MONTE VISTA— Senator Michael Bennet’s staff held a listening session in Monte Vista last Tuesday evening to hear the concerns of local stakeholders in the agriculture industry regarding the upcoming 2018 Farm Bill. Bennet is the only Colorado delegate to sit on an agriculture committee, specifically the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, and takes the smooth, efficient passage of the bill very seriously, according to his Senior Advisor on Colorado Rural Policy Lee Swenson, who was present at the Monte Vista listening session. “Both sides want to begin this process in a timely manner to avoid what happened in 2013.” Senator Bennet sent his staff to begin the outreach process of hearing the ideas and concerns of those on the front lines of agriculture, who are most likely to be immediately affected by the farm bill’s passage and allotted funding, although as Swenson emphasized, “there is not a single Coloradoan not impacted by the farm bill.”
Lily Griego, Colorado liaison for the office of Senator Bennet and also present at the meeting, provided attendees with a summary of the bill’s importance, completed with research done by the Congressional Research Service: “The farm bill is an omnibus, multi-year piece of authorizing legislation that governs an array of agricultural and food programs. Although agricultural policies sometimes are created and changed by freestanding legislation or as part of other major laws, the farm bill provides a predictable opportunity for policymakers to comprehensively and periodically address agricultural and food issues.” The document went on to explain how funding is allotted from Farm Bill legislation, as either a mandatory or discretionary program. “Mandatory programs generally operate as entitlements; the farm bill pays for them using multi-year budget estimates when the law is enacted. Discretionary programs are authorized for their scope but are not funded in the farm bill; they are subject to appropriations… At the enactment of the 2014 farm bill, the congressional budget office estimated that the total cost of mandatory programs would be $489 billion over the next five years.”
Rio Grande County Commissioner Karla Shriver mentioned the value-added agriculture program that Adams State University is developing and how industrial hemp is going to be a major part of that program. “I would like to see protections for industrial hemp as part of this bill,” she stated. Shriver also emphasized that hemp is also a crop that doesn’t use a lot of water, adding to its profitability. “Due to our short growing season we need more alternative crops in this area.” Swenson pointed out that Bennet has tried to have hemp removed from the schedule I controlled substances list.
Local farmer and 2016 candidate for Colorado House District 62, Bob Mattive, brought up the issue of trade protections for local farmers. “One out of every five or six rows of potatoes is destined for export, typically to Mexico.” Mattive emphasized that protections for fair trade and prices for exports is vital for American farmers, citing unfair requirements for potato shipments, “we’re required to meet the phytosanitary seed standards now for a final commercial potato crop and we need a more level playing field when exporting.” Colorado Potato Administrative Committee Executive Director Jim Ehrlich, who helped accommodate the listening session, confirmed that fair trade was a major issue, citing an example he had seen where there was one potato truck ready to cross into Mexico with produce from the San Luis Valley, and five avocado trucks coming into the US. The coalitions of Mexican potato growers are also creating more regulations that make it harder for local farmers to export potatoes.
Another major point of emphasis was investment in agriculture research. Ehrlich stated that research should be viewed as a food security issue for people in the United States. “Baseline funding for crop research initiative and block grants has been very important.” He also discussed how agriculture research that falls under mandatory spending in the farm bill has helped establish specialty crop initiatives and major research collaboration projects between six different states.
Kevin Reeves, county executive director for the Farm Service Agency, asked about the confirmation of Sonny Perdue, the President’s nominee for secretary of agriculture. Swenson confirmed that Bennet supports Perdue getting a swift hearing as well but the decision for his confirmation hearing is up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Swenson stated that he doesn’t believe the delay in confirming Perdue has been politically motivated, but rather he was a later nominee who had to sort through potentially conflicting business interests before his confirmation to avoid ethics violations.
Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust Associate Director Rio de la Vista spoke with the senator’s staff about land fragmentation. She explained that Colorado’s population has been growing but that it is set to double within the next couple of decades, and the best way to prevent vital ecosystems and farmland from being significantly harmed or destroyed for developments is to “get ahead of it with land trusts.” She explained that both sides of the political aisle support voluntary and conservation easements. In farm bill negotiations she encouraged the senator to “keep senior water rights in the right place.” Swenson asked if easements retain productivity, to which de la Vista answered easily, “Absolutely—there are multiple agencies that collaborate to ensure productivity.”
Adam Moore, District Forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, discussed upcoming projects that could be impacted or improved by the farm bill and priorities that Bennet should keep in mind. “Colorado supplies water to 17 states…it’s vital that we have healthy, resilient forests to reduce the potential effects of wildfires” to keep up with this demand. Moore explained that they strive to keep landowners engaged with the importance of the forest and preventing land fragmentation. He also discusses the importance of the Good Neighbor Authority, which prioritizes the health of the forest but still facilitates the variety of logging demands. He explained that with agriculture funds, the Colorado State Forest Service and the U.S. Forest Service are able to collaborate on projects to monitor and protect the health of the watershed as well. Shriver added that the RWEACT agency is also currently working out a stewardship agreement with the Forest Service to use the beetle kill and fire-killed lumber for economic gain.
Reeves inquired about the federal hiring freeze, which impacts numerous agencies vital to the economy of the San Luis Valley. Swenson stated that to their knowledge, each federal agency that was placed under the hiring freeze must report a new reorganization plan within 180 days to the president’s administration, but there has been little information offered to the agencies on exactly what “reorganization” means. Reeves stated FSA employees have been very concerned with what they have heard about federal funding only replacing one out of every three employees who leave due to retirement or other reasons, which is not practical with the large workload that the FSA already accommodates. Swenson agreed that this wouldn’t be practical, as the FSA helps or entirely administers all of the programs that the various stakeholders had discussed that evening.
Miguel Diaz, a third generation farmer of certified potatoes and Coors Barley, brought up concerns with the current federal tone about immigration reform. He mentioned that he respects some of the work that Bennet has done before on the subject, but noted that “there needs to be solutions that work for producers here and work for producers throughout the entire country.” Moore noted that immigration also has an impact on forestry projects as well.
Although the attendees came to the meeting from a variety of different agencies, all agreed that the new farm bill must include protections for the San Luis Valley’s many different facets of agriculture. All agreed that agriculture research was absolutely vital, including continued nutrition research. Land, forest and water rights conservation were all also largely agreed upon, as is leveling the trade and immigration playing fields to best benefit farmers.