It's no secret to anyone involved in agriculture production that making a living from farming and ranching is no easy business. Even with improved production and prices, rising expenses make turning a profit difficult.
In fact, the spread between what farmers get for their production and what consumers pay is actually widening. There are a number of other troubling trends for small farmers and ranchers who are struggling to stay on the land.
In 1987, there were 2.3 million farms. Ten years later, there were 2 million farms, and that number is decreasing every year.
In 1980, farmers received 37 cents of every consumer dollar spent on food. Today farmers receive just 23 cents.
Another sometimes overlooked problem is the small number of new farmers. At no other point in the history of U.S. agriculture have we faced such a wide generational gap in farm participants. Twenty-five percent of all farmers are 65 years of age and older. Nearly half of all farmers are over age 55, while just 8 percent are under age 35.
America's land base is being concentrated into fewer and fewer owners. Corporate farms make up only six percent of farmers but they take 60 percent of all farm receipts. In Colorado, 87 farms out of a total of 29,000 farms produce more than one-half of the state's agricultural products.
The trends are clear. The big operations are getting bigger and small farmers are often struggling or getting out altogether.
But farming is not just about making a living. It's about a way of living. Farm families are trying to find ways to maximize farm income in order to stay on the farm and in their rural communities because that is where they want to work and live and raise their children. It will be very difficult for rural communities to survive if they lose their remaining farm families.
Keeping our nation's small farmers and ranchers on the land
Earlier this year I introduced legislation designed to keep our nation's small farmers and ranchers on the land and in their communities.
My bill, "The Family Farm and Ranch Innovation Act", directs the Small Business Administration to define small farms and ranches as small businesses and guarantee them SBA loans to develop Agricultural Innovation Plans.
These plans would be developed by the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service at the request of the farmer or rancher, and would aim at increasing on-farm or on-ranch income by improving management practices, implementing value-added initiatives, diversifying crops or livestock, and stimulating agri-tourism.
The plans would also protect the environmental quality of the farm or ranch by minimizing the production of pollutants and conserving natural resources.
I am working to add more cosponsors to the bill, and I'm hopeful that my colleagues on the House Agriculture Committee will work with me to move this legislation along.
The Conservation Reserve Program
I voted against the last Farm Bill because the vast majority of the money the government will pay out doesn't go to help family farmers, but to increase the profits of big agricultural companies who can then use the subsidy payments to buy up smaller farms.
But now that it's the law, I believe the Farm Bill should be properly funded. That simply has not happened. A good case in point is what has happened to conservation programs, including the Conservation Security Program, or CSP.
This program benefits farmers who want to conserve the soil, water, and wildlife resources on their lands. It rewards them for taking proper care of their land to prevent erosion and to help keep the land fertile.
Although the program was supported by Congress and passed into law with the 2002 Farm Bill, the Majority Party in the House decided not to fund it. Failure to fund this critical new program would be a significant setback for America's farmers and I joined a number of my colleagues in sending a letter to the Speaker of the House asking the Republican leadership to adopt the Senate funding level for CSP. I was pleased that funding levels that Congress provided were restored in the 2004 Omnibus Spending bill. However, by severely limiting eligibility for the new program to a few watersheds, the Bush Administration has made it impossible for thousands of farmers to participate.
I believe this Administration should keep its eye on the long-term promise of this program and produce a final rule and the trained staff to deliver the program nationwide in accordance with the law.
Country of Origin Labeling (COOL)
Another contentious issue facing negotiators on this year's agriculture spending bill was whether to fund a law requiring that meat be labeled with its country of origin. Country-of-origin labeling lets the American people know where the meat and 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. Americans want labeling because it gives us an advantage as consumers to make informed choices.
Congress passed legislation saying that fruits and vegetables and meat and meat products must be labeled with country-of-origin information. But the House of Representatives has cut all funding for implementing the labeling of meat and meat products in large part because of heavy lobbying from the largest packers, processors, wholesalers and retailers.
We produce the highest quality food in the world because we have the highest standards and we demand conformance to those standards. 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.
I strongly support country-of-origin labeling laws and believe the American people have the right to know where their meat and meat products come from. But the Bush Administration supports the House position and even though a number of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle support COOL, it's unlikely that COOL will be funded as long as the Administration remains opposed.
Renewable Energy and Agriculture
Bioenergy made from plants and crops and energy harnessed from the wind hold 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 farmers can stay on their land.
This is also an idea that I've been excited about for some time. For instance, in the goal of transitioning U.S. dependence on overseas petroleum to home-grown solutions, I believe biomass can provide many answers.
Back in 1999, I introduced the Biomass Research and Development Act, a bill that was modeled closely on a bill Sen. Lugar introduced. Sen. Lugar and I worked together to pass the bill as part of larger agriculture legislation in 2000.
One of the areas of research in the bill is cellulosic conversion. We're now able to convert not only the starch element of corn, but nearly any cellulosic residues into ethanol.
This is particularly interesting for Colorado, where our farms produce agricultural residues of all kinds - from corn stover to sugar cane bagasse to hog waste.
We are making technology advances in bioenergy thanks to research being conducted at universities nationwide and at our federal laboratories, such as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory right here in Colorado.
An exciting area of research focused on maximizing the value of biomass is the "biorefinery concept."
Biorefineries can process a single or small number of biomass feed stocks into a wide range of useable bioenergy and bio-based products. In other words, one could put something like corn stover into one end of the plant, and end up with ethanol, chemicals, and power production at the other. Companies in the U.S. are making strides to build and operate plants that can manufacture a variety of high-value products from residues.
The Denver Post reported recently on how some of these bio-based products are being used. Wild Oats stores are now packaging their to-go food in clear, biodegradable containers made of corn-resin. This is a win-win proposition - a win for farmers who grow the corn, and a win for the environment, which benefits because manufacturing the containers requires between 20 to 50 percent less petroleum and generates up to 60 percent less greenhouse gases.
Energy from wind is another opportunity for farmers on the eastern plains of Colorado and I am facilitating meetings between agriculture producers and energy companies and cooperatives to discuss ways that farmers and farm cooperatives can benefit directly from producing wind energy for customers across Colorado.
By utilizing agricultural residues for bioenergy production and helping farmers and farm cooperatives build their own wind farms, we can help our farmers, improve our economy, and transition to a cleaner, more sustainable environment.
Packer Concentration and Vertical Integration
I know that many farmers and ranchers in Colorado are concerned about packer concentration and vertical integration. Packer concentration was front and center during the last Farm Bill debate, but it appears to have been put on the back-burner until country-of-origin labeling regulations are worked out at USDA and the funding issues are settled.
In the United States, 80 percent of the beef sold is processed by four packing companies. These four companies wield enormous power. While small family ranches and farms are struggling to stay afloat, the big packers have posted record profits. According to USDA date, in 1975 cattlemen, including producers and feeders, received 65 percent of the retail beef dollar. in 2001, cattlemen only received 40 percent.
Horizontal and vertical integration have tipped the balance of market power in favor of major meatpacking firms at the expense of family-sized livestock producers. These same large meat packers and agribusinesses successfully lobbied House conferees to strip provisions to prohibit packer ownership of livestock from the final version of the 2002 Farm Bill. This is an important issue to family farmers and I will continue to work with cattle producers to make sure that livestock markets are more competitive.