This is a transcript of the Spur of the Moment episode “The future of agriculture with Kate Greenberg.” It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
Kate Greenberg: So I think there are a lot of places where we all do share a lot of the same values. It’s going to be a question of how our decision making, our policies, our negotiations and our programs align to actually allow a future where agriculture remains a driver of Colorado’s economy, even with less water.
Jocelyn Hittle: Hello and welcome to CSU Spur of the Moment, the podcast of Colorado State University’s Spur campus in Denver, Colorado.
Kate Greenberg: We’ve got scientists, we’ve got researchers, we have writers, filmmakers. There’s so many ways to see yourself being a part of agriculture.
Jocelyn Hittle: On this podcast, we talk with experts in food, water, health and sustainability and learn about their current work and their career journeys. I’m joined today by Kate Greenberg, the Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture. Commissioner Greenberg was appointed by the Colorado Governor in 2018, and as commissioner, Greenberg provides leadership and direction to the Colorado Department of Agriculture, which serves producers operating more than 38,700 farms and ranches in the state. She has worked in and advocated for agriculture for more than 14 years. Welcome, Commissioner Greenberg.
Kate Greenberg: Thanks so much for having me.
Jocelyn Hittle: Happy to have you today. So let’s start and talk a little bit about what it means to be the Commissioner of Agriculture for the state of Colorado. What is that job actually entail?
Kate Greenberg: Well, structurally speaking, the job is part of the governor’s cabinet. So I am part of a team of about 20 or so individuals that run all the state agencies in the state, and we were all appointed by the governor to be in these roles. We work together every day to make sure we are running state government and that we’re serving the people of Colorado. So that’s where the big picture. But on the day-to-day, the job can look very different. As you mentioned, I oversee our Department of Agriculture. We have over 300 employees across the state, eight programmatic divisions that are serving the people of Colorado and the animals of Colorado. We can talk more about that.
But then in addition, I work with the governor’s office on policy and legislative issues that are going on. During the legislative session. We are very present at the Capitol working on bills. I oversee the budget, which influences the work that we get to do. We have our wildly important goals, which the governor has asked all of our agencies in the state to think beyond our day-to-day work and how we actually influence the future of, in this case, agriculture. So advancing that work. And then a big part of my job from the way I see it, is being out in the field with our ag producers, hearing what’s going on in the ground and making sure our work reflects the realities that they’re facing.
Jocelyn Hittle: Great. Maybe we can start with that last one. What does it mean to be out in the field? What does that look like?
Kate Greenberg: Well, I used to be a farmer, and then after that I was organizing farmers to shape federal policy, especially for young and beginning farmers and ranchers. So I’ve done this my whole life and by being in the field, what it looks like for me is making a contact or calling somebody I know or somebody I don’t know whose name I’ve gotten and asking, “Hey, I hear you got something interesting going on, or You got a big challenge, would you be open to me coming out there and learning what you do?” And usually the answer is yes. Usually they get to me before I get to them and invite me out to say, “Hey, we’d love to show you what we’re doing on our farmer ranch.” So then I’ll go out there either by myself or with a team or we’ll try and bring other folks, like legislators who maybe don’t get a chance to be out in the field to go see what’s going on.
And it might be a couple hours, it might be a couple days depending on the visit, and it’s everywhere. We’ve been all over the state, Northeast, Colorado, Southwest, my home basin down in Durango we visited, had a really wonderful visit and welcome by Chairman Hart with the Ute Mountain Ute tribe. I was just in Rifle last night, so we’re all over. And this time of year, it’s a lot of conferences, a lot of indoor events, but calving season is starting, growing season. Planting will start here in a little bit as well. So different times of year, different types of trips, but it’s all about connecting with people in the place where they live and work and understanding what their lives are like in the places they live and work.
Jocelyn Hittle: Wonderful. And I’d like to come back to some of the examples of what it is that’s happening around the state that you would like to share, but let’s continue to work backward from some of the things that you mentioned about your role. So those wildly important goals that you mentioned that are about shaping the future, can you say more about what are those for the Department of Ag and how are they playing out?
Kate Greenberg: Yeah. For the Department of Ag, I mean the bread and butter of our work is exciting in and of itself. I mean, we do so much more than I ever knew before coming here. Every single scale in the state, we tear. So we make sure that customers at the checkout, at the grocery store are getting what they’re paying for. That’s not something you usually consider with the Department of Ag, so we’re going to keep doing that forever because that’s part of supporting a healthy functioning society. Beyond that, though, we don’t know there are big challenges we face in ag. So we have four big WIGs, as we call them, big goals, big vision for how we can help as an agency, make the future of agriculture in Colorado more resilient, more equitable, filled with more opportunity for farmers and ranchers and folks in ag.
