Colorado’s Local-Foods Movement Finds its Economist at Colorado State University

Dawn Thilmany, a Colorado State University agricultural economist, provides market scrutiny that helps shape the nationwide locavore movement.

Food producers are finding their footing in small but mushrooming niche markets – including organic agriculture – with the economic and consumer information Thilmany provides. Informing Thilmany’s work is the taste among many people for fresh, locally grown food; these consumers drive the “buy local” trend.

Her expertise has gained such renown that Thilmany was a guest speaker at the 2012 Agricultural Outlook Forum, hosted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture outside Washington, D.C., on Thursday and Friday. She addressed the topic, “What is Driving Consumer Demand for Local Foods?” during the federal agency’s main annual event, which draws hundreds of the nation’s agricultural leaders and top producers.

Secretary Tom Vilsack, head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, also recently appointed the CSU agribusiness expert to a 25-member policy panel called the National Agricultural Research, Extension, Education, and Economics Advisory Board.

“Dawn’s selection by Secretary Vilsack reflects the respect and confidence the USDA has in her and her ability to provide sound advice on national issues of importance,” said Craig Beyrouty, dean of the CSU College of Agricultural Sciences.

Thilmany stresses that, as an economist, she does not prefer local, organic agriculture over the traditional, big-business model of production agriculture. Rather, she believes farmers and ranchers must examine market options – and understand what they need to succeed using one model or another.

“It’s become a pretty concentrated agricultural industry in the United States, and if you’re not a big producer, it can be difficult getting into certain wholesale markets,” Thilmany said. “My research investigates how to gain access to different markets, what share of the market wants to buy products differentiated in a certain manner, and what kind of premium consumers are willing to pay for the product. This allows growers to determine whether they will pay to invest in new enterprises or change current enterprises to include different production practices.”

Against backdrop, Thilmany has helped develop marketing strategies for the Colorado Proud program and is active in the Colorado Farmers Market Association. She also has contributed to the CSU specialty crops program and the university’s interdisciplinary studies program in organic agriculture.

In the land-grant tradition, Thilmany’s research and producer outreach provide fodder for her classes.

“I’ve actually wrapped it into my teaching. Their classes are richer because students get examples of what innovative producers are actually doing. None of it is hypothetical,” said Thilmany, a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics and an agribusiness Extension economist. She teaches Small Agribusiness Management, Agricultural Finance, and Agricultural Marketing, Performance and Consumer Demand, among other courses.

Thilmany has helped a number of farmers and ranchers through the Building Farmers program, which she developed in Colorado in collaboration with six other Western land-grant universities.

Participants, with less than 10 years of experience in agriculture, attend classes for eight weeks and gain knowledge in business management, production and marketing. Some participants are starting careers in farming and ranching, while others want to grow in a new direction.

One recent participant, Aaron Rice of Fort Collins, used Thilmany’s advice to refine a business plan and successfully land a $26,000 grant from the USDA Value-Added Producer Grants program.

“She knew all the ins and outs of the grant process and was able to tell me ‘If you are really serious about this you need to approach this grant from this standpoint and this angle,’” said Rice, who specializes in raising natural and free-range poultry and eggs. “Obviously she knew what she was talking about.”