Senator Michael Bennet made stops in Montrose, Olathe and Delta on Friday, en route to Club 20 meetings in Grand Junction.
His stop in Delta was devoted to a Farm Bill listening session -- the third stop he's made here for the same reason since taking office.
The Farm Bill governs our national food and farm policy, including crop insurance, nutrition and conservation, and is typically reauthorized every five years. Lawmakers in the House and Senate agriculture committees are beginning to develop the next Farm Bill, before the current measure expires in late 2018.
Bennet, a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, said the Senate is committed to a bipartisan Farm Bill.
The panel discussion in Delta featured Bennet; Tom Kay, producer and president of the Delta Conservation District; Erik Glenn, executive director of the Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust; Robbie LeValley, Delta County administrator; and Scott Armentrout, GMUG forest supervisor.
John Harold, Olathe Sweet™ sweet corn producer, introduced the senator, saying, "If ever there was a friend in agriculture, Senator Bennet is a friend that all of agriculture needs."
Present for the discussion were cattle ranchers, orchardists, organic growers and sweet corn producers. Local agriculture is as diverse as the landscape of Delta County, LeValley noted.
Exports, transportation and water emerged as issues of critical interest.
Regarding trade negotiations with Canada, Mexico, China and Europe, Senator Bennet cautioned that agriculture will be a casualty in any trade war. He asked for help in getting the Republicans to tone down the rhetoric in the nation's capital. Continued access to export markets is critical for all producers. As an example, Bennet noted that 80 percent of the wheat grown in Colorado is currently exported.
John Harold highlighted the problem with transportation, saying the new electronic logging devices proposed by the Department of Transportation may work for a shipment of paper towels, but not for sweet corn that's harvested, cooled, shipped and ready to go within hours. Livestock shipments pose similar challenges, said rancher Dixie Luke. Harold said the "clock" shouldn't start ticking until the trucks are loaded and ready to hit the road.
On the topic of water, Bennet was encouraged to maintain funding for EQIP, a federal program that supports irrigation improvement efficiencies through the Farm Bill-funded National Resources Conservation Service. In light of current drought conditions, Tom Kay said there's been an increase in demand for irrigation improvements locally. He applauded Bennet for his commitment to funding for that program, as well as creating critical conservation areas, which led to the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP).
Hemp, a crop that's gaining traction on the Western Slope, should be addressed in the Farm Bill, Bennet was told. "That's all farming to me, and that's all good," said Kay.
Conservation easements, value-added food production, climate change and crop insurance were touched upon briefly. More comments were directed to staffing concerns at NRCS on both the local and state level. The senator said he's heard similar comments elsewhere in the state, but not to the extent voiced in Delta, where it's feared the office will be consolidated in Montrose.
Funding for the U.S. Forest Service is also included in the Farm Bill. Bennet announced a "victory" nine years in the making -- more money for the U.S. Forest Service to fight fires, which will free up more money for prevention efforts.
Armentrout noted that almost all the water used to irrigate crops originates on national forests, so the USFS plays a critical role in feeding people.
He discussed forest health challenges, and explained how GMUG used the Good Neighbor Authority -- a bill sponsored by Bennet -- to expand sales of diseased and downed trees in the GMUG with the state's assistance.