New Colorado ag commission John Salazar hopes to lay groundwork for future
LAKEWOOD – John Salazar was appointed Colorado commissioner of agriculture in early January by Gov. John Hickenlooper, replacing John Stulp, who was named the new governor’s special policy adviser on water and chairman of the Interbasin Compact Committee.
Salazar is a sixth-generation farmer and rancher from southern Colorado, who served in the Colorado General Assembly for two years and spent six years representing Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, where he was a member of the House Agricultural Committee.
The Colorado Department of Agriculture has a proposed 2011-12 budget of $38.7 million, 287 full-time employees and eight divisions – animal industry, brands, Colorado State Fair, commissioner’s office, conservation services, inspection and consumer services, markets, and plant industry.
The Tribune sat down with Salazar at the department to get his views on the job ahead of him.
Tribune – What are your priorities as commissioner of agriculture?
Salazar – Agriculture education is a big priority. One of the things I want to get done is revive the Colorado Agriculture Leadership Forum. I was in Class 3 and my wife (Mary Lou) was in Class 5. Her international trip was to Mexico; I went to the former USSR, in 1989-90, I think. That program was once here in the department, then it was moved to Colorado State. I want to figure out how to raise some funding and get that program started again. We need to develop agriculture leadership in government. There are so many rules and regulations that are made by people, who are certainly well-intended, that know nothing about agriculture. Rules and regulations are made without realizing what the impact may be. We produce the safest food in the world, yet we keep pushing for more regulation. The national identification program is a good example. I think we should keep that in the state system where we can track any animal health issue on a state basis.
Tribune – What made you decide to take this job?
Salazar – Before I lost the last election, I had intended to spend only two more years in Congress. In fact, I had just bought 300 cows for the ranch. My son, Esteban, and I are enlarging our herd, something we are doing together. Then the governor called. He said he really needed someone who knew about agriculture in the state and who could represent rural Colorado. Hickenlooper has done a good job of surrounding himself with one-half Republicans and one-half Democrats and he wants to be known as a Colorado governor and not a Denver governor.
Tribune – What are some challenges and opportunities you see in agriculture?
Salazar – I think there are several opportunities. Agriculture is going to be in very good shape for the next couple of years. In the last two years, we’ve seen an increase, on average, of 29 percent in exports, and for agriculture that has been 76 percent in some cases. That’s because the value of the dollar is so low right now, so there’s a small window of opportunity to try to promote agriculture products. We’ve been working to get San Luis Valley potatoes into Cuba, the Dominican Republic is ripe for the taking, there are opportunities in the Korean market and I’ve been working on the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. They can’t grow potatoes and beef like we can.
There are also challenges, and much of that is the urban/rural split. There are too many urban people who believe their food comes from the supermarket. There are animal rights people out there (who) – while well-intended – don’t view livestock producers as livestock advocates. We have to take care of our livestock in order to stay in business. Sure, there are some bad actors out there, there are bad actors everywhere. We have to take care of those and make our urban cousins realize those actors are in the minority. Second, we have to show people how difficult it is to produce the food they eat. I want to form an advisory group from our many different agriculture industries and develop a task force to advise the ag commission and ag department to help educate the public. We spend – what? – 10-12 percent of our disposable income on food in America. Some countries have to spend 40-60 percent.
Tribune – Water has to be among your priorities.
Salazar – I’ve been involved with water all my life. I served on the Rio Grande Water Conservation District when AWDI (American Water Development Inc.) was trying to take San Luis Valley water out of the valley. We need to find ways to protect water for agriculture production. There’s a lot of new technology coming … but right now most of that is very expensive. However, as long as cities don’t use water to consumption, we can recycle it and use it again and again.
Tribune – The governor has indicated he may be in favor of the Northern Integrated Supply Project in northern Colorado. Where do you stand?
Salazar – I’ve come out in favor of it, but I want to see if it protects water for agriculture. I will support it as long as it doesn’t dry up agriculture. I live and breathe agriculture.
Tribune – Talk about your farming and ranching operation.
Salazar – We live about 40 yards from where my great-grandfather’s original adobe was built in an area called Los Rincones, which means The Corners. It’s outside of Manassa. It’s called Los Rincones because the foothills form corners. The San Antonio River runs right through our farm and ranch. Originally, there were five brothers, but the oldest, Leandro, died in a farming accident in 1992. My wife and I bought out the other brothers after that, but Leroy, who was an agriculture engineer, has been involved in the farm while I was in Congress. We have about 5,400 acres of land we own and lease. We grow Roundup Ready Canola, seed potatoes, hay, wheat and barley for Budweiser and Coors. Esteban and I want to enlarge our cattle herd up to 1,000 head. We are working our way into producing natural beef, which is very labor intensive. We belong to the Sweet Grass Cooperative, which has eight different members in Colorado and New Mexico. Whole Foods wants a steady supply of organic beef and that’s our goal.
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It’s time for Colorado meat producers to throw down the gauntlet.