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Ag commissioner meets with committees of House and Senate PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marianne Goodland, Legislative reporter   
New Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar had his first meeting last week with the agriculture committees of the House and Senate, and the former congressman reminded legislators of his background as a state legislator and lifelong farmer (seed potatoes, alfalfa) and rancher (cattle).

Salazar, of Manassa, served in the General Assembly from 2003-2004 and was a member of the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee.

“My goals with the administration, and the governor has made it clear, to ensure that rural Colorado is heard,” Salazar told the committee during the Jan. 19 meeting.

Noting farm income and exports have been up in the last two years, Salazar said, “We have a window of opportunity to promote agricultural products. There is nothing more beautiful than rural Colorado.”

Tom Lipetzky, the department’s chief operating and financial officer, briefed the committee on the department and the state of agriculture in Colorado.

Based on USDA data, agriculture generates $28 billion in economic activity and supports 110,000 jobs. That includes 37,000 farms and ranches throughout the state. But about 54 percent of those farms and ranches generate less than $10,000 per year in sales, Lipetzky said, and 15 percent generate more than $100,000 per year in sales.

Livestock sales make up the largest share of cash receipts, with 58 percent, or $3.3 billion in sales; crops generate another $2.3 billion annually.

The state is a national leader in barley, cantaloupe, lettuce, potatoes, sweet corn and winter wheat and is the nation’s top producer of millet, Lipetzky said. It also is a leader in the number of cattle and lambs fed, meat processing technology and animal welfare, and Colorado is the number one state for beer brewing.

Exports topped $1.6 billion last year, going to customers in 99 countries, with beef as the top ag export for the state at $550 million and in 2011 estimated to rise to $600 million. Lipetzky said that’s due to increased demand through trade agreements with Korea and new and expanded access in Japan and China.

A growing market in Colorado is agritourism, Lipetzky reported. Nearly 700 farms in Colorado offer agritourism and related recreational activities, which generated $30 million in sales, and the state’s wine industry brought in another $50 million.

As to the jobs that come from ag, Lipetzky said in more than half of Colorado’s counties, one in 10 jobs come from ag. In 13 of the state’s counties, it’s one in three. The two top counties for ag-related jobs, with more than 50 percent of the jobs in ag, are Washington and Kiowa counties.

Last year, the department surveyed industry leaders on challenges and opportunities in ag. The top challenge, cited by 37 percent of respondents, is water, which included concerns about multi-state compacts and diversion for non-ag uses.

Environmental policy was second on the list. Among their top three concerns, industry leaders cited input costs and prices; increased regulations, taxes and fees; and the loss of ag lands to development.

Industry leaders cited new markets, trade and global growth as the greatest opportunity for Colorado ag in the 2010 survey. They also rated highly ag-based renewable energy development, the local foods movement and leadership and policy from the department that is more supportive of agriculture.

In the year ahead, based on economic forecasts, Lipetzky estimated total farm and ranch receipts will grow slightly but more than total expenses, resulting in a gain in net income. “Ag has the potential to begin to lead the state into its recovery from the economic recession,” he said.

The department of agriculture’s budget for 2011-12 is $38.7 million, with 74 percent of that coming from cash funds—the fees charged for permits and inspections. Another 13 percent, or about $5 million, comes from the state’s general fund, which includes personal and corporate income tax and sales and use taxes.

The department has increasingly relied on cash funds for its operating budget; during the past decade its general fund support has dropped by more than half, although its overall budget has grown by about $9 million in that same period. For the state’s second-largest economy, the department receives the second-least amount of general fund support, Salazar said.

Legislators peppered the ag officials with questions. Rep. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, asked where ag ranks in the state’s industries and found out it comes in second or third, depending on cash receipts and prices.

The department lists among its highest priorities in the coming year promotion of agriculture, especially overseas; and getting people to understand the importance of agriculture, especially those in urban areas. Salazar pointed out the 2008 federal farm bill, which he co-authored, included research and development and marketing access for specialty crops. The CDA has very little discretionary funding for marketing purposes, Lipetzky said, and Salazar said he hoped legislators would help the department identify funding for marketing programs.

As to water issues, Salazar said he will be a strong proponent of keeping water on agricultural land and protecting the state’s water rights, although water issues fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Natural Resources. He also noted Gov. John Hickenlooper had tapped former ag commissioner John Stulp to be the state’s water czar.

“If people have a better understanding” of what makes rural and urban communities work, “there can be greater understanding of working together” on water, Salazar said. “We can’t destroy one area of the state to build another.”

Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, pointed out ag expenses are up, especially in energy. In addition, farmers and ranchers are getting older, and the state needs to encourage young people into agriculture. He also said the state needs to be mindful of the unintended consequences of mandates for renewable energy, which he said drives up costs; the 2010 repeal of tax exemptions for agricultural compounds; and restrictions on multiple uses for federal lands, such as for drilling and grazing.

“I’m with you on almost every single issue,” Salazar replied, except for renewable energy. Agricultural can be a big part of the renewable energy sector, he said, adding he believed the high cost of energy triggered the last recession, such as for diesel. He also said the energy industry had been successful in dividing the agricultural industry, pitting commodities against livestock. “We have to stay together,” he said.

Salazar’s new job still awaits Senate confirmation with a hearing date set for Jan. 26. And on the subject of water and other related issues, the joint agriculture committees met with Mike King, executive director of the Department of Natural Resources, also on Jan. 26.

Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg is the chair of the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee. Sen. Greg Brophy is a member of Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.