Center-pivot irrigation is used for crop production on the Eastern Plains of Colorado. Photo: Joe A. Mendoza / Colorado State University


It has defined important aspects of agriculture and our food system during the pandemic, as health effects, shutdowns, and economic blows have rippled through farm fields, processing facilities, markets, and distribution networks, all the way to supermarket shelves. We see the food supply chain groan at key stress points. Economic stability for many of our farmers and ranchers is at risk. There is heightening consolidation of farming and processing facilities, and consumer preferences are shifting quickly and dramatically. We worry about food security, the health and safety of workers, economic prosperity, resiliency, and environmental impacts.

Yet, when there is disruption, there is also opportunity for transformation.

That is the focus of Together We Grow, a consortium of some of the world’s largest agribusiness interests. The consortium will be based at Colorado State University’s Spur campus at the forthcoming National Western Center in Denver and is focused on building a skilled, diverse, and inclusive agricultural workforce that powers transformation. Together We Grow has 50 members, including modern food and agriculture companies, educational institutions, government agencies, and national nonprofits committed to improving and expanding diversity in agribusiness.

The disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic amount to a call to action: The agriculture and food industry must be ever more adaptive and must recognize operational and supply-chain challenges that might be hidden in plain sight.

Analysts expect net cash farm income, a widely used indicator, to drop by 15 percent nationwide this year because of the cascading economic impacts of the pandemic. That will likely mean a significant hit to many in the U.S. agriculture and food industry, which annually contributes more than $1 trillion to the national economy. This equates to sharpened needs for research; investments in scalable projects that pilot new business models; and sharing best practices in building workforce capacity. These are the aims of Together We Grow. Our consortium is pushing transformation as clearly as the flowers in my garden have transformed into fruit – bright and delicious and tasting of the summer sun.

The work before us has never been more pressing. As the global population booms over the next three decades, reaching an expected 9.7 billion people by 2050 – an increase of more than 2 billion people – agriculture must produce more food than we have in all of human civilization. Adding to this staggering challenge, we must do this work with fewer resources and fewer environmental impacts.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced plans to stimulate innovation with the goal of increasing agricultural production by 40 percent and cutting the environmental footprint of agriculture in half by 2050. To meet these goals, agriculture is challenged to deploy existing and emerging technologies, including precision agriculture, genomics, precision breeding, and predictive data analytics.

As we know, people drive innovation. Those of us in the agriculture and food industry must think strategically about building effective teams and identifying talented individuals to lead our work. That brings us to the central need for diversity in the ranks of executive leadership, business management, training, and decision-making.

Diversity – in all its forms – is widely and repeatedly proven as essential to business innovation. I’m referring to diversity in employee gender, age, race, ethnicity, and culture, among other factors. It’s simple: Diverse leadership teams bring more and different ideas to the table and are better able to test their ideas against the realities of global challenges and an international consumer base. As everyone in agriculture knows, our industry has never been more globally connected and reliant on international markets.

Building cultures of inclusion in agriculture requires that people with diverse backgrounds feel welcome to share their ideas and to show up to work as their full selves. Members of Together We Grow are asking how we make sure all of our employees are valued, how we represent ourselves, how we drive change inside and outside our organizations, and what kind of legacies we are building.
Our consortium has the will to listen, learn, and hold space – and to get to work transforming our food system.

Kristin Kirkpatrick, a CSU alumna, is executive director of Together We Grow and Colorado State University’s Center for an Enhanced Workforce in Agribusiness. The programs will be based at the forthcoming CSU Spur campus in Denver.