Agriculture crops up as meaty subject in Colorado this week

The Colorado Statesman

State and federal officials are busy talking agriculture in Colorado, and this week, the country’s leading ag official led a conference on exports in Denver, and spoke to the importance of Colorado as an agricultural state.

Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, spoke at a Monday conference in conjunction with the Export-Import Bank of the United States. The conference focused on improving global exports for small business, including agriculture.

Colorado agricultural exports were up 14 percent last year, Vilsack said, and the USDA is projecting a 21 percent increase in 2011. Colorado is an agricultural state, which he said is not appreciated by people outside of the state.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, center, responds to a journalist’s question. Gov. John Hickenlooper, left, and U.S. Export- Import Bank President Fred Hochberg, right, comprised a three-man panel that addressed the forum.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Every billion dollars of trade generates 8,500 jobs, and with Colorado’s $1.65 billion in agricultural trade last year, that’s more than 14,000 jobs, he said. “If we can increase [the number of jobs] by 21 percent, obviously we’re talking about more job opportunities and a better bottom line for farmers and ranchers, one that allows them to stay in business and even expand their business.”

But Colorado lagged the rest of the country in total exports last year, and Vilsack said it was because “people are scared.” They’re concerned about shipping, getting paid and the standards imposed by other countries. The EXIM Bank is working to overcome those barriers, according to President Fred Hochberg, who also attended the conference. Hochberg said that in January, the U.S. exported more goods and services than in any time in history, and Vilsack added that for agriculture, November through January were the three strongest records in history for exports.

One of Colorado’s problems, as identified by Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar and his predecessor, John Stulp, is the flight from the farm, and the reluctance of young people to get into farming. Vilsack said the USDA has several programs to address that issue, such as a beginning farmer and rancher loan program, which provides help to farmers and ranchers to get them started. The program helps beginners with learning how to put a business plan together and how to access USDA products and programs. The USDA also helps with marketing, linking new fruit and vegetable growers with local farmer’s markets, he said.

The USDA also is interested in other aspects of rural development. In addition to agriculture, Vilsack said, “there’s a new framework for the rural economy that includes broadband expansion.” By having access to broadband, small businesses can expand their reach to the global market. The state also has opportunities in renewable energy and tourism, he said.

Vilsack also addressed the 2012 Farm Bill, noting that the process is just getting started. The USDA doesn’t yet have the figures on what will be available for agriculture, but Vilsack said those figures will be coming out in the next few weeks.

“We’re trying to identify the fundamental principles that will drive the Farm Bill discussion,” Vilsack said, which will include how to create an appropriate “safety net” for farmers and ranchers; and how to promote economic opportunities.

The 2012 Farm Bill, and changes to farm subsidies, also was mentioned recently by Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who spoke to agriculture industry representatives at the Governor’s Forum on Agriculture.

Bennet, a member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, laid out a five-point agenda. He said he was working with Vilsack on a new foundation for rural development, based on free markets and new income opportunities, by expanding exports abroad. Bennet said that framework will look at expanding Asian markets for Colorado beef, Mexican markets for Colorado potatoes.

Second, “we must capitalize on the culture of entrepreneurship that already exists in rural Colorado, with improved access to credit and investments in rural broadband” that can lead to opportunities for small business. Third, the country must break its reliance on foreign oil, by investing in clean and renewable energy resources, an area for which Colorado has in abundance. Fourth, “we must do more to conserve and restore our natural resources,” and build upon tourism, hunting, fishing, agritourism and other activities that create jobs. Finally, the nation must invest in research, infrastructure and education, to make sure that rural communities have the resources to prosper.

Bennet brought up the 2012 Farm Bill and subsidies when talking about the need to rein in spending and reduce the federal deficit. Congress intends to hold hearings across the country on what programs and policies are working and where there’s room for improvement. “In a time of unprecedented economic stress, we need to look at the books,” and while agricultural spending at the federal level is less than 1 percent of the total federal budget, “revisiting the Farm Bill will cause us to make sure agriculture policy is as efficient as possible.”

The discussions also will include “how to do more with less, and on whether to continue to provide farmers with a little bit of help every year, or more substantial assistance when it’s needed most.”