So we’re focused on economic resilience, building especially diverse market opportunities for Colorado ag, voluntary stewardship, soil, water, and climate stewardship is the heart of what we are doing, not only showcasing the role that ag can and needs to play in tackling the climate crisis, building drought resilience, but also the opportunities we have in agriculture to meld our stewardship with new market opportunities. Everything we do is for future generations. So next gen support, whether that’s early apprenticeships, paid apprenticeships that we provide all the way through lending and beginning farmer financing, which we just launched a loan program this past year where we have incredibly flexible terms that are meant to reach underserved producers who are looking to get a foot in the door to build their businesses.
And then lastly, advancing animal health and welfare. We’re responsible for managing any foreign animal disease outbreak in the state, but we also want to get ahead of those. So planning, preparation, working with the ag industry and folks across the state to make sure we’re prepared. And then also supporting the work of local law enforcement, of the livestock community in advancing animal health and welfare.
Jocelyn Hittle: Great. So you mentioned that they’re WIGs wildly important goals. Do I have that right? So what does that look like for implementation then? How do you break that down? How does your team think about how to get from here to there, given that you’re in this role for some period of time, but not forever?
Kate Greenberg: Exactly. We are time bound, or at least I am. So every year we go through a planning process and we’re actually just about to get started in that process now where we set out what are our big goals and then how do we break down achievable steps to get there and how do we push ourselves? We want those goals to be stretch goals. So we’re starting to have those conversations with our team, with staff in the various programs that are responsible. One example is our soil health program. When I first started four years ago, I was working on soil health and in my past job with the nationally Young Farmers Coalition and had a team at CDA that was ready to go.
So we convened a big group of folks, mainly folks who were skeptical of us doing this as a state agency saying, “Hey, I don’t really want the government getting involved in how I farm.” And we said, “Well, we don’t either, so let’s have a conversation about soil health and how you can tell us what you need.” And that launched into the Colorado Collaborative for Healthy Soils, which is its own entity. It’s since merged with CO CEWL, Colorado Working Lands Group. But that coalition was really an advisory group to us, and they were telling us they want the state to be providing support on soil health. And we’ve since done that.
We built a program in-house, the coalition then past legislation that created the program in statute. We went from $0 in 2019 to 30 million in 2022. That was thanks to Seed Money from the Gates Family Foundation, from NRCS, from a few other entities that had small bits of money. We built the program from there. We couldn’t do it without those partners, but that made us eligible and I think competitive for then receiving a 25 million Climate Smart Commodities grant through USDA.
Jocelyn Hittle: Well, that’s a great example. And I know soil health is such an important piece of achieving those wildly important goals across the board. Really it’s about the next generation, it’s about resiliency, it’s about economic resilience, really cuts across all of those. So that’s a great example. Let’s keep going backward to some of the other things you mentioned as part of your job working with the legislature and policy setting. Can you say a little bit more about that?
Kate Greenberg: Absolutely. So every year, just like we do with our wildly important goals, our budget and our legislative package, we put forward through the governor’s office and then eventually to the legislature. So in the fall, November 1st is when the governor presents his budget to the legislature and to the public. And that includes what we’ve put forward as an agency. We then have to move forward in defense of our budget to the joint budget committee, which meets before the legislative session starts. That’s when we have our initial hearing.
And then as the legislative session continues, the budget, just like policies get negotiated. So we work very hard from January through May to make sure that our goals, we are pushing them through the finish line and working in tandem with our partners in the legislature to achieve those goals. We also work on pieces of legislation that don’t come from the agency, but that might impact us. So we often will give technical testimony or just support lawmakers in understanding how something might be implemented that they want to put into legislation.
Jocelyn Hittle: So when we talk about a day in the life for you, it could vary dramatically depending on the time of year. It sounds like you could be at the Capitol testifying to the joint budget committee, you could be on a farm in boots having a conversation around a new best practice or a challenge that a farmer rancher is having.
Kate Greenberg: Absolutely. I mean, a great example is just two days ago on Monday, I was in my city boots in the morning at the Capitol meeting with the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union for their legislative, so about 50 farmers and ranchers in the city going to testify and meet with their legislators, which I used to work with Farmers Union when I was with Young Farmers Coalition on those drive-in days. And they’re so important to having ag voices actually here in Denver at the Capitol. We then went from our lunch with Farmer’s Union to the Capitol to testify on a bill on that Farmer’s Union is helping support.
