Perdue in Prospect Valley: State of Ag in Colorado
United States Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue participated in a roundtable discussion at Marc Arnusch Farms in Prospect Valley, Colorado, the same day he signed a disaster declaration for the Western Slope growers who lost an estimated 85 percent of their peach crop. Ag producers from across the state were able to offer Perdue an indication of the state of agriculture.
Perdue said hailing from Georgia, he knows a thing or two about freezing peaches and said the weather remains something out of the control of growers. He also said dry conditions are being reported, as they often are in June and July. In regard to a request for emergency grazing on CRP acres, he said the USDA has been flexible in the past and he sees no reason that trend won’t continue though he couldn’t commit.
As the meat processing and cattle feeding sectors make their way through COVID-19 delays, Perdue said food safety remains a top priority. Some members of Congress, including Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who was present, are examining ways to adjust statutory restrictions for selling meat processed by state inspected facilities. He said the USDA’s FSIS has zero tolerance for food safety issues and selling direct to the consumers via state inspected facilities can pose a traceability challenge if there were a recall, for example. However, he said one item being considered is the overtime provision to help small processing facilities be more efficient to bring local farm to fork opportunities to consumers.
Sen. Cory Gardner said he’s pleased to hear Secretary Perdue considering help for small processing plants, including working with the Food Safety and Inspection Service to ensure inspections. Perdue said it has the potential to be good for producers, rural development and competition.
“If you look at the local processors, they’re booked out to February or March of next year,” Gardner said. “To be able to give them some help and equipment would be a good step forward in providing some competition and opportunities for farmers to join in things like co-ops.”
Perdue said there isn’t currently a timeline available for the release of the findings of the investigation into the big four packers as the USDA is relying on other partners in the federal government and the timing is outside the control of the USDA. Perdue also reiterated his intention to make the findings of the investigation into the Holcomb plant fire public but earlier requests for information that came during the investigation were premature.
Colorado Farm Bureau president Don Shawcroft said during the round table portion of the meeting that there was some concern from growers of specialty crops, namely alfalfa, regarding accessing federal relief dollars. Shawcroft, who lives in the San Luis Valley, said dairy producers are the primary market for the high-quality alfalfa grown in the area. As dairies face low prices, he said they are opting for other feed sources to save on costs and reduce production, leaving alfalfa growers seeking other outlets.
Robert Sakata said keeping employees safe and healthy has been a major concern for him as a specialty crop producer. Perdue said the Centers for Disease Control has invited the USDA to comment on worker safety across agriculture and invited producers to provide information to the USDA to share with the CDC. Perdue said he is proud of the work to secure federal contracts to purchase items, like potatoes, doing so in 30 days rather than the 18 months typical of federal contracts. He also recognized the work of the FSIS and the Farm Service Agency in completing inspections, waivers and processing CARES Act funds.
Bruce Talbott, a peach grower in Palisade, Colo., said this year has been an anomaly. After losing the vast majority of his peaches in a freeze, he had to cancel their H-2A contract for the first time in the history of their participation in the program.
“Labor is so critical,” Talbott said. “The other thing we’re coming into is that’s interesting is the one thing we still have is a fair amount of wine grapes. Because of COVID, many of the wineries have closed or have not been able to do their direct to consumer programs so at the moment we’re looking at about a 25 percent demand on contracts this year compared to what we had last year. Wineries are not sure how long they’ll stay in business and when it comes to wine grapes, there’s only one place they can go — to wineries. They’re full of seeds and skin, you don’t go to fresh market with them.”
Talbott estimated that between wine clubs, tasting rooms, and direct delivery to events is where 75 percent of Colorado’s wine goes, with 95 percent staying in state. Even with alcohol consumption at high levels during the pandemic, Talbott said the craft wines aren’t seeing the uptick in sales compared to the nationally recognized brands and distilled spirits. Talbott’s Mountain Gold Farms produces about 600,000 gallons of sweet cider and 40,000 gallons of hard cider.
Perdue said labor is likely the most common concern he hears. He said the USDA continues to work with the Department of Labor and the Department of Homeland Security to put into place a reasonable process, knowing how onerous the current H-2A program is. He said some progress has been made and they continue to move forward, especially with the cooperation and interest of the National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow pushing for a modernization of the program.
“We can do things a lot better working with other countries to identify and pre-vet people qualified to come rather than getting to the constable and then pushing them away,” Perdue said. “Get a qualified group of people we’d be willing to put some money and education, training, what’s to be expected. Guatemala is doing this already, Mexico is interested, Nicaragua. Hopefully we can get that done. Boy, things move slowly in D.C.”
Jules VanThyune, a Boulder County farmer, expressed the importance of water across the state and the ongoing demand for residential water. He said his water district in Boulder County was sued for imminent domain and condemnation by a special district in Colorado. He said the Federal Real Property Profile program that helped fund the conservation easements on some of his property, the easement deterred action on federal or state government. VanThyune said the case was recently dismissed but could have spelled a loss of up to 3,000 acre-feet of water.
Former Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Don Brown, a farmer and rancher in Yuma County, thanked Perdue for his cabinet selection and recognized that President Trump is the first in recent history to mention agriculture as much as he has, acknowledging Perdue’s role in that.
“When (Trump) started reading about crops being plowed under, milk being dumped, and the potential for animals being euthanized, I got a call at 6 o’clock that morning or something like that saying, ‘What’s going on, is this real, what are we going to do about it, and you better bring me something quick.’ Our guys were already thinking about it and that’s when we developed this Farmers to Families Food Box program.”
Perdue said he’s very concerned about the divergent of prices seen between wholesale beef prices and cattle prices.
“It’s obnoxious to me and we’re continuing to dig down there,” Perdue said. “We saw it first with the Holcomb fire last Labor Day, then it evened out and then as soon as this pandemic started, it just went (up). I’m not alleging criminal activity or collusion, but we’re going to get to the bottom of it.”
Brown said with only four packers, he can’t beat up on their business model but, at the same time, it seems to be working for them. Brown also expressed the need for dryland farming in Yuma County through the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program to reduce irrigation water use to meet the water compact with Kansas.
Melody Villard, a lamb producer from northwest Colorado, said labor continues to be an issue, even with the shepherd exclusion. Predators, she said, are also a continuing threat, compounded by consumers’ lack of understanding of the process from hoof to table and outside pressures from people less versed in agriculture production. Black bear, eagle, mountain lion and wolves are all threats to the lamb and cattle industries in the northwest part of the state.
Sens. Gardner and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., participated in the discussion along with Arnusch, Foye Chapin, and Bob Mative. Perdue’s next stop was packing Farm to Families Food Boxes in Denver.
Mative, a potato grower said one of about every five rows of potatoes is destined for exports and Mexico is a market he said growers hope to expand. Looking broadly at the potato market across the country, he said Colorado growers, all part of a fresh market, were less affected by COVID than growers in the Pacific Northwest who depend upon processing and institutional buyers. He said while they were less affected by price deterioration, the threat looms large as potatoes from other markets potentially can’t be processed and enter the fresh market. He encouraged surplus buying by the federal government.
Perdue said order cancellations will be covered under the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program and another benefit to potato growers is the Farm to Families Food Box Program, all containing potatoes that have been taken off the market. ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (970) 768-0024.