farther from the city, Shawna said science has pushed the capabilities of a 5-acre farm like theirs.

“We have hundreds of animals on this farm,” she said.

Her bigger concern is the lack of agricultural interest from younger generations. The Shapiros are heavily involved in the county’s 4-H Club, but Shawna said involvement is dwindling.

“Last year we won champion duck because our duck was the only one there,” she said.

Shapiro Family Farms in Black Forest raises turkeys, chickens and lambs. The owners, Adam and Shawna Shapiro, also produce mead and wine and own a small shop at the corner of Shoup and Black Forest roads.

GROWING THE GROWERS

Scott Wilson is a master gardener with the garden project at Colorado Springs School District 11’s Galileo School of Math & Science. He’s been growing fresh produce along North Union Boulevard for nearly three years.

Fresh food is grown and used at the school, while small quantities are distributed to other schools in the district.

Wilson recalled a field trip to the garden by one of the Galileo classes. Three normally disruptive boys became particularly involved in planting and looking over their crops.

“How do you put a value on that?” Wilson asked.

District 11 has taken a proactive approach both to the food it serves, and also to educating its students about its origins.

In addition, the district will be asking, via a mill levy increase, for millions of dollars to construct a central production facility that will work directly with Colorado producers in order to boost the amount of fresh food available to the district.

Nate Dirnberger, District 11’s executive chef and assistant director of food and nutrition services, said the district uses local produce whenever possible, including tamales from Denver and Pueblo chiles. During the fall, some schools will add meals made with Palisade peaches, he said.

“We support local whenever it fits the budget and the menu,” Dirnberger said, adding the district has a per-plate food cost of about $1.25.

He said, however, that locally produced food might actually be cheaper than mass-produced and frozen meals, but El Paso County producers don’t yet create the volume needed by the district.

“But the facility would cut out the need for having a distributor,” he said. “We would get products straight from the farmer.”

The school district uses the Colorado Department of Agriculture as a connector to farmers, he said. District meals, depending on the season, will be composed of anywhere between 5 and 15 percent locally produced food.

“We’d like to see that as close to 100 percent as we can get it,” he said. “But there are certain things we just can’t grow in Colorado, like oranges.”

Nutrition and cost aside, the biggest impact is the education for the students, Dirnberger said.

“They see the value of sustainable food and agriculture being a big part of the economy,” he said. “It’s huge to support and educate students along the way so they understand the value of agriculture.”

Dirnberger said, while in Chicago over the summer, he heard the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture speak.

“By the year 2050, we’ll have 9 billion to feed in the world,” Dirnberger said. “How do we do that? We need to double the production, be more efficient and minimize waste. Food will be a huge piece of our future. It’s very important kids understand local agriculture and that it will be a booming industry that needs employees — not just farmers, but chefs to cook.”

According to the Shapiros, however, younger generations are turned off by the amount of work that goes into farming, not to mention the cost.

“You can have a Mercedes or you can have sheep,” Shawna said.

True, said Adam.

“But I can’t eat my Mercedes.”

[su_box title=”Colorado agriculture at a glance:” box_color=”#005ac3″]

CATTLE

Cattle represents the largest segment of Colorado agriculture and contributes nearly $4 billion in annual cash receipts.

CORN

Used for livestock feed, among myriad other things, corn crops make up more than 1 million acres in the state.

DAIRY

Dairy farms produce nearly 3 billion pounds of milk and a half-billion dollars in cash receipts annually. Dairy cows do best between 40-60 degrees, and the state’s annual temperature average is between 50 and 60 degrees.

WHEAT

More than 2 million acres of wheat are planted and harvested each year.

WINE

Sun, cool nights and dry climate make for an ideal wine producing state without pesticides and fungicides. The Colorado Wine Industry Development Board funds research through Colorado State University and promotes Colorado wine.

FRUITS AND VEGGIES

Peaches, apples, melons and sweet corn, chiles, potatoes and lettuce make up the nearly $670 million in fruit and veggies sold yearly.

NURSERIES

Nearly $2 billion is contributed to state’s economy from seeds, plants and other agricultural resources.

HAY

Nearly 1.5 million acres are devoted to creating hay, including alfalfa, grass and mixes.

POTATOES

Colorado is one of the top three shippers of potatoes in the U.S. More than 2 billion pounds are produced annually and Colorado leads the nation in growing new varieties of potatoes.

SHEEP AND LAMB

Colorado is one of the top five producers of lamb. About 80 percent of American sheep and lamb are raised for meat, but wool is also a component.

POULTRY

Colorado hens lay more than 1 billion eggs a year.

SWINE

Colorado hog farms are constantly innovating, which has created pork that is 16 percent leaner and contains 27 percent less saturated fat that it did 20 years ago. Colorado Proud CDOA program supports agricultural products grown, raised or processed in Colorado. For more than 15 years, the program has been encouraging consumers to seek out and buy agricultural products labeled Colorado Proud.

With more than 2,000 members, Colorado Proud represents farmers, rancher, growers, manufacturers, processors, restaurants, grocers and other retailers.

Consumer surveys say 90 percent of Colorado consumers said they would buy Colorado agricultural products it they were clearly labeled as being from Colorado. [/su_box]