And then after that I threw on my country booths, if you will, and got in the car, drove to rifle and met with about 100% ranchers to hear their thoughts on the Wolf Free introduction plan. So that’s the day in the life. And in between all those meetings, a lot of phone calls, a lot of texts, a lot of communication back and forth, maybe getting a newsletter approved and out the door with my comms team, working on federal legislation because I’m going to DC next week and then planning for our next field visit that we have coming up here in a few weeks.
Jocelyn Hittle: And as you know, one of the things that we’re really focused on at the Spur campus is introducing kids to careers they might not be thinking about, but also helping to explain careers that maybe they’ve heard of but don’t really understand. And I think a job like yours is a great example of something that is focused on agriculture, but really diverse. Every day is different and the skillset that you bring to bearer really varies as well.
Kate Greenberg: It’s absolutely true, and that’s actually an approach we’re taking in the universe of the next gen work we’re doing. As an example for that, we have a state-of-the-art laboratory in Broomfield. So one of our eight programmatic divisions is our lab. So do our animal health lab, does animal health testing, making sure animals are safe and healthy. We have food safety testing over there. We’ll take samples from events like the Super Bowl and make sure that food is safe as well for these big public events. And then I mentioned our scales. So weights and measures a big deal. You don’t think about it a lot, but it does make society run, make sure consumers are paying for what they’re getting and nothing more. So that lab actually has an outreach program that they created as part of our NextGen initiative. So we offer the opportunity for middle and high school students to come to our lab, get hands-on experience and learn about the science of agriculture.
We also launched a paid internship program with CDA, and we can connect interns with any part of the department they’re interested in. So part of this is meeting people where they’re at and also showcasing that the work of agriculture is incredibly diverse. You don’t have to just do one thing. You don’t have to have just one skillset. In fact, farmers in the field are absolute generalists. They are marketers, they’re business people. They fix fence, they fix equipment, they take care of animals, they take care of each other. And that’s just one way to see it. We’ve got scientists, we’ve got researchers, we have writers, filmmakers. There’s so many ways to see yourself being a part of agriculture.
Jocelyn Hittle: Absolutely. And I think there are lots of moments where we are seeing particularly young people who maybe haven’t been as exposed to ag and where their food comes from, really be surprised when they learn something new. So maybe you can tell us a little bit about something that might surprise our listeners about either agriculture in Colorado or about the Department of Ag.
Kate Greenberg: Well, I think something that if you’re new to agriculture in Colorado, it might surprise you how diverse it is. And that’s something we try and celebrate every day is just the diversity of the people in agriculture of what we produce, of what our landscape and geography looks like. I mean, half of our state is plains. We have some of the most productive counties in the country in Northeast Colorado and certainly in the state. And then we have high country where cattle grays and Peres work on the federal lands up there, Western slope, mountains and river valleys. We have a lot of microclimates, like North Fork Valley for example. We also often talk about Palisade peaches, which we should because they’re amazing.
North Fork is another fruit growing region, a lot of tree fruit. There you go diagonal across the state down to Rocky Ford and the Lower Arc Valley, of course, more fruit, watermelons we’re famous for them down there. Chile of course, we’re actually growing quinoa in the San Luis Valley. This is a high mountain crop. It’s one reason, another reason the Valley is so unique. It’s a big potato and barley region, but they’re dealing with a lot of water challenges, looking for how to continue ag production with less water. So crops like quinoa, there’s a growing effort to expand in new and diversified crops.
And then just the people who we have in agriculture, we want to see more diversity, more people seeing themselves as part of our ag community, but we celebrate folks of all backgrounds who are here with us. We also recognize, we have two federally recognized tribes, and I think about 46 other tribes represented in the state, all of whom have history of agriculture in this state. There’s the acequias communities in Southern San Luis Valley who have been managing water on the acequias system in the acequias way for centuries. So celebrating that history, all those people in communities that make Colorado Ag what it is.
Jocelyn Hittle: Can you describe the acequias system? What does that mean for someone who hasn’t heard of it?
