Brown leaves Colorado commissioner of agriculture post
January 11, 2019
Don Brown applied to be the Commissioner of Agriculture in Colorado at the behest of a neighbor in his hometown of Yuma, Colo. He was prepared for the traffic and the demands of the position but said he's looking forward to returning to the family operation, that is, he said, if they'll have him.
Brown's father came to Colorado in 1908 and owned the first circular irrigation sprinkler in Yuma County, an area now known for some of the state's most productive irrigated and dryland farm ground. His family operation, a multigenerational diversified farm and ranch, is typical to some in the area and afforded him a level of familiarity and expertise with much of Colorado's agricultural commodities and the families who produce them.
He admits he had much to learn about the federal lands component in the state. With 36 percent of the state's land owned by the federal government and many livestock operations dependent upon those lands to operate, he learned as much as possible.
"I didn't realize the magnitude of it and the profound effect it has on people," he said. "Every 10 years the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) or Forest Service gets to decide if you get to continue and keep your place."
Brown recognized the lack of federal lands representation for agriculture at the state level and turned the Conservation Services Division to a federal lands focus.
Brown said he never really expected to become the commissioner of agriculture and when he was tapped, the gravity of the job didn't escape him. His term was one filled with trade woes, low commodity prices and a changing state. In response, he partnered with Colorado Farmers' Union, Colorado Farm Bureau, and CSU Cooperative Extension and established a crisis line with an agricultural finance focus, training call center employees about agriculture through five videos. The platform is now being adopted by other states and is open to help producers struggling with emotional and mental stress during challenging times.
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Legislation affected agriculture was often at the forefront as he looked out for the interests of the industry that fewer people understand.
"As commissioner, sometimes it's your job to help legislators understand that the real brand-new idea they have isn't so new and probably won't work, it's been tried before. Some proposed legislation was going to have a very negative effect on agriculture."
One example was the proposed language in a draft of the 811 Call Before You Dig bill that he said was extremely limiting until it was fixed. Brown said it is crucial to educate legislators less familiar with issues as one or two seemingly innocent words can really spell trouble for the industry.
Legislators, he said, were quite willing to listen, once the conversation began, and were open to learning about issues and were cooperative.
"There's no bigger expert than someone who doesn't' do it for a living," he said. "That is the truth and it's not meant to be negative, it applies to everything. At the end of the day you just have to educate. They're good listeners you just had to explain what we're all about."
Likewise, he said Gov. John Hickenlooper allowed him a great deal of latitude in which to operate and allowed him to operate as needed at both a federal and state level.
"He cared deeply about agriculture and told me one time, 'not too bad for a city kid,'" he said. "We were working on a water issue and I said, 'you're right, governor, not too bad for a city kid.'"
Former Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, Brown said, was also an advocate for agriculture and one he appreciated during his time as commissioner. Brown said his staff played a significant role in everything he accomplished and he's appreciative of them as well.
As agriculture in Colorado is affected by the growing urban population and changing consumers, Brown said the tossing around of buzzwords sustainability and conservation was something he found troublesome.
"The implication is that we in agriculture possibly have never thought of that and I think we invented those words," he said. "I think that makes no sense to me. Lots of these operations are 100 years old, if they weren't doing something sustainable, it never would have lasted."
Brown is optimistic about the future of agriculture in Colorado with Denver now in his rear-view mirror.
"We've got an ever-changing world and there's going to be a demand for food," he said. "There's no question about that, humans have to eat."
Agriculture in Colorado is diverse, he said, and the ability of producers to grow many different crops is fortunate. He calls Colorado a beef state, true to tradition, allowing producers to meet protein demands.
"I'm bullish on agriculture, we all are," he said. "We're great 'next year' people. If we weren't, we wouldn't be in the business."
Though the rural communities are far different than Denver, where he lived during his tenure, he said it's the same distance from Yuma as it was when he was a kid. He never let the traffic or distance from the farm and ranch get to him as it was part of the job he knew was so important to so many farm and ranch families like his own.
"It's been a good job," he said. "I don't know what the future holds for us, things are changing but I'm optimistic." ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at email@example.com or (970) 392-4410.