By Kathy Bedell, © Saguache Today
“The farmers and ranchers of Colorado wrote enormous parts of this legislation,” stated Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet as the passage of the final 2018 Farm Bill jumped another hurdle earlier this month. “What passed today is a reflection of their priorities,” he added.
Earlier this week, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 reached the finish line by making it into the law books with President Trump’s signature on December 20, 2018.
So what’s in it for local farmers and ranchers? For that, Saguache Today turns to Senator Bennet who is a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry and Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Conservation, Forestry, and Natural Resources. He is also one of the authors of the successful legislation.
Included below is an outline of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018’s priorities as well as some pointed comments from Senator Bennet’s speech from the Senate floor the day the legislation made its mark on Congress. So, if your business or organization’s project crosses paths with the mountains, the fields, the forests, or the streams, take note, because it’s not ALL politics in DC, something actually got done this month.
“When I joined the Senate Agriculture Committee, the truth is that I had no idea how hard it can be for our farmers and ranchers. Like many people, I had very little appreciation for where our food comes from, and knowing that, if you’re in agriculture, you can do everything right and still fall behind because of forces beyond your control” – Colorado Senator Michael Bennet.
When it comes to conserving land, water, and wildlife and adapting to climate change, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 will have impacts in the following areas:
• Drought Resilience: provides new tools for producers to mitigate drought and conserve water in the West; funds the Watershed Act (“PL-566”) to support off-farm water infrastructure projects in western watersheds and waives duplicative planning requirements.
• Soil Health: creates a pilot program to increase the amount of carbon stored in soil and improve soil health; ensures the pilot prioritizes drought-prone areas and evaluates economic outcomes.
• Healthy Habitat and Rangelands: improves access to conservation planning, rewards grazing practices that promote drought resilience, soil health, and wildfire management, and directs more conservation funding towards wildlife habitat improvements.
• Conservation Easements: increases funding for agricultural conservation easements and makes it easier for western landowners to pass their land on to the next generation.
• Outdoor Recreation: reauthorizes and increases funding for the Voluntary Public Access program to improve habitat and provide access to hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation on private lands.
• Data for Drought Monitoring: improves the data used for drought monitoring to provide disaster assistance to livestock producers and mitigate economic the effects of climate change.
“In the Senate Agriculture Committee, we don’t have partisan differences—we have regional differences that we resolve. That’s because farmers and ranchers don’t have the luxury of pretending politics is the only thing that matters. They’re focused on handing the next generation more opportunity. That’s what this bill does.” – CO Senator Michael Bennet.
The 2018 Farm Law will improve forest and watershed health in the following manners:
• Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program: doubles funding for community driven, science-based forest management, which has a proven record of success.
• Flexible Partnerships Act: provides rural communities an avenue to engage with the Forest Service to lease unused facilities to address housing, infrastructure, and other needs.
• Forest Health: improves good neighbor authority and continues Bennet’s insect and disease treatment program, both of which were established in the 2014 Farm Bill and modified in the 2018 Omnibus, to expedite hazardous fuel reduction projects.
• Watershed Health: includes a new Water Source Protection Program to support innovative forest health partnerships; authorizes the Forest Service to evaluate the condition of our watersheds to prioritize forest restoration efforts and monitor their effectiveness.
• Wildfire Protection: establishes a pilot program to protect utility infrastructure from passing wildfires by encouraging vegetation management on Forest Service land.
• Small Tracts Act: expands the Forest Service’s authority to protect high-priority lands and promote efficient land management.
• National Forest Foundation: reauthorizes the National Forest Foundation (NFF), a key partner in Colorado, through 2023 to support conservation and stewardship projects.
• West Fork Fire Station Act: provides Dolores County land for the construction of a new fire station along the West Fork of the Dolores River, where wildfires pose a growing threat to homeowners.
“And today, our farmers and ranchers are facing tremendous uncertainty. They’ve got persistent drought and threats of wildfire, which are going worse due to climate change. They’ve got low commodity prices and challenges with finding people that can work because of our immigration debate here in Washington. And now, on top of all of that, they’ve got the confusion of the existing trade policies of the United States.”