Kate Greenberg: And I’ll speak of the acequias system as an outsider because I, that’s what I am. So I say this with a lot of humility and respect to the acequias communities, but acequias in my understanding is two meanings. One is the actual infrastructure, the acequias ditch, we would call it a ditch most likely. acequias is an earth and ditch that moves water in order to irrigate farms. So very similar to what we might see anywhere in the state. The other meaning that I understand acequias is really around the self-governance of how to manage water and how communities come together around water. So where the state of Colorado as a whole is under the water law of prior appropriation, first in time, first in right, acequias communities have for hundreds of years managed both in times of scarcity and in times of abundance, a shared a way around how to manage water.
So you share in times of abundance, you share in times of scarcity. There are a lot of traditions around acequias management, myodomo is essentially the ditch rider, but has a lot of responsibility on the acequias system. There’s the spring cleaning, every spring where the whole community comes out and helps clean the ditch. So there’s a lot of community culture wrapped around how water is stewarded in the acequias communities. A lot of which you could see as parallel to how we do it in the rest of the state, but it is quite unique to acequias is.
Jocelyn Hittle: Great. Thank you. So while we’re on the topic of water, we can’t talk about agriculture in Colorado without also talking about water. So I know it is on your mind every day, and it’s part of your resiliency goals as well. Can you talk a little bit about what is keeping you up at night when it comes to water in the state? And also what’s giving you hope?
Kate Greenberg: What’s keeping me up at night is the, what feels like accelerating pressure on our water system. We’ve known for a long time that we were going to be facing drier times, hotter times potential shortage on the Colorado River system. We’ve hit those times before. We were hoping we would have to deal with them. That said, I think the good thing is we did know they were coming and we’re not totally surprised. So there are some good foundational elements that we are able to work with to navigate the situation. But what really keeps me up is that agriculture is often looked to as the place to get water to meet our growing needs in other places. And we are not opposed to being a part of the solution.
In fact, I was talking to producers on Monday who were asking how they can help with the issues on the Colorado River. I mean, they are very well versed in what’s going on. They want to be part of the solution. I think oftentimes agriculture can be painted as not wanting to be part of the solution. It’s just wanting to hang on. And that’s not what I hear, and that’s not what we’re doing at CDA. But that said, I think there are a lot of important questions for us to ask of if we’re going to be moving water out of agriculture into housing developments in Las Vegas, is that a better use of water than producing food on the Western slope? And that’s a lot of the dynamics that are being set up because we have the stresses on our system.
Now we don’t want to pit urban communities against agricultural production against the environment. We are looking for ways that all of those sectors can find points of collaboration and connection because we all rely on each other. I mean, rural communities are integral to the functioning of urban society. And without urban society, we wouldn’t have markets for our crops in ag. And we all love the environment. I mean, the folks I’ve been hearing from just this week out in the Western slope, I mean, they love wildlife. They see the management they do on their lands as helping protect wildlife habitat. They’re open space managers. I mean, they’re protecting this landscape both for production and so that we can enjoy the landscape.
So I think there are a lot of places where we all do share a lot of the same values. It’s going to be a question of how our decision making, our policies, our negotiations and our programs align to actually allow a future where agriculture remains a driver of Colorado’s economy, even with less water.
Jocelyn Hittle: So you’re saying it’s complicated?
Kate Greenberg: Yeah, that’s probably the shortest way to say it.
Jocelyn Hittle: So it is a complex problem too. Not only complicated, but complex in that if you pull on one string in this system, it impacts everything else. And the decisions around where water goes and what highest and best use actually means are subjective in a lot of cases. But also I think one of the things that gives me hope is that through the state water plan, and I know you were a part of the development of the state water plan a number of years ago and other similar efforts, there are really structured ways for people to get together in the same room and have those conversations and really discover that people aren’t probably as different as it may seem at first blush.
Kate Greenberg: Yeah, I think that’s right. And I’m glad you brought up the water plan. The state just launched the second version of it as you know, and I just want to give hats off to DNR and the Colorado Water Conservation Board who really did the bulk of the lift. I mean a absolutely incredible amount of work to get input from all of our river basins across the state, which are also self-organized around basin round tables. So showing our commitment to not just hearing from local communities, but following the lead of local communities.
And I have to say that this plan has more robust language and roadmap for how to sustain robust agriculture in the state than the previous plan. I mean, the commitment from the state of Colorado to avoid buy and dry, to invest in new opportunities for agriculture, and again, to make sure that ag remains a driver of our state. Both our culture and our economy is laid out real clear in this plan, and it is a really hopeful roadmap for how we can meet the needs of the future.
