Issue Position: Agriculture
As a former state legislator and friend once told me, "Mark, if you eat, you are in agriculture." Truer words were never spoken and I have always tried to keep them in mind.
Agriculture is both a lifeblood for Colorado's rural economy and a way of life for the families who pioneered our great state. One can hardly imagine the Western Slope without its orchards or Greeley without its famous stockyards, and keeping our farming and ranching communities vibrant is essential to Colorado's economy and identity. As a former Member of the House Agriculture Committee, I have worked hard to promote sustainable and innovative agricultural policies designed to keep our farming and ranching communities strong.
Federal Disaster Assistance
From wildfires to blizzards to droughts, Colorado has had its share of natural disasters in recent years. Our farmers and ranchers often face a terrible burden in the wake of these natural disasters, and it is in all of our best interests to help.
When several thousand head of livestock were killed in the blizzards of late 2006 and early 2007, I joined a bipartisan effort with the Colorado Congressional Delegation to support Governor Bill Ritter's request for disaster assistance funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Unfortunately the Department was unable to fund this request, but in the spring of 2007 we were able to persuade congressional leadership to include agricultural disaster assistance in emergency appropriations legislation.
As we have seen, approaching the issue of disaster relief for farmers on an ad hoc basis is an inefficient exercise. I supported the creation of a dedicated disaster relief trust fund in the 2008 Farm Bill to streamline compensation for farmers who lose their crops to a natural disaster. In addition to providing piece of mind for farmers, this disaster relief fund has the potential to lower future grocery prices by speeding up compensation for lost crops and allowing farmers to bring new crops to market sooner.
As new challenges arise and Colorado deals with future natural disasters, I will continue to support necessary disaster assistance so that our agricultural communities can recover quickly.
Conservation and Keeping Farming Land in Agriculture
I have long been a supporter of efforts to help farmers and ranchers maintain the environmental integrity of their land. I voted against the 2002 Farm Bill in part because it failed to support this goal, leaving farmers and ranchers that wanted to conserve the soil, water, and wildlife resources on their land without crucial support to help them do so. The 2008 Farm Bill, while imperfect, is far superior to the version put forth in 2002, and I was pleased to join with my colleagues in Congress to override a Presidential veto and make it law. In addition to cutting back on unfair commodity subsidies, the 2008 Farm Bill placed a fresh new emphasis on conservation and nutrition programs. This new ordering of priorities helps farmers and ranchers keep their land in agriculture.
The Conservation Security Program (CSP) which provides important financial and technical assistance to promote conservation practices on private working lands, was expanded in the new Farm Bill. The CSP was created in the 2002 Farm Bill, but was hampered by inadequate funding. The 2008 Farm Bill provides more than $1 billion in new funding for the CSP, allowing for the enrollment of nearly 13 million acres per year.
Another important program -- the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) - was unfortunately scaled back in scope by the 2008 Farm Bill, and is still in need of a fix. Under the CRP, the Department of Agriculture makes rental payments to farmers in exchange for an agreement to not farm their land, and these payments are taxable as self-employment income at a rate of 15.3%. This is in contrast to farm owners who rent their land privately and pay no self-employment taxes because their rental income is viewed as a return on the equity value of the land. I believe that this policy is inequitable and ultimately creates a disincentive for farmers to participate in the program.
To remedy this problem I introduced H.R. 2659, the Conservation Reserve Program Tax Fairness Act of 2007. If enacted, H.R. 2659 will eliminate the self-employment taxes on CRP rental payments so that farmers interested in preserving their land will no longer bear a unique tax burden for doing so. This issue was partially addressed in the 2008 Farm Bill by exempting participating farmers who receive social security, retirement or disability benefits from having to pay the self-employment tax, but I will continue to work to implement these necessary changes for all participants.
Renewable Energy and Agriculture
Bioenergy made from plants and crops and energy harnessed from the wind holds exceptional promise for farmers and ranchers looking for potential new markets. While many people will benefit indirectly from the clean air, energy security and economic growth generated by wind power development and bioenergy, farmers can benefit directly. Renewable energy production can provide an important economic boost to farmers and may be the only way some farm families can stay on their land.
Back in 1999, I introduced the Biomass Research and Development Act, a bill that was modeled closely on a bill Senator Lugar introduced. This legislation created new programs in the Departments of Energy and Agriculture that would develop and promote the use of biofuels. Sen. Lugar and I worked together to pass the bill as part of larger agriculture legislation in 2000. I believe biomass can provide an important energy source as we strive to meet the goal of transitioning away from our dependence on foreign oil.
I was pleased to see that these goals were also included in the Farm Bill Congress passed this year, which expanded the "Rural Energy for America Program" and the "Bioenergy Program," both of which help our farmers play a larger role in helping America become less dependent on foreign sources of energy.
In the last two Congresses I authored 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. Many of these objectives were included in the new Farm Bill, including a production tax credit for cellulosic biofuels, which can come from agricultural waste, wood chips, switch grass, and other non-food feedstocks.
Our farmers already provide the backbone for keeping Americans healthy and I believe they can play an equally important role in developing a new sustainable energy economy.
Country of Origin Labeling (COOL)
Country-of-origin labeling lets the American people know where the meat, fruits and vegetables they are purchasing in the grocery store come from. This is not a new idea. If you look at the labels on your shirts or neckties, you can tell where they were made. The same is true for most of what we use in our daily lives. American consumers want labeling because it gives us an advantage as consumers to make informed choices.
We produce the highest quality food in the world because we have the highest standards and our farmers and ranchers out-produce their global competition. Without full implementation of country-of-origin labeling, the American people won't be able to choose U.S.-grown beef or U.S.-produced beef products. And cattle producers won't have an additional marketing tool to promote their excellent products.
In 2002, Congress passed legislation requiring that fruits, vegetables and meat products must be labeled with country-of-origin information. Congress was late, however, in fulfilling the goals of this legislation, by failing to fully fund and implement COOL. Fortunately, the new Farm Bill contains language mandating full implementation of COOL by September 30, 2008. I am glad that this important program will be implemented so that our farmers and ranchers get the credit they deserve from American consumers for delivering a superior product.