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Work is underway at the National Western Stock Show complex grounds in April 2019 to move the historic stockyards north. The name has been changed to the National Western Center. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

When it comes to a grassroots effort to figure out how to feed the world’s future population, the massive food company Archer Daniels Midland Co. may not be the first –– or last –– advocate to come to mind. 

The Chicago conglomerate seems to prefer it that way. 

It’s been quietly creating a consortium focused on finding enough workers to produce enough food for the world by 2050. And now its burgeoning effort, Together We Grow, which counts ADM competitors Cargill, Monsanto and Tyson Foods as members, is partnering with Colorado State University to build a research and education facility in northwest Denver. 

The Center for an Enhanced Workforce in Agribusiness will be housed at the National Western Center, currently under development.

“We’re looking at 2050, when there will be a 35% increase in the world’s population. And many experts think we’re going to have to produce more food than we ever have before. How do we do this?” Kristin Kirkpatrick, the organization’s new executive director, said in an interview in September. “One of the things the National Western Center and CSU in particular are hoping to do is host catalytic conversations.”

Kristin Kirkpatrick, formerly with The Big Green, was named executive director of Together We Grow’s Center for an Enhanced Workforce in Agriculture at the National Western Center in Denver. (Handout)

Details for the Denver site are far from final, such as what part of CSU’s planned three buildings at the National Western Center will be dedicated to this agribusiness organization. The organization appears to still be figuring itself out, too. It’s not a nonprofit, but rather “an effort/partnership of agricultural companies,” ADM said. 

The effort is part of a larger movement to rethink how land is farmed, how more people are to be fed and how to remain mindful of the environmental impact. 

At Slow Food USA, the nonprofit focuses on sustainable food production by reducing or reversing land degradation. It also wants to change eating habits by encouraging more plant-based foods or “slow” meat that focuses on quality rather than fast, cheap production that takes a toll on the land and workers. 

“We believe that it is imperative to focus on changing our model of production and consumption,” Krista Roberts, executive director of the Slow Food Nations food festival, said in September. “Furthermore, creating systems and individual mindsets that reduce food waste will allow us to use the abundance of food currently produced more efficiently.”

While Together We Grow isn’t well known in food and agriculture circles, such a mission is welcomed, said Wendy Peters Moschetti, director of Food Systems for LiveWell Colorado, which works to bring healthier food options to low-income communities. 

“With a quick glance I would say absolutely,” Moschetti said in September. “Any effort to examine and increase a sustainable, well-paid labor force across the food system is critical.”

Together We Grow has a mix of for-profit companies working with nonprofits, universities and government agencies. And some members have a controversial history in the food industry, such as Monsanto, acquired by Bayer AG last year, which has been criticized for genetically modified seeds and is being sued over the health impact of its weed killer Roundup.

But because of their impact on the world — ADM, Tyson Foods, Caterpillar, Deere, DuPont and others are also members of the Fortune 500 — they may be the best ones for the job. 

“They’re businesses, for-profit businesses that need to run profitable companies,” Kirkpatrick said. “But they have the added expectation to feed and nourish the world.”

The historic Livestock Exchange Building, including the stockyard saloon, will remain as the National Western Stock Show gets revamped into the National Western Center. Colorado State University will have three new buildings on site that are slated to first open in 2022. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The number of farms nationwide has declined in the past 20 years by 8%, now numbering about 2 million, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, published in April by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  Hired farm labor was around 2.4 million in 2017, compared with about 3.4 million in 1997.

Today, the large majority of farm operators are 45 years or older, white and male. In 2017, the makeup of those producers involved in decision making — not hired workers — was roughly one female for every two males. Those age 65 and older outnumbered workers under 35 by about four to one. By race, non-white producers numbered about 5%.

“The only way to address the monumental challenge of feeding the world’s growing population is through an industry-wide coalition of people and organizations dedicated to the cause. Individually, as companies, we can see incremental change, but collectively, we can shape the future of the world,” Michael D’Ambrose, senior vice president and chief human resources officer for Archer Daniels Midland Company, said, responding to emailed questions in September. 

D’Ambrose started Together We Grow within ADM in 2016 and reached out to business leaders and competitors to solve common problems. The organization now has about 50 companies and organizations, including the National 4H Council, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and several universities.

A key issue for all was finding enough workers for the future. As a group, the aim evolved to building an inclusive environment in order to attract agricultural workers from diverse backgrounds and with different skills.

“As we move our efforts to scale, we recognize that we need to evolve our operating model for sustainability. And, our corporate partners have recognized this, too, and have committed to supporting these efforts through monetary funds,” D’Ambrose wrote. “In some ways, we’re just getting started, and Colorado State’s leadership has really been the key to putting us in a great position to make a real difference in the industry.”

CSU is a key part of the future National Western Center. Sitting north of Interstate 70 and east of the South Platte River, the facility has long been home to the National Western Stock Show. In 2015, Denver voters approved Measure 2C to extend a 1.75% tax indefinitely on hotel rooms and car rentals in Denver. That would help provide $622 million to redevelop the area, and CSU tossed in another $250 million to build three facilities for education and entertainment purposes. The CSU buildings are expected to open in 2022.

Having its own space outside of Chicago and ADM’s headquarters will give Together We Grow more of an independent feel to work with partners and CSU in diversifying what it means to work in agriculture, said Kirkpatrick, the new center’s director who is on CSU’s payroll.

“A lot of it is reframing what agriculture is. When I think about what agriculture is when I was coming out of high school and colleges, I had an idea. It was always farmers,” said Kirkpatrick, who came from Big Green, an organization founded by Colorado restaurateurs Kimbal Musk and Hugo Matheson that works on food-literacy programs and gardens for schools. “But we need statisticians, engineers and app developers. We need a lot of things that aren’t even jobs yet.” 

The group has a good idea of what sort of jobs will appeal to diverse candidates and result in expanding the type of roles for people working in agriculture. Of course, it’s always been a priority for the Colorado Farm Bureau.  

“As the ag world is still very much in the hands of labor and the ever-growing need for more laborers is burdensome,” said Zach Riley, the bureau’s director of public policy national affairs. “It’s always nice to see and hear of someone else helping to bring up and develop interested pupils to carry on the work of growing the world’s food.” 

Tamara Chuang writes about Colorado business and the local economy for The Colorado Sun, which she cofounded in 2018 with a mission to make sure quality local journalism is a sustainable business. Her focus on the economy during the pandemic...