Jocelyn Hittle: So one of the things that also gives me hope, as I think about how we address food production and agriculture and recreation and water use in a state, as we know that climate is putting increasing pressure on already water scare system is our next generation, and that’s part of the reason that we’re focused on educating around climate, around water, around food health, sustainability at Spur. Can you talk a little bit about what you see as important for educating the next generation specifically around ag, but obviously it touches all those other things as well.
Kate Greenberg: Well, I think for starters, it’s knowing what young people care about and really asking them, what do you care about? What keeps you up at night? What are your passions and how can we connect that back to agriculture if that’s what you want to do? And again, I really think, and I believe firmly that almost everything in society comes back to agriculture. If you’re talking about housing, if you’re talking about technology, you’re talking about water, you’re talking about climate, you’re talking about wildlife. I mean, it all touches agriculture one way or another, not to mention how do we feed ourselves and food systems.
So there’s so many points of entry. So I think really understanding where is the starting place? Where are young people starting? Where is any given young person starting, and how can we build a pathway for them to find their passion that leads toward agriculture? And not everybody will choose to be in ag, and that’s great too. We need doctors and nurses and everybody else in society. But I hope that the work of Spur is so exciting and hopeful for me because even if somebody isn’t going into ag, if they have an appreciation of ag and a connection to their food, I think that just builds a healthier society.
Jocelyn Hittle: So can we talk a little bit also about how you connect with other Western states? So do you intersect with other ag commissioners, understanding that a lot of the challenges that are true in Colorado also apply in other arid and water scarce Western states? What is that inter intersection like?
Kate Greenberg: Absolutely, yes we do through a number of ways. So for starters, we have a national association. It’s called NASDA, the National Association of State Departments of Ag. All 50 states and territories are represented in NASDA. And then we’re also broken down by regions. So we have AWASDA, which is the Western Association. That means the 13 Western states are together in the WASDA Association, which I am chair of this year, which means we’ll be hosting all of those states here in Denver in July. And we get together throughout the year to talk about what are we all facing, how are we dealing with certain things? It’s a really wonderful opportunity to ask questions. If another state has gone through something we are going through now, we can ask those questions or share what we’ve gone through. So a lot of sharing of ideas.
I’m also the immediate past chair of the Western US Trade Association for Agriculture, which means supporting our companies in Colorado and the all Western states in increasing their export markets. I come from the local food movement and I’m deeply committed to it. And this work has also opened my eyes to what’s possible around the globe. And I think the work that we do on international trade is really exciting because it’s business to business. So we actually take small Colorado companies, food and ag companies and beverage companies, and we say, “Hey, where are you looking to do business?” And they’ll say, “I’m interested in this country or this market,” and we’ll take them there and we’ll connect them with people. And there’s a lot of cultural exchange that goes on in the process of doing that business. So that means our companies in Colorado and the West have now this international network of people. We do the same by bringing companies from around the world here to Colorado. So all of that happens through these Western networks.
Also with our Climate Smart Commodities program grant that we got that 25 million. I think part of why we were successful is that we actually coordinated with six other Western states. We know that climate smart ag, climate solutions at ag, however you want to phrase it, isn’t going to be a state by state deal. And if we can find solutions that are particular to the arid west in particular, I think we’re going to be a lot more successful as not just as a state, but as a species ideally. So those are some examples. I’m actually in just a few days going to Washington to DC to meet for our NASDA winter policy meetings.
So we do run policy through NADSA that gets into the national policy book and then directs our NASDA staff of how to advocate in DC for all of us. Doesn’t mean it’s 50 states. We all are very different in our governors and our leadership and what we all want, but that’s why we go through the policy-making process and debate the policies we want to put forward. And that also helps us leverage our voice as Colorado Department of Ag with congress, with federal agencies. We have a lot of fantastic partners on the federal side, but we are plugged in there both as a state and as a western region.
Jocelyn Hittle: Great. So you mentioned as part of that intersection with other states, some international work imports, exports. What’s coming into Colorado and what’s going out of Colorado? Just out of curiosity, what might surprise people about how we’re importing and exporting food products?
Kate Greenberg: Well, our number one export is beef. Cattle is our number one commodity and our number one export, not just an ag, but a top driver of exports across sectors in the state. We do a lot of business with a lot of countries that are both established markets and emerging markets. One example I’ll talk about is the United Kingdom and big trading partner, but a lot of opportunities left because we don’t have a trade agreement officially with the UK. We have had just direct conversations as a state of how can we help increase our business. I mean, we’re one of the largest shared investors in each other’s countries, obviously allies, partners, but we do business with, I mentioned cattle. We brought Mexican and Canadian cattle buyers actually to spur during the stock show because we do a lot of trade on the cattle genetics side as well.
