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Colo. Sen. Bennet: Agriculture key to rural development

Bill Jackson Greeley, Colo.

GREELEY – Preserving a viable agricultural industry is the key to helping rural development in northern Colorado, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet was told Monday morning.

Bennet, a Democrat from Denver, met with about a dozen small-business representatives and government officials at a roundtable discussion at the Greeley City Hall, 1000 10th St., where he sought ideas for rural job creation and economic growth. It was one of several roundtable discussions he’s conducted around the state.

The past 10 years, he said, has been described as the “lost decade” due to the recession and many of the state’s working families being unable to keep up with economic growth that preceded the recession.

“We cannot have one more lost decade in the United States,” Bennet said in opening remarks.

Much of the discussion then centered around the Greeley Clean Energy Park, which is about to go into its second phase of planning, and the struggles facing agriculture, mainly the dairy industry.

The energy park’s first goal is to build a digester near the site of the new Leprino Foods cheese plant. Symbios Technologies LLC of Fort Collins is working with the city to develop the park, which also involves Leprino Foods and JBS USA. The digester would utilize animal waste from JBS – up to 20-25 semi-truck loads per day – and other livestock feedlots to generate energy. Over a 10-15 year period, the park could result in a $500 million project, said Justin Bzdek, president and CEO of Symbios. The project also includes a 71-acre solar field, south of the Greeley-Weld Airport.

Bruce Biggi, economic development manager for the city of Greeley, said the second phase of the project should start in the next couple of months. In response to a question from Bennet, Biggi said the Leprino Foods cheese plant is still on the drawing board, but instead of coming on line in 2011, it will probably be 2012.

“They have been affected by the economy as has everyone else,” Biggi said.

Meanwhile, John Slutsky, who operates a dairy near Wellington, north of Fort Collins, said small towns such as Wellington have not been able to handle growth that well, mainly because it and others like it cannot afford a planner.

“But agriculture is still the backbone of our community,” he said, adding projects like the Greeley Clean Energy Park is an example of how a city and agriculture can work together.

In responding to a Bennet question, Slutsky said the state’s dairy industry continues to lose $2 on every 100 pounds of milk produced, and said even those on solid footing have lost a lot of their equity. He said the only way improvement will come will be to find ways to increase consumption and to have the federal government support milk exports.

Weld Commissioners Barbara Kirkmeyer and Doug Rademacher also told Bennet that federal regulations are making it tough on U.S. agriculture.

Rademacher specifically noted that that clean water and clean air requirements either imposed or being considered for agriculture is also detrimental. “The cost of meeting those regulations is getting difficult,” said Rademacher, who farms in southwest Weld.

Mike Flesher, a senior vice president with Mountain Plains Farm Credit Services, said that organization has suffered along with the rest of agriculture.

“Our customers have looked at losses for 18 months or so that have been so enormous it’s going to take a long, long time to recover,” he said.


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