Supporting our farmers and ranchers through a voluntary soil health program
The proposed “Voluntary Soil Health Program,” (HB21-1181), would empower the Colorado Department of Agriculture to develop voluntary, incentivized programs for Colorado farmers and ranchers that will support the vitality of agriculture statewide. This bipartisan legislation, HB21-1181, was introduced by State Reps. Karen McCormick, D-Longmont, and Perry Will, R-New Castle,and State Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa.
As a longtime farmer and rancher involved with the Prowers Conservation District and who cares about Colorado agriculture and rural communities, I fully support this legislation and encourage others to study and support it as well.
No sector of our economy is more vulnerable to the unpredictable economic climate, weather extremes including drought, dwindling water supplies, and development pressures. These constraints have and are likely to become more extreme, and HB21-1181 can help Colorado farmers and ranchers continue their long legacy of land and soil stewardship that have helped them withstand these pressures to date.
The experience of farmers and ranchers in Colorado and nationwide — and research by Colorado State University scientists — shows that adopting best soil health practices can reduce input costs and at the same time improve soil productivity, drought resilience and, ultimately, increase long-term viability. For these reasons, farmers and ranchers are increasingly adopting best management practices. From 2012 to 2017 in Colorado: No-till acreage increased 5.0%; reduced till acreage increased 38.4%; and traditional “intensive tillage” land management decreased by 21.3%. Over half of the 12,407 Colorado livestock operations practiced adaptive grazing management in 2017.
Nonetheless, farmers and ranchers face barriers to adopting soil health practices. Investing in soil health means upfront costs, but long-term benefits. Additional funding, technical assistance and educational opportunities are needed. Colorado conservation districts have a great history of soil stewardship, but they often have insufficient resources to meet farmers and ranchers needs. Likewise, USDA NRCS programs are competitive and do not fully meet farmers and ranchers needs.
HB21-1181 would help fill those gaps. The voluntary soil health program would complement USDA NRCS programs and help farmers and ranchers better access those resources. The USDA is indicating that soil health is a high priority, and this legislation will position Colorado to better access those federal resources. It would also provide additional resources to conservation districts and counties who want to work with producers on soil health. Programs would also help farmers and ranchers enter established, as well as new and emerging, markets for alternative crops and crops grown using best soil health practices.
HB21-1181 is the result of a multi-year stakeholder process involving Colorado farmers, ranchers, producer groups, scientists, and conservation districts. This bill explicitly prohibits CDA from implementing any type of program that is mandatory or involuntary. To ensure that new programming works for farmers and ranchers, the bill establishes a state soil health advisory committee to develop voluntary and incentives-based programs based on the needs of the agricultural community. These include a grant program, a reduced cost soil health testing program, and other programs supported by the agricultural community.
Most of Colorado land — 51.8 million acres, or 78% — is used for some form of agricultural production. This bill will help keep that land in agriculture. The benefits of these programs will not only go to farmers and ranchers but will have a positive impact on our rural communities and be enjoyed for generations to come. Healthy soil is one of the most practical and available tools for farmers and ranchers to enhance their long-term viability. HB21-1181 will help ensure that resources are available to every Colorado farmer and rancher, regardless of size, who wants to improve their soil health.
I urge everyone who is concerned about the future of Colorado’s agriculture and rural communities to contact your representative and senator in the Colorado General Assembly and encourage them to support this common-sense legislation.
-Stulp is the former commissioner of agriculture under Gov. Bill Ritter, water policy adviser to Gov. John Hickenlooper and a wheat and cattle farmer/rancher in Prowers County.
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