Montezuma County got a visit from Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Don Brown during the opening of the Four States Ag Expo on Thursday.
Brown, a farmer from Yuma County, has led the state Department of Agriculture since his appointment by Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2015. He spoke about a wide variety of issues facing farmers on the Western Slope and across the state and pledged his commitment to represent rural communities in the state capital. Afterward, the handful of people who attended his session discussed legislation that affects farmers, such as the Food Safety and Modernization Act.
Brown said one of his top priorities is correcting the perceptions many lawmakers on the Front Range have of farmers and ranchers in the rest of the state.
“They just don’t think about us,” he said. “They’re not angry with us, they’re not upset with us ... they just don’t know about us.”
He said he tries to encourage lawmakers to consider the cost of legislation that places more restrictions on farmers, such as limiting genetically modified organisms in food. Those extra rules can raise the cost of doing business for farmers, resulting in higher prices for consumers, he said. He voiced concerns about the U.S. Food Safety and Modernization Act, passed in 2011, which placed numerous regulations on the food industry in an effort to reduce food-borne illness.
Brown said he worries those regulations will make it increasingly hard for American farmers to compete with cheaper foreign imports.
Brown brought up several other problems in Colorado’s food industry, such as lower commodity prices, looming drought and shrinking farmland. Colorado has lost about 20 percent of its farmland since 1959, he said, whether to urban sprawl, federal designation or other causes.
It was because of those problems, Brown said, that he helped spearhead the creation of a program to train Colorado Crisis Services hotline operators on how to talk with farmers about mental health.
“I was concerned that when you call this crisis hotline, that you’ll get somebody that doesn’t speak the foreign language of agriculture,” he said.
The training program was produced by the Department of Agriculture, the Colorado State University Extension, the Colorado Farm Bureau and the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. Organizations such as the CSU Extension office in Montezuma County have been advertising it for several months.
Brown also spent much of his time talking about the positive aspects of agriculture in Colorado, especially on the Western Slope, where he praised farmers for raising crops in a “state of extremes,” between dry desert conditions and severe winter weather. He also praised Hickenlooper for listening to farmers’ concerns during his tenure with the Agriculture Department.
After Brown’s presentation, he discussed some of his points in more detail with the audience. Eric Favier, a peach farmer from Palisade, said he had written a book of guidelines for farmers who want to comply with the new FSMA rules, and asked for Brown’s help in advertising it. Brown said he couldn’t commit to anything immediately, but that he would follow up with Favier on the idea.