Of course, spirits, beverages, we do a lot of exporting there. Our largest ag commodities in the state are usually sold and traded on the export market. You think of corn, wheat, dairy being our top drivers, economically speaking, just from a scale perspective, that’s all global market. So it’s everything from the commodity side to, again, we’ve brought small breweries from Colorado abroad to sell Colorado beer. Colorado Lamb is a big one as well. A lot of it is comes to our branding as well. I think folks that we work with around the globe really do see Colorado as a special place, a special landscape, a lot of, and we’ve been told this from our partners abroad, innovation, entrepreneurship, commitment to climate change being drivers of why they see Colorado as an opportunity to partner on the business side.
Jocelyn Hittle: That’s great. Excellent. Thank you. It’s always interesting to hear a little bit about how we are seen from outside, and particularly that we are innovative and forward-looking, I think is testament to not only the way that the agricultural community, but also the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit that has existed in Colorado for a long time as well in all sectors. So let’s talk a little bit about how you got where you are. So you have a farming background, at least you have worked on farms, but did you start growing up on a farm? H how did this path emerge for you?
Kate Greenberg: Well, it was definitely emerging path. It was not a planned path, I’ll tell you that. So I grew up in Minnesota, split part-time between the country and the city. Early years were a Mankato, which back then was pure ag country, corn, beans, dairy. So my family, I’m not from a farming family, but I was growing up all around farming families and spent a lot of time on their farms as I was growing up. But then I also spent most of my childhood in the heart of the city in Minneapolis, and didn’t think twice about where my food came from or who was growing my food.
So it wasn’t until I left for college, went to Whitman College out in Walla Walla, Washington, Eastern Washington, and started a farm internship because I realized, “Wow. Man, I’m eating three meals a day and I have no idea how this gets to my plate. I want to figure that out.” So it really just was that initial curiosity from I think being in a new place and having my world opened up a bit. And then getting into farming, opened it even more. I spent various seasons on different farms, Western Washington being the main growing season for me, which was very different from Eastern Washington in terms of precipitation and climate, a lot of lot more rainfall in the west than the east.
But spent many seasons doing seasonal work in ag, in natural resources, managing field programs that were focused on the policy and ecology of the Intermountain West. And then eventually moved to Mexico because I was intrigued by project to reconnect the Colorado River with the sea. We have allocated the Colorado River to the extent that the river no longer reaches the sea, which it used to be a 2 million Hector Delta. So I moved to Mexico to work with the Sonora Institute, essentially in an ag position, helping plant trees, collect native seed, sow those seeds along the riparian area, really riparian restoration effort with a lot of ag component, a lot of irrigating in the desert.
And meanwhile, what was going on above us was a negotiation to see if we could get by we, a water trust that was actually created, get water to go through the Colorado River Channel to actually reconnect with the sea. So that’s what opened my eyes to policy in particular. Now, I was hoping I could just do seasonal work and farm for as long as I could without having to get involved in policy or politics. And that changed dramatically when I was standing in Mexico at our work site, literally watching the Colorado flow underground and realizing, “Hey, this is because of decisions that we’ve made as societies, as countries, as states that have led to the landscape we’re managing. So if I really care about ag in the future of ag, future of nature and natural resources in the west, probably need to get involved in policy.”
So I bounced around about some one way tickets and tried to figure things out. And then was lucky enough to be brought on by the National Young Farmer’s Coalition in the very early days of the coalition, late 2012, one of the co-founders Lindsey Shute, was my boss, and just an incredible leader and visionary for creating this national network of young people who were facing the same barriers in getting started in farming and then really land access and access to capital we’re the top two.
So I was brought on as a western organizer, moved to Durango, which is home base, been the home base for the last decade, and got to drive around the Intermountain West, getting chapters of young farmers built, getting farmers to DC, bringing Congress out to the farm, and then building policy that was built by young farmers for the future of young farmers. So they have actual access of opportunity to create a life in agriculture.
Jocelyn Hittle: Great. Well, that’s quite a journey, and I think a lot of people that I talked to wasn’t linear. You didn’t set out to have this exact path, but maybe you could talk about a couple of the particularly pivotal moments or people who’ve influenced you along that path to where you are now.