Farm subsidies are referred to as direct payments within the USDA. Those payments hit a high of just over $24 billion in 2005, but since then have dropped down to $12 billion per year, according to USDA data through 2009.

Farm subsidy payments are a controversial subject, but in Colorado changes to the program is gaining support from an unlikely corner — Colorado Farm Bureau. Spokesman Troy Bredenkamp told The Colorado Statesman that his organization has changed its policy on direct payments. “We’d prefer to see a revenue assurance, more holistic-type of program,” he said. That could take the form of crop insurance that would ensure some level of revenue for the whole farm. If the income dropped below a set level, the insurance policy would kick in, he explained, and would maintain the “safety net. To be honest we get beat up over direct payments all the time,” he said. Those payments “have helped maintain an abundant and affordable food supply for the United States, but on the other end we’re tired of getting a black eye for it. There’s a better way to handle a safety net for agriculture than through direct payments.”

State officials, CSU president, weigh in on agriculture

The governor’s forum on agriculture also brought in state officials, including the event’s namesake.

Gov. John Hickenlooper spoke about the importance of bringing in someone who knows Washington and how it works. It meant a great deal to bring in Salazar, someone who knows about politics and knows about Washington. “I’m sort of proud I’m not a lawyer and proud that I don’t know much about politics, but I’m not stupid,” he joked. Salazar “makes sure we have the relationships with Washington.” He also lauded the contributions of Salazar’s predecessor as ag commissioner, John Stulp, and the work he will do as water czar, including coming up with a long-term, sustainable plan for water. “We’re in striking difference of a water solution,” Hickenlooper said.

Bringing up a familiar theme in his administration’s discussion of agriculture, Hickenlooper raised concerns about the threat to national security if the country has to import food at the levels that it imports oil. The state needs to “protect every acre of agricultural land to make sure it stays in agriculture production, and figure out how to make sure we have enough water so that communities don’t dry up and people don’t walk away from what was once productive land,” he said.

Tony Frank, president of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, has been speaking at the governor’s agriculture forum for 10 years. He noted that CSU has had a 141-year partnership with agriculture, but said that CSU needs to be better listeners and more reliable partners with agriculture.

But even in these times, CSU has continued to invest in agriculture; the university is engaged in a campaign for new facilities for animal sciences, has reinvigorated its agriculture education and looking for ways to improve its off-campus facilities, such as the experiment stations, to make sure its research is “world-class and aligned with the needs of industry.”

Frank raised concerns about the federal budget deficit and budget cuts to the USDA that will affect longstanding CSU programs, such as in wheat improvements, beef genetics and research on animal diseases. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t get federal spending under control,” Frank said, but the people who are looking at controlling federal spending “may not be looking at the importance and future of agriculture.”

CSU has demonstrated it is a good steward of the public trust, both at the federal and state level, Frank said. That includes a financial accountability report that is on his website that shows how state funds are used. And like Colorado families, Frank said, “we’re tightening our belts.” The university has cut $36 million, which represents 28 percent of its state appropriation, and shed 400 jobs, about 7.5 percent of its workforce.

“We will get through these times, we will come through this, and so will the agriculture industry. And CSU will be there, shoulder to shoulder with Colorado agriculture,” Frank said.

In an interview with The Statesman following the conference, Salazar addressed recent census numbers that showed 14 rural counties had lost population while the state’s overall population had grown by 17 percent. “The agriculture economy hasn’t been great,” Salazar said. “Kids see their parents work hard all their lives and it’s a great way of life in my opinion,” but the kids look for opportunities in urban areas where they can make more money. Agriculture has also become a very competitive business, and “you have to get larger to compete. It’s not a mom-and-pop shop anymore.”

Salazar said the way to get people back into agriculture is to make it profitable, and the USDA forecast shows that ag will be very profitable in the next few years. “Once ag becomes profitable again, we’ll be able to entice young men and women to come back. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been trying to push the USDA on young and beginning farmer programs,” because getting into agriculture is capital-intensive.

As to the Farm Bill, Salazar said agriculture policy in Washington has “never been designed to protect agriculture — it’s designed to protect the consumer. We have the most inexpensive and safest food supplies in the whole world,” he said. “We need to make sure we educate our urban counterparts on the importance of agriculture. If we ever become dependent on another country to produce our food, we’ll be in real trouble.”

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com