Issue Position: Colorado Agriculture and a Stronger Rural Economy
* I believe that federal agriculture policy should encourage farmers to farm sustainably and promote the development of alternative uses for their crops. We ought to move in the direction of limiting commodity subsidies, but not in a way that breaks family farms.
* The federal government has a role to play in providing opportunities for farmers to use their land and agricultural resources for non-traditional purposes, including energy production.
* We should also support farmers by providing them aid when coping with the extraordinary recovery costs from natural disasters, promoting trade agreements that are fair and enforceable, and instituting Country of Origin Labeling (COOL)
Agriculture is at the heart of American life, affecting our economy, our energy supply, our environment, and the nutritional needs of every citizen on a daily basis. As a former state legislator and friend once told me, "Mark, if you eat, you are in agriculture." Because I eat, and because I have raised teenagers who eat even more, I have always been interested in agriculture policy, and was proud to serve on the House Agriculture Committee.
Early in my service, I was proud to have the Denver Post's endorsement for my own farm bill. In 2002, I introduced the Family Farm and Ranch Innovation Act which would have directed federal aid to small farmers and ranchers who developed plans to protect the environmental quality of their land. After criticizing the 2002 Farm Bill as, going "boldly beyond the failed policies of the past to create the failed policies of the future," the Denver Post described my legislation as a wise way to "help protect the environmental quality of farming and ranching operations by minimizing the production of pollutants and conserving the land and other natural resources used in agriculture." The editorial went on to endorse the legislation as a "basic reform that would marry the interests of farmers, ranchers and the environment."
I believe we must take a comprehensive approach to supporting our farmers. Federal agriculture policy should encourage farmers to farm sustainably and promote the development of alternative uses for their crops. We ought to move in the direction of limiting commodity subsidies, but not in a way that breaks family farms. At the federal level, we must provide aid to farmers in the wake of natural disasters, and we should promote our products with trade agreements that are fair and enforceable. I am also a strong supporter of "origin of food" labeling.
Despite severe criticism, I supported the 2007 Farm Bill, in part, because I believe it is necessary for us to enact comprehensive legislation that aids farmers in achieving the goal of sustainability. Unlike the 2002 Farm Bill, the 2007 Farm Bill increased spending for conservation programs by 32% and nutritional programs by 45%; and the bill also finally cuts back on unfair commodity subsidies. In other words, the new bill is much friendlier to family farms and smaller producers. It also strikes the right balance in terms of income stability for farmers and recognition that farming, like any other large business enterprise, requires significant capital investments.
I also support improving the Conservation Security and Conservation Reserve Programs, both of which were developed to help farmers maintain the environmental integrity of their land. The Conservation Security Program (CSP) provides assistance to farmers to promote conservation practices on private working lands. For many farmers, the program is essential to their ability to consider conservation alternatives. CSP is underfunded and is stifled under a restriction preventing additional farmers from entering the program until 2012. Unless modified, this restriction guarantees that the program will continue to be under-utilized through 2012.
Alternatively, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) allows the Department of Agriculture to rent land from farmers so that the farmers can afford not to farm. Unlike farm owners who rent their land privately, the rental payments paid by the Department of Agriculture are taxable under at the Self-Employment Tax rate. To remedy this discrepancy between privately rented land and land rented by the Department of Agriculture, I introduced H.R. 2659, the Conservation Reserve Program Tax Fairness Act of 2007. If passed, the legislation will eliminate the application of the Self Employment Tax rate on CRP rental payments.
While environmental conservation must be a priority, I believe it is my responsibility as a law-maker to make sure that the environmental regulations and restrictions placed on farmers make sense. That is why I am a cosponsor of the Agricultural Protection and Prosperity Act of 2007 (H.R. 1398). Currently, farmers can be held liable under the federal Superfund law for contamination resulting from cow manure. This legislation would remove cow manure from the federal list of hazardous substances and eliminate the possibility that farmers could be held liable under the law.
The federal government also has a role to play in providing opportunities for farmers to use their land and agricultural resources for non-traditional purposes. One promising alternative use for agricultural products is to produce energy. In 1999, I introduced the Biomass Research and Development Act. This legislation was modeled closely after a bill Senator Lugar (R-IN) introduced, and created new programs in the Departments of Energy and Agriculture that would develop and promote the use of biofuels. Senator Lugar and I worked together to pass the bill as part of larger agriculture legislation in 2000. I was also pleased to see that the 2007 Farm Bill provided increased incentives for the use of agricultural products towards alternative fuels by improving the Rural Energy for America program and the Bioenergy Program. Finally, in the last two Congresses, I have introduced the Healthy Farms, Foods, and Fuels Act which, in addition to helping farmers participate in conservation programs and land restoration projects, would offer grants for renewable energy use.
A comprehensive approach to agricultural policy includes aiding farmers who face extraordinary recovery costs from natural disasters. There are instances where farmers are in need of federal disaster assistance. After the devastating blizzards of 2006 and 2007, I was part of the bipartisan effort, made by the Colorado Congressional Delegation, responsible for persuading congressional leadership to include agricultural disaster assistance in emergency appropriations legislation. These funds helped to alleviate significant local economic costs to our agricultural communities in Southeast Colorado. I will continue to work to ensure that farmers have the aid they need to recover from natural disasters.
Our agricultural community would also benefit from the institution of Country of Origin Labeling (COOL). COOL will enable Americans to make informed choices when they purchase agricultural products. American farmers produce the highest quality food in the world, based on the highest standards in the international agricultural community. A bill requiring the labeling of fruit, vegetables, and meat products passed Congress in 2002. Unfortunately, Congress failed to fully fund and implement the bill. However, the 2007 Farm Bill contained language requiring full implementation of COOL by 2008. I am hopeful that this important program will find continued support in the Congress and the necessary support from the administration so that our farmers and ranchers get the credit they deserve for delivering a superior product.
Colorado's rural communities are under deep economic and social pressure. Agriculture policy is only one area of concern. I invite you to review other topics on this website that address some of the other issues facing rural communities.