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Is Colorado Primed To Become The Silicon Valley Of Agriculture?

A drone built by Agribotix, a Boulder startup, flies over a farm in Weld County, Colo. The drone has a camera that snaps a high-resolution photo every two seconds. From there, Agribotix stitches the images together, helping the farmer see what's happening in a field.

Colorado is famous for its beer and its beef. But what about its farm drones?

In the last several years, Boulder and Denver have become hubs for tech startups, and companies in the state's Front Range are on a tear, patenting new technologies in irrigation, food science and plant genetics. Public scientists are keeping pace, publishing research articles in agricultural science in record numbers.

That's prompted local economists to make some bold predictions.

"We're poised, if we play our cards right, both as a state government, as a land grant institution [Colorado State University], as an industry, to become the Silicon Valley for agriculture in the 21st century," says Greg Graff of Colorado State University.

But at the first Colorado State University Agricultural Innovation Summit, held Mar. 18-20, Governor John Hickenlooper didn't start by trumpeting the state's farmers or scientists or entrepreneurs. He started instead by touting the accomplishments of a European country six times smaller than Colorado.

Jimmy Underhill, drone technician with Agribotix, prepares the drone's control module at a farm in rural Weld County.
Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media/KUNC
Jimmy Underhill, drone technician with Agribotix, prepares the drone's control module at a farm in rural Weld County.

"The Netherlands isn't very big. And they don't have a whole lot of people," Hickenlooper said. But, he noted, the Dutch economy has become a powerhouse in growing vegetables, producing dairy products and processing poultry.

What they lack in manpower, they make up for in science and cooperation. Dutch universities pass research on to farmers. Food processing companies have staked headquarters there. Small tech start-ups pop up to solve nagging problems. They do it all as neighbors, in a tightly knit area called the Dutch Food Valley.

"What's interesting is we're doing that exact same kind of innovation right here in Colorado," Hickenlooper said. That's why Hickenlooper and economists are increasingly talking about Colorado's potential to become the Silicon Valley of agriculture.

The equation for the growth sounds something like: universities plus entrepreneurs minus regulation multiplied by high quality of life equals innovation. That's according to The Emergence of an Innovation Cluster in the Agricultural Value Chain along Colorado's Front Range, a report by Graff published in November.

"To borrow a phrase from real estate, the three most important factors in driving innovation in any industry are: talent, talent and talent. And we have a quality of life here in the Colorado Front Range that attracts and retains world class management and scientific talent," Graff says.

All that scientific research and talent is concentrated along the northern Front Range, leading to new ideas and new businesses, he says. Colorado's food and ag industries have been growing two to four times faster than the state's economy overall, the report notes. The state's plains may be where the corn is grown and cattle are raised, but Graff said it's Denver where agriculture is being transformed.

Tom Trout studies irrigation technology, one area where Colorado is innovating, for the USDA. Here, he examines a sunflower test plot in rural Weld County, Colo.
Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media/KUNC
Tom Trout studies irrigation technology, one area where Colorado is innovating, for the USDA. Here, he examines a sunflower test plot in rural Weld County, Colo.

"The urban core is in fact the heart of agricultural innovation in the state of Colorado," Graff said.

New neighborhoods in Denver and other Northern Colorado cities are being structured around gardens, small farms and food hubs, taking the local food movement to a scale where it's actually having a measurable effect on the city's economy.

"We're seeing this industry grow exponentially in Denver," said the city's mayor Michael Hancock. "Small businesses are going into incubators and they're coming out as stronger businesses ready to contribute to the marketplace."

Denver's also home to some of the biggest players in food processing, hosting headquarters for the largest maker of mozzarella cheese in the world, Leprino Foods, and the country's biggest flour milling company, Ardent Mills. Greeley is home to JBS USA, the North American arm of the largest meat packing company in the world. Boulder has become a hub for the production and processing of organic and natural foods with companies like Celestial Seasonings and Justin's Nut Butter.

Governor Hickenlooper said unlike other sectors in the state, the food industry seems to be stable.

"[Agricultural] innovation is going to create high-paying jobs that are long-lived. It's not going to be some of this boom and bust stuff that we've seen in the past," Hickenlooper said, in a not-so-subtle dig at the energy industry and their history of boom-and-bust cycles in the state.

All this movement within the state's agricultural economy came as a bit of surprise to former Larimer County commissioner Kathay Rennels. She's now with CSU and said no single person or organization can take credit for Colorado's burgeoning ag innovation hub.

"We have a research corridor here that grew organically," Rennels said. "It grew by itself and it probably grew because nobody saw it, so they couldn't screw it up."

But screwing it up is still a possibility. The same report that identified the ag innovation cluster said it'll take a concerted effort to nurture the fledgling sector, and that Colorado's movement to corner the market on ag innovation likely won't be realized for more than a decade.

Luke Runyon reports from Colorado for KUNC and , a public radio reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production issues.

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