By: Catherine Tsai
Debate on the 2012 farm bill will likely include a discussion of whether farmers should keep receiving aid every year or more substantial help when it's needed most, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet said Thursday.
As the federal government tightens its budget, Congress will have to make sure agricultural policy is as efficient as possible, Bennet told about 300 people at the governor's forum on agriculture.
That will require frank discussion on priorities of combating hunger, proper nutrition, agricultural research, renewable energy, and retaining and recruiting the next generation of food producers, he said.
"Our biggest job and obstacle is trying to educate the general public about the importance of agriculture," Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture John Salazar said later.
Salazar, a former congressman, predicted the budget battle in Congress may mean there won't be a new farm bill until 2013.
Salazar was one of five active farmers in the U.S. House, but now just two House members are actively engaged in agriculture, he said.
His department's focus, he said, will be on working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand markets for U.S. food, particularly in Mexico, Korea and Cuba. Currently Canada, Mexico and Japan are the top export markets for Colorado food products.
"Agriculture is going to help Colorado's recovery from the recession," Salazar said.
Colorado had about $1.6 billion in agricultural exports in 2010, and that's projected to grow to $1.8 billion this year, according to the state agriculture department.
U.S. agricultural exports are expected to reach a record $135.5 billion in fiscal 2011, eclipsing the previous record set in 2008 by more than $20 billion, and pushing the agricultural trade surplus to a record $47.5 billion.
"Everybody in agriculture is finding they're more and more dependent on those overseas markets," said Tim Larsen, senior international marketing specialist with the state agriculture department.
For instance, 80 percent of all Colorado wheat is exported, Larsen said. However there are limits on where Colorado potatoes can be sold in Mexico, and apples aren't sold there at all, he said.
Overall, U.S. farm income and exports have been rising in the past two years, but challenges remain, Salazar said.
Young people are finding it difficult to come back to the farm when profit margins are so slim, and the average age of U.S. farmers is around 57, Salazar said.
Meanwhile, the state's budget shortfall is threatening funding for programs, whether it's research on wheat, cattle genetics or disease, Colorado State University President Tony Frank said.
"My worry is the people looking at controlling federal spending don't understand the importance to the future of agriculture," he said.
Gov. John Hickenlooper said his goal is finding other economic drivers in rural areas to balance out the "hard years" in farming. Initiatives include expanding high-speed Internet access and exploring alternative energy.
"Agriculture alone cannot be the sole driver of our rural economy," Bennet said.