As a former state legislator and friend once told me, "Mark, if you eat, you're in agriculture." Truer words were never spoken, and I have always kept them in mind. From orchards on the Western Slope to dairies in Morgan County, our farms and ranches are a critical part of Colorado's economy and identity. As a member of the House of Representatives, I served on the Agriculture Committee, where I worked across party lines to develop sustainable and innovative policies that help keep our rural communities strong. And as a United States Senator, I will continue to work with members of both parties to stand up for the people in Colorado who produce our nation's food and fiber.
Colorado's rural communities face serious challenges as a result of a tough economy and low commodity prices. I've made it a priority to encourage rural economic growth and to work to expand the markets available to our state's farmers. I was also proud to play a leadership role in negotiating the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which President Obama signed in 2009. The bill has already directed support and investments to Colorado's rural communities through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other federal government agencies, while creating local jobs and helping state, local, and tribal governments meet critical needs.
I'm particularly concerned that during these difficult times, farmers and ranchers have struggled to get access to credit they rely on to make it through the planting season or to care for livestock. I am particularly pleased that the Recovery Act included funding for the Farm Service Agency (FSA) to provide direct farm operating loans for family farmers and ranchers who can't get commercial credit from a bank, Farm Credit System institution, or other lender.
There is no question that we need to continue to improve credit availability to qualified farmers and ranchers and expand the markets available to them. FSA is in a unique position to help as a lender of last resort in the agricultural community and I have fought for additional funds for the FSA loan program. In the spring of 2009, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack agreed to transfer funds within the agency's budget to make additional agricultural loans available to qualified farmers. Additionally, after a request by myself and Senator Bennet, the emergency supplemental appropriations bill passed by Congress increased the overall pot of money for FSA loans in Fiscal Year 2009. I have continued to advocate for this program by supporting adequate funding in the 2010 Fiscal Year.
Most recently, I introduced the Small Business Lending Enhancement Act to increase access to credit union loans and grow our nation's small businesses. If we're going to rebuild our economy and create new American jobs, we have to unlock the credit market.
These changes are going to be a lifeline for the agricultural community in Colorado, and I will continue working to unfreeze credit markets and identify new opportunities for rural Colorado.
Federal Disaster Assistance
Wildfires, blizzards, and drought are annual threats for farmers and ranchers in Colorado, and they have endured devastating natural disasters in recent years. It is in our nation's best interests to help them rebound.
I believe that disaster relief should be there when our agricultural community needs it most. Considering disaster relief for farmers on a case-by-case basis, as our government has for many years, is inefficient at best. That's why 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 peace of mind for farmers, this disaster relief fund has the potential to lower the cost of food by speeding up compensation for lost crops and allowing farmers to bring new crops to market sooner.
I will continue to support necessary disaster assistance so that our farmers and ranchers can recover quickly and so we can keep Colorado's rural communities strong.
Conservation and Keeping Farming Land in Agriculture
Farming and ranching are a critical part of our heritage, our landscape, and our economy in Colorado and in the West. And I am a longtime supporter of efforts to help farmers and ranchers maintain the environmental integrity of their land. As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, I voted against the 2002 Farm Bill, partly because it failed to support this goal, leaving farmers and ranchers who 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 vastly superior to the version put forth in 2002, and it includes critical provisions that will help Colorado's farmers, especially those who grow potatoes, peaches and other fruits and vegetables. And that's why I joined with my colleagues in Congress last year to override President Bush's veto and make it law. The 2008 Farm Bill placed a fresh new emphasis on conservation and nutrition programs, which will help 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 2008 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 the 2008 Farm Bill, and is still in need of a fix. Under the CRP, the U.S. 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 percent. 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. As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, I introduced the Conservation Reserve Program Tax Fairness Act to address the problem. My bill would eliminate the self-employment taxes on CRP rental payments so that farmers interested in preserving their land would 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, and I will continue to work to implement these necessary changes for all participants.
Renewable Energy and Agriculture
Bioenergy made from farmers' 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 farm families can afford to stay on their land.
In 1999, during my first term in the U.S. House of Representatives, I introduced the Biomass Research and Development Act. Modeled closely on a bill introduced by Republican Senator Richard Lugar, this legislation created new programs in the U.S. Departments of Energy and Agriculture to 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 believe biomass can provide an important energy source as we strive to transition away from our dependence on foreign oil.
I was pleased to see that these goals were also included in the 2008 Farm Bill, which expanded the "Rural Energy for America Program" and the "Bioenergy Program," both of which make our farmers a key part of our effort to become energy independent.
In the 108th and 109th 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. I am proud that many of these objectives were also included in the 2008 Farm Bill, including a production tax credit for cellulosic biofuels, which can come from agricultural waste, wood chips, switchgrass, 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)
I believe that when you shop at the grocery store, you should be able to see where the meat, fruits, and vegetables you buy were grown. After all, you can look on the label to learn that your shirt was made in China - you ought to be able to get the same information about your food. Country-of-origin labeling (COOL) enables consumers to make those informed choices about the food they eat.
In 2002, Congress passed legislation requiring fruits, vegetables and meat products to be labeled with country-of-origin information. Congress was late, however, in fulfilling the goals of this legislation, and failed to fully fund and implement COOL. Fortunately, the 2008 Farm Bill requires full implementation. I am glad that this important program is now in place so that farmers and ranchers get the credit they deserve from American consumers for delivering a superior product.
More recently, Canada and Mexico challenged the United States' ability to implement COOL at the World Trade Organization (WTO). In response to this effort, I asked Agriculture Secretary Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk to support implementation of COOL as intended in the 2008 Farm Bill.
It is my hope that implementation of this consumer-friendly labeling program continues without unwarranted delay.