Colorado’s New Commissioner of Agriculture Knows Delta Restoration

Kate Greenberg, commissioner, Colorado Department of Agriculture


My time in Mexico with the Sonoran Institute undoubtedly shaped my career path, as well as my approach. I have always had a love for the land—for natural and wild places. One thing working in Mexico did, which farming had done in the seasons before, was weave the human element into that love.
—Kate Greenberg, commissioner, Colorado Department of Agriculture

When a press release landed in my email saying that a young woman and former Sonoran Institute employee had been appointed Commissioner of the Colorado Department of Agriculture, I got really intrigued. Luckily, Kate Greenberg agreed to share some thoughts with me about her time working with us, conservation and water policy in the West, and how agriculture and farmers are integral parts of the story.

Kate’s career path is especially interesting since she spent time working from both our Mexico and US offices. In Mexico, she worked in the field along the Colorado River Delta to restore and monitor native habitat.

What brought you to work in the Colorado River Delta?

At that time in life, I was focused on gathering as many hands-on experiences in agriculture and natural resources as possible. Prior to working with Sonoran, I had been farming in the Pacific Northwest and later went on to manage a field program called Semester in the West, run out of my Alma matter Whitman College. It was on Semester in the West where I found a publication by Sonoran Institute and was intrigued. I studied environmental studies and humanities in college, and sorely needed more time in the field. I also wanted to hone my Spanish skills. So, I cold-called Francisco [Zamora], inquired about work, and a few weeks later moved to Mexicali.

Can you tell us how you felt to be working at the very end of the mighty Colorado, which turns to barely a trickle in that area? What was your experience like with the crew there?

I loved being part of the Delta crew. I’d wake up at 3:30am. Guadalupe Fonseca would pick me up at 4am. We’d grab homemade tamales on the side of the highway and be to the field to start work by 5am. We’d work in the fields until around 1pm, then we’d get back to Mexicali and I’d work on germination tests for our cottonwood and willow seeds or prepare for field monitoring the next day. Frequently our work would be punctuated by bird sightings—hundreds of different species traveling along the Pacific Flyway. My coworkers—Edith, David, Tano, Estela—would list off the birds in Latin, English, and Spanish both by sight and by sound. I was always in awe of their knowledge.

Additionally, working at the end of the Colorado opened my eyes to how policy plays out on the landscape. I now live near the headwaters of the Colorado River. Living in Mexico and moving Colorado River water across the land offered me a depth of perspective to the challenges and intricacies of how we have come to live with our shared water in the West. That experience set me up for my work since.

Do you think that experience helped shape your approach to water conservation issues and agriculture, or your career path?

My time in Mexico with the Sonoran Institute undoubtedly shaped my career path, as well as my approach. I have always had a love for the land—for natural and wild places. One thing working in Mexico did, which farming had done in the seasons before, was weave the human element into that love. I saw how important it is to have people on the land, who love the land, and put their sweat and brain power into making it a place where humans and nature can thrive together. One reason I love agriculture is it forces us to wrestle with the challenging questions of how to grow food and protect the environment at once. That and I also love to eat. I did plenty of that in Mexico.

In a report that you co-wrote for the National Young Farmers Coalition, Conservation Generation, it notes that “most young farmers have never farmed outside of drought” in the Colorado River basin. This both seems tragic and as the report points out, hopeful because conservation is so ingrained in how young farmers operate. What do you think the best avenues are for sharing conservation goals and concerns about climate change and long-term drought?

I don’t think young farmers’ inclination toward conservation sets them apart from their older counterparts: farmers and ranchers of all ages are thinking critically and investing seriously in the health of the soil, water, climate, and family. Every generation has had to wrestle with the challenges of its time. For many young farmers and ranchers today, conservation is woven into their work not only because of a land ethic, but because of the way conservation can help build resilience in the face of drought and a changing climate. Conservation is also a business decision that can play out positively on the bottom line.

There are great risks involved in agriculture with real livelihoods on the line. I think the more we can leverage good policy, drive financial and technical assistance resources, share success stories, build relationships on mutual trust and respect, and vocalize our shared goals for a thriving agriculture and healthy ecology, the more we will continue weaving together agriculture and conservation and uplifting farmers and ranchers at the center of that work.

What happens when some have a water conservation mindset and others are more use-it-or-lose-it oriented? Are there any specific stories of cooperation that have inspired you?

Water law in the West is deeply complex. On the whole, it’s quite difficult for a water right to end up on the abandonment list, yet farmers and ranchers are often advised to use the full extent of their right to in order to protect it. This does not mean these producers are not conservation-oriented. There are many examples of great, emerging partnerships between producers and folks in the conservation world who are working toward shared goals of a healthy ecology and productive agriculture. Folks are developing strategies to avoid permanent dry-up of agricultural lands, re-water streams, implement voluntary, compensated flexible water sharing agreements while protecting the farmers’ bottom line. I’m always inspired when I meet people across agriculture and conservation who choose to focus on where they agree rather than where they disagree.

With your new role you’ll be learning even more about policy, hearing from diverse stakeholders and helping to shape the future of a headwaters state. I’m wondering if the Sonoran Institute ethos of collaboration and community-driven solutions will drive your approach.

One reason I was drawn to work with Sonoran was because the collaborative and community-driven nature of the work. This has been true with all my work—from the Community Supported Agriculture farm where I worked in Washington state, to organizing farmers and ranchers with the National Young Farmers Coalition.

What issues are you most excited to tackle in Colorado?

In these first few weeks on the job, I’ve been focused on meeting as many stakeholders and members of the industry as possible, as well as getting acquainted with our incredible staff of nearly 300. There are so many areas of work that fall under the Department of Agriculture, from livestock brand inspection to biocontrols of noxious weeds. I’m excited to support the excellent work of my team.

In addition, we are excited to move forward in a few big areas. These include:

  1. Supporting the next generation of farmers and ranchers
  2. Scaling up high value agriculture and diversifying market opportunities
  3. Promoting and incentivizing soil, water, and climate stewardship. We’ll be digging into these areas with our team and producers across the state.

In addition, I very much look forward to continuing the work of supporting farmer mental health and reducing the rates of farmer suicides in Colorado.

Can you tell us about the epic bike ride you took with Sonoran Institute’s Karen Schlatter in Durango?

Yes! Karen and I worked in the Delta together and are used to catching up in intense environments. Karen and her husband Joel came to Durango to ride the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic with me two years ago. The Ironhorse is a fifty-mile road bike ride over two 10,000’+ mountain passes. Riders leave Durango in the morning and try to beat the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad on its way to Silverton. We were much more focused on catching up than on beating the train. We hit a frigid wind at the top of Molas Pass—a far cry from the 120 degree temps of Mexicali. I look forward to our next ride.

Blog Post By: Corinne Matesich, Marketing Communications Manager