Montezuma County farmers got a chance to voice their concerns about the next big federal agriculture legislation at a meeting with staffers from Sen. Michael Bennet’s office on Friday.
John Whitney and Lee Swanson, two members of Bennet’s staff, met with about 30 farmers and other interested residents at the Dolores Water Conservancy to discuss the farm bill, a sweeping piece of legislation that affects producers across the country and is due for an update next year. Cortez was one of the last of 26 towns where the senator’s staff have conducted “listening sessions” this spring to find out what Colorado farmers want included in the next revision. Those who attended the meeting in Cortez brought up several concerns they hope the bill will address, including the need for more local input on regulations and more funding for programs that help beginning farmers.
The farm bill dates to 1933, when it was passed under the name Agriculture Adjustment Act as a way to help the agriculture industry recover from the Great Depression and prevent another Dust Bowl. Since then, according to the Congressional Research Service, 16 more “farm bills” have been passed. The earlier versions focused on providing price support for staple crops like corn, soy beans and wheat, but later bills were much larger in scope.
The latest version of the bill, the Agricultural Act of 2014, includes 12 categories, or titles, ranging from crop insurance to conservation. It authorizes the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fund programs under those titles through 2018, but if a revised version of the bill isn’t passed before then, that authorization will run out for many programs, according to the CRS.
“There’s not a (Coloradan) that’s not touched by this farm bill,” Swanson said. “I don’t care if you live in downtown Denver, or if you live in Nucla, where we were last night, or in Cortez.”
He asked for input on issues specific to Montezuma County farmers, and he got it, not only from individual producers but also from representatives of organizations like the High Desert Conservation District, the National Young Farmers Coalition and several others. Although they discussed a wide variety of topics during the nearly two-hour session, a few common themes emerged. One was that local farmers want more of a say in how national regulations are implemented in their region.
“You cannot have a cookie-cutter program that might fit in Iowa–that will not work in Montezuma County,” Steve Miles, of High Desert, said. “We need to have the on-farm, one-on-one, grassroots contact with the farmers.”
He also said he wanted to see more support for land succession policies and other programs that help young farmers, a sentiment that was echoed by several other people at the session. Miles said he was concerned that if President Donald Trump’s proposed budget passes, conservation districts such as High Desert would lose most of their resources because of USDA funding cuts. Whitney assured him that Bennet would not support those budget cuts when they come before the Senate.
Tyler Hoyt, owner of Green Table Farm in Mancos, said it’s all but impossible for those new to the industry to acquire useful land or get a bank loan in Montezuma County. He said new farmers like himself, especially those that don’t inherit land from relatives, rely on the Farm Service Agency and other sources of federal funding to get started.
“When we went to buy our property, there was not a bank in town that would even look at our proposal,” he said. “They just looked at the acreage we wanted and said, ‘Over five acres? Sorry, no way.’ So yeah, the credit title is huge for beginning farmers.”
Although neither Swanson nor Whitney made promises about whether attendees’ concerns would be met in the farm bill, they did offer more general encouragement. Swanson said most farmers who use FSA loans pay them off, so the FSA and similar programs cost the government relatively little money.
Other topics broached during the discussion included the question of whether the farm bill could support hemp farmers, the need for more consumer education about healthy food and the forestry title. Bonnie Loving, of Montezuma County Weed Control, said she wanted conservation funds to help fight noxious weeds. Swanson and Whitney said they would take all the input they received into account when advising Bennet.
The Bennet staffers visited Durango Friday afternoon for the last stop on their tour.