“Two weeks ago, the USDA announced that farm incomes are projected to drop 12 percent this year. When you add it all up – all the uncertainty up, the policy up, the politics up – farm incomes are going to be down 12 percent this year. All of this acts like a weight on our farmers and ranchers, making it even harder for them to pass on the legacy of their work to the next generation.” – Colorado Senator Michael Bennet
Portions of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 specifically address expanding economic opportunities, both for those already making the grade, as well as encouraging younger generations or businesspersons to get into the agriculture game.
• Hemp Agriculture: legalizes hemp as an agriculture commodity, providing certainty and economic opportunity for Colorado, including the ability to access crop insurance and federal grants.
• Rural Broadband: increases funding 14-fold for loans and grants to extend broadband service to high-need rural areas.
• Farmer and Rancher Stress: reauthorizes the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network to assist states and nonprofits that establish helplines, suicide prevention training, and support groups.
• Food Waste: requires a study to identify opportunities to reduce waste and improve farm income.
• Data for Disaster Assistance: encourages the USDA to consult with the bison industry to use the best available market value data for the Livestock Indemnity Program.
• Research Advances: prioritizes USDA research to improve hop plant health and the use of big data for precision management of dryland farming.
“Earlier this year, our Ag Commissioner in Colorado, Don Brown, who is himself one of the most successful farmers in our state, said, “You’re only 22 once.” And by that he meant, there’s an entire generation out there deciding whether or not to pursue a career on the family farm or ranch. And they’re looking at all this uncertainty, and a lot of them are deciding that it’s not worth it. That’s why the average age of farmers is what it is in the United States. We owe it to our farmers and ranchers to provide consistency where we can, and to help preserve the legacy of American agriculture for years to come.” – Colorado Senator Michael Bennet
And finally with an eye to the future, when it comes to reducing carbon pollution and increasing energy security, here are the ways the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 will have an impact:
• Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency: provides $625 million to increase renewable energy and energy efficiency in rural communities.
• Energy Storage: makes energy storage technologies eligible for USDA Rural Energy for American Program funding and financing.
• Carbon Capture and Utilization: establishes a new $10 million program to provide technical assistance to rural communities investing in carbon capture projects.
• Biogas Technologies and Clean Energy: promotes the use of biogas technologies to reduce carbon emissions in rural communities.
• Cyber and Grid Security: ensures cybersecurity and grid improvement projects are eligible for $5 billion in USDA Rural Utility Service loans.
• More Effective Clean Energy Funding: allows the U.S. Department of Energy to provide technical assistance to the USDA to increase the utilization of USDA loans for rural energy systems.
• New Research for Carbon Utilization: allows carbon dioxide created during a biobased production that is permanently sequestered or utilized to be eligible for Biomass Research and Development.
“All in all, this 2018 Farm Bill is an excellent piece of legislation. And a lot of credit lies in the approach we took in the Agriculture Committee. It should be like this for all our committees. We don’t have partisan differences. If we have differences, we have regional differences, and we work them out.”
“And that’s why that Committee, which I’m proud to serve on, is one of the only functioning committees in the Senate. We passed a five-year Farm Bill the last time there was a Farm Bill, not a six-month one, not a six-day one, but a five-year Farm Bill. And this is another one, because Republicans and Democrats both know that we’ve got to support our farmers and ranchers, not create even more uncertainty for them.”
“The other privilege of being on that committee is that I spend a lot of time in my state in counties where it’s unlikely that I’m ever going to win 10 or 20 percent of the vote. But I keep going back and back, not because I think I’ll win, but because I think that, as a country, we’ve got to find a way to bring ourselves together and solve problems.”
“Our farmers and ranchers are a model for that. They’re applying their ingenuity to challenges like climate and drought every single day. They don’t have the luxury – and I would say we don’t have the luxury – of pretending that politics is the only thing that matters. They’re focused on delivering their farm or ranch to the next generation and handing them more opportunity, not less. To them, that’s all that matters. And that’s the ethic we should be applying to our national politics.” – Colorado Senator Michael Bennet
Journalist Kathy Bedell owns The Great Pumpkin, LLC a digital media company located in Leadville, Colorado which publishes Leadville Today and Saguache Today.