Kate Greenberg: It was anything but linear, and I think that will be how the rest of my life goes, I would imagine. I mean, there’ve been so many pivotal people along the way, and frankly, so many of them have been in agriculture early on. I was new to Durango. Actually, I do have old family connections in the ag world in Southwest Colorado, but that was 40 some years ago that my folks were helping out on a ranch down there. So I was basically new. And in any rural community, you know, get a newcomer and folks are waiting to see how long they stay and if they’re really committed. And I respect that deeply because you see people come and go in with big ideas and a year later they’re gone. And people who live in rural communities are there for the long haul and there for their communities.
So I think I certainly realized I needed to prove my commitment early on. But there were some early cheerleaders too, who I think realized that there was a role for young people to have a voice at the table, a seat at the table, and actually created that seat for me. That happened actually with our basin round table on talking about water. And Mike Preston, who was with Dolores Water Conservancy District, and now is with the Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprise Board, and really believed in me and what I was doing from the beginning. There were a number of people like that all across the west, actually. And then of course, I took a big leap of faith in applying for this job, part of my role as I eventually became Western program director and built the Western program. And when Governor Polis was elected, he opened up applications for all of his cabinet positions.
You don’t need to do that as governor, you can hire whoever you want as long as they can get confirmed by the Senate. But he opened up applications. I had never worked with the governor before, didn’t know him. So I went all around Colorado saying, “Hey. The young farmers and ranchers we’re working with, there’s a great opportunity in Denver, you all should apply to be the ag commissioner for Governor Polis. And most everybody I talked to said, “That’s nice, but I’m farming and I’d rather keep farming. Thank you.” And which made a lot of sense. And I wasn’t farming at the time, so I said, “Why not. Put my hat in the ring.” And a few weeks later I was moving to Denver. So talk about non-linear. But I think along that way, again, there were people who I leaned on.
One of my predecessors, John Stulp former ag commissioner and water czar as he was dubbed when he was helping with the previous iteration of the water plan farmer in Southeast Colorado. Just remarkable human, remarkable family. And one of those people who was every step of the way had faith and belief in what was possible for the next generation. And that’s just to name a few. But it’s really been the effort of the community to do anything that we’ve done. I mean, the soil health example I gave, that’s been built by hundreds of people and dozens of organizations across the state. So really I think the bottom line is the partnerships and collaboration that exists in ag have really been the thing that’s propelled me forward.
Jocelyn Hittle: And it seems to me also that non-linear path also leads to a diverse skillset that comes into play on a daily basis for you. So we talked about the diversity of the job, but it also takes a diversity of skills. Maybe you could talk a little bit about, I mean, you lead a team, you have policy and political conversations. You have to be conversant in the technical side and understand what farmers and ranchers are telling you. Can you talk a little bit about how that mix serves you in this role?
Kate Greenberg: I think the best thing I can do in this role is help lift up other people in their roles. I am a generalist through and through. I am an expert in nothing. So I rely on a team of experts who are excellent at what they do at CDA. And that’s really the baseline for me, is knowing who to call on a particular issue and how to recruit the right people into the conversation to get to the best answer. So with that, I also came into this job wanting to just be a sponge, just to absolutely soak up everything I can, both from how state government works to what’s going on in ag and how we can help with our role. So that’s really foundational to me, is how can I help make sure that everybody on my team is doing the best that they can and really uplifted in their work.
In addition to that, I mean, you mentioned policy, politics, speaking, being in the field, being in DC, I think it’s so much learning as you go and there are some foundational things like being curious about what people’s lives are like. Anybody can learn how to do that. I’m not learning how to be an engineer that and very technical skillset, but I am very curious on and to know more about how people are living their lives, what their needs are, how we can be a partner in helping meet those needs. I don’t want to oversell what we do that as if we could fix every challenge that’s out there, but we are a partner in this. I think one example, we have been doing a lot more emergency response in the last few years. All of us have. But CDA as an agency have been doing a lot more than we are built for.
We have COVID, big response effort of course, but all the wildfires we’ve faced, the winter storms, this winter, foreign animal diseases that we’ve managed every year since I’ve came on board, all of that now we are responsible for as a state and as an agency. And a lot of that is response and reaction. But we also are thinking so much about proactivity. How can we actually work with our ag community to get ahead of these, to plan for events we know we’re going to face because natural disasters happen and making sure people know what they need to do to prepare as best as we can, knowing that they have CDA, department of ag alongside them through whatever event we go through. And that we’re there through recovery as well.
