At the table or on the menu: Donovan hears frustration from ag producers
Kerry Donovan-D, Edwards, Colo., who is the chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Energy, has been leaning into the state’s agriculture community prior to the start of the legislative session.
Donovan met with a small group in Yuma, Colo., in the machine shed at former agriculture commissioner Don Brown’s farm last week. Donovan said Brown’s operation, like most agriculture operations, uses precision, technology, research, and science to adjust soil amendments to the inch, capitalize upon genetic potential in livestock, and increase efficiency through the use of GPS and even drones. This, she said, is a far cry from the stereotypical image of a farmer in the mind’s eye of some consumers. While none of this may surprise those involved in agriculture, she said now is an excellent time to remind consumers that agriculture is important to everyone across the state and not partisan.
Donovan said she recognizes and appreciates the situation ag producers find themselves in, due in part to the nature of commodity sales and being “price takers” and a host of other influences including government regulations that aren’t well thought out.
“I think the big message from the producers is that it’s increasingly hard to be a producer in agriculture and it can be hard for different reasons,” she said. “It’s always been hard and now it’s been harder to figure out how you, as a price taker, are going to survive another generation.”
NO SEAT AT THE TABLE
Kenny Rogers, a cattle producer from Yuma told Donovan agriculture producers have always had a seat at the table, and now, he said, they’re not even in the room. Jeff Rice of the Sterling Journal Advocate reported that Donovan called Brown for guidance as she prepares for her second year chairing the committee. Brown gathered former state senator and agriculture commissioner Don Ament, Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R- Sterling, former Yuma County commissioner Dean Wingfield, representatives from Western Sugar and Smithfield Foods, Rogers, and his wife, Jody, a member of the Great Outdoors Colorado board of directors.
Rice reported that a central figure in Tuesday’s discussion was Gov. Jared Polis, who is viewed by many rural Coloradans as being indifferent to production agriculture, if not downright hostile. The consensus was that niche farming — hemp, marijuana, lavender and other specialty crops — are being emphasized by the Polis administration while traditional agriculture is virtually ignored. Rogers said his organization has been virtually shut out and he is frustrated with the lack of communication from Colorado Agriculture Commissioner Kate Greenberg’s agriculture department.
“The folks that sat around the table at Commissioner Brown’s said they want to be part of the solution, they want to be part of the solution forming, but it no longer seems like our voice is valued in the policy process or that their voice is valued at our state’s capitol,” Donovan said. “No matter who the group is, they should feel like they have a voice at the capitol. Maybe they won’t get everything they want, but they should have a voice. Then you add the importance of agriculture to our state — the communities, the revenue, the heritage — and then you take what is a critical identity of Colorado and they tell me they don’t feel welcome at our own capitol, that’s tough to hear.”
Commissioner Greenberg said she continues to work with major ag organizations and producers, alike.
“The Colorado Department of Agriculture is here to serve all of Colorado agriculture,” she said. “As has been true since my first day on the job, I have an open-door policy as commissioner, and I have set that same expectation for all our staff. I invite anyone to reach out to me directly or anyone on our team at (303) 869-9000, or you can email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to continuing the strong partnerships we have built with organizations that represent our state’s producers as we work to collectively strengthen Colorado’s greatest industry: agriculture.”
REGULATIONS AND LAWS
Though Donovan is an agriculture producer herself, she admits her operation is different than the large-scale operations in other parts of the state. She said as she has spoken to producers around the state and across the spectrum of commodities, the feedback offered has been grounded in real life application of regulations and laws. Potato growers who have fields in more than one county, she said, are deeply affected when counties pursue different pesticide regulations.
“I think people assume producers will say we don’t want you to regulate pesticides, but no, no, no, there’s so much more,” she said. “It’s always more thoughtful. I don’t think ag is anti-regulation though they are anti-regulations that don’t make sense.”
She said she isn’t certain what legislation to expect this year with the Biden administration though she said she’s relieved to see Tom Vilsack likely at the reins of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, saying he will be a strong voice for agriculture. She said it is yet to be seen what a Green New Deal might mean for agriculture and it could result in large investments in the coal communities of her district. If done thoughtfully with the local voices being heard, she said, it could be helpful.
Donovan also hosted a virtual meeting with leaders and researchers from Colorado State University, including President Joyce E. McConnell.
Tony Frank, PhD, chancellor, Colorado State University; James Pritchett, PhD, Dean, College of Agricultural Sciences; Ajay Mennon, president/CEO, Colorado State University Research Foundation; Jan Leach, University Distinguished Professor, Agricultural Biology; Gene Kelly, deputy director, Agricultural Experiment Station and professor of Soil Science; Keith Belk, department head Animal Sciences and Monfort Chair for Meat Science; Amy Charkowksi, department head, Agricultural Biology; and Maria Fernandez-Gimenez, professor of Rangeland Ecology and Management.
Donovan told the group a concern she hears repeatedly from the agriculture community is the growing urban and rural divide and the legislation penned by people who lack the understanding of the industry, resulting in regulations she said just don’t make sense on the ground.
Fernandez-Gimenez said drought and water concerns often plague the state be it from urbanization and “buy and dry” deals affecting communities, or drought conditions that affect yields and range conditions. She said there are opportunities presented by the meeting of rural and urban cultures in the state and a number of shared goals between the two.
Other conversations centered around the science and research regarding climate change, soil health and economic development.
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