So that’s that emergency response model I think of writ large for how we are a partner in this work. How can we prepare? How can we stand by your side? How can we help you through? We’re not going to fix everything. We can’t, shouldn’t as a state agency in my mind, but we’re a really important player in this landscape of supporting ag.
Jocelyn Hittle: So that ability to be curious and to ask the right questions and to know who the experts are, who need to be brought together to whether the conversation is around preparedness and proactivity or responsiveness to fires or other disease, other things here, seems to be something that has been accrued through these different positions and steps along your path to where you are now.
Kate Greenberg: Absolutely. I think that’s a great way to put it. And just soaking up whatever I can along the way. I think that it’s hard too, if you’re just getting started, there might be some imposter syndrome, like you shouldn’t be in the room, or if you make it in the room, you probably shouldn’t speak because you don’t know enough. And I don’t believe in that. I think there’s always room for your voice. There’s always room for more humility too in the world at large. But that doesn’t mean any young person should be suppressing their voice or what they care about because they feel like they don’t have enough expertise.
So I think finding ways to participate, participation is another foundation. Say yes to going to the meeting, say yes to testifying and seeing what that feels like. Say yes to joining a board or a committee or planning effort and learn how strategic plans are built or budgets are built, or how to work in a group of people that does not agree and how do you navigate that. So I think there’s so many ways to build the soft skills as we call them, which I mean, without the soft skills, who are we? Without being able to relate to people and be curious about how people are living their lives. I think the hard skills don’t have a place to land.
Jocelyn Hittle: Yeah, that’s a really great way of saying it. Well, thank you so much for all of those thoughts. Really appreciate your comments on your journey. Where can people find more information about the work you’re doing now in the… I’m assuming CDAs website, but other resources that you would point people to?
Kate Greenberg: Yeah. Our website is ag.colorado.gov. We’re also on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, which are great places to follow us. I’m @coagcommish on Instagram and so you follow me there. And then we also have a monthly newsletter, which is a great place to find out grants opportunities. Again, if there’s an internship that we have available or you want to an apprenticeship out on a farmer ranch, you can always call our team or go to our website and find out more.
And then we show up in the field too. I’m hiring more people from across rural Colorado, hopefully urban Colorado too. We’re working on some physicians in the front range, but getting people from the ag community who represent CDA across the state, but also represent their communities with us who can be that direct point of contact to share the information that’s going on. So as you get involved with us, meet us, come out to conferences, come to events. Those are published both on our websites and social, but also a partner websites, lots of events that are hosted by partners that we attend and just communicate to the public about what we do and how to get involved.
Jocelyn Hittle: Great, thank you. So my very last question for you is our Spur of the Moment question. So this one is related to your work to a certain extent and is really about food and what you cook. So do you have a dish that you are well known for?
Kate Greenberg: Oh man. Well, early on, it was hot dish because I’m from Minnesota.
Jocelyn Hittle: Yes, of course. Hot dish. The best dish, hot dish. What is hot dish for those folks who are not familiar with the-
Kate Greenberg: Well, hot dish you might call casserole in some parts of the country. For us it was hamburger hot dish growing up.
Jocelyn Hittle: Amazing. So do you still make hot dish?
Kate Greenberg: Not as much, I have to say. I still love it, but-
Jocelyn Hittle: How could you not?
Kate Greenberg: I know. It’s hard to break that habit, but there’s just so much good food here in Colorado, so much fresh food and you could make so much just from what’s grown here. I mean chili, we raised pinto beans in Colorado, a lot of dry land down in the southwest and elsewhere around the state. So you could do chili with local beans, local beef, local onions, local garlic, local tomatoes, whatever else you add. You have corn obviously with Olathe sweet corn if you add corn to your chili. I love chili and cornbread. Love, love, love, any time of year, this time of year in particular in the winter.
Jocelyn Hittle: Yeah, absolutely. So local chili and on occasion, hot dish.
Kate Greenberg: That sounds about right.
Jocelyn Hittle: Okay, good. Okay. So thank you very much. We really appreciate the time that you spent with us here on Spur of the Moment and grateful for your service to the state of Colorado. Thank you very much, Commissioner Greenberg.
Kate Greenberg: Thanks so much. It’s been a pleasure.
Jocelyn Hittle: The CSU Spur of the Moment Podcast is produced by Kevin Samuelson and our theme music is by Ketsa. Please visit the show notes for links mentioned in this episode. We hope you’ll join us in two weeks for the next episode. Until then, be well.