Colorado’s Commish of Ag is a local grown success

By Marianne Goodland

Dept. of Ag Commissioner John Stulp was looking forward to CSU’s Sept. 21 “Ag Day,” partly to sample the products and to cheer on the CSU Rams football team in their contest with Idaho (he got his wish — the Rams beat Idaho 36-34).

CSU alum Stulp is a Prowers County farmer and rancher; his family’s farm grows hard red winter wheat, raises cattle and is also home to the Lamar Light & Power Wind Farm. He has been the Commissioner of Agriculture since Gov. Bill Ritter appointed him to the job in 2006.

Stulp recently sat down with The Colorado Statesman to discuss the challenges as well as the highlights for Colorado farmers and ranchers and the agriculture industry.

Commissioner of Agriculture John Stulp
Commissioner of Agriculture John Stulp, left, accepts an award from Jeff Goodwin, assistant director, 4-H & Youth Development Programs after being inducted into the Colorado 4-H Hall of Fame earlier this month. Stulp says being involved in 4-H was fun, dynamic and rewarding.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

Colorado agriculture continues to be one of the mainstays of the Colorado economy, Stulp said. It generates $6.2 billion per year in “first point of sale,” and after adding in what farmers and ranchers buy and processing costs, agriculture is a $16 billion to $18 billion industry. “It’s one of the industries that everyone uses, whether they realize it or not,” he said, citing the old bumper-sticker that said, “If you eat, you’re involved in agriculture.”

The past year has been a good one for the wheat crop in terms of yield, Stulp said, pointing out that wheat is getting some of the best prices it’s had in several years. That’s due in part to a drought in Russia, which has banned all grain exports for the foreseeable future, and Stulp said that has created an opportunity for Colorado farmers.

Livestock also is doing reasonably well, but the cost of corn is going up this year, “which makes the corn growers smile and the cattle feeders frown.” Corn prices are on the rise because the crop is smaller due to hail damage.

The toughest part of the agriculture industry in Colorado is in dairy, Stulp said. Colorado has one of the most modern dairy industries in the country, and one of the top two or three in the nation based on average production per cow. “We have a good climate for dairy and livestock production,” Stulp explained, pointing to good quality grain and hay, and good demand for milk. But milk prices are tied to national or global prices, and currently there is an oversupply of milk, which drives down prices. Some farmers are producing milk below the price of production, which isn’t good in the long run, he said. However, the situation is better than it was a year ago, when the dairy industry was impacted by low prices as well as the failure of the New Frontier Bank in northern Colorado.

Potatoes are another agriculture product that does well in Colorado. Prices will be down a bit this year, Stulp said, but the potato farmers are coming off record years in terms of price and production. Colorado potato farmers are likely to benefit from the recent passage of a certified seed bill in the legislature, Stulp said. Those who testified for the bill said it would make it easier for Colorado farmers to export their potatoes to Mexico. Stulp said that probably wouldn’t happen soon for political reasons, but it would help with large U.S. retailers who want a certain quality of seed to be used in growing potatoes.

Agriculture is not a recession-proof industry, Stulp explained. “In spite of the recession, ag continues to spend,” he said. “Producers have no other choice. You can’t flip ag on and off like you do a widget factory and lay-off workers. If you have cows to calve and take care of, it doesn’t matter what they’re worth.” Stulp said ranchers still have to take good care of their livestock and farmers can’t shut down a cornfield in July; they still have to take it to harvest.

As a result, Stulp said agriculture is in a chronic state of recession, but he hinted they also must live in a chronic state of optimism. While farmers tend to be conservative in their spending habits, they have to “hedge” what they do and wait for better times, he said. It’s “the blessing and curse of ag. Farmers and ranchers know the prices will be better next year and it’s going to rain next week.”

Stulp noted farmers and ranchers produce high quality food at an affordable price. He pointed out that in the 1960s people spent about 20 percent of their disposable income on food, and the United States was the envy of the world. Today, he said, it’s 10 percent, and “we’re still the envy of the world.” And the money that doesn’t have to be spent on food goes to improve “quality of life,” such as for bigger homes, cars or for kids to go to college. It bothers him when the price of wheat goes up, and he is asked if the cost of food will go up. Stulp explained that out of every dollar spent on food, 19 percent goes to the farmer who produced it; sometimes the wrapper on the bread cost more than the bread itself. For meat, the rancher may get between 40 and 47 cents on the dollar. Producers would like to have a bigger portion of the retail dollar that consumers spend for meat, Stulp said; it has declined considerably in the last 30 years.

The Department of Agriculture has its own challenges to face, Stulp said. Budget is always at the top of the list. And the department also is dealing with environmental regulations, including new dust restrictions from the Environmental Protection Agency. “There’s not many things we do in agriculture that doesn’t create dust,” Stulp said, “whether you’re planting, cultivating, harvesting or moving cattle, especially in a dry, arid state where we don’t get the rain we’d like.” Stulp said his department is working with the EPA on these issues.

Stulp also is interested in getting more young people into agriculture. He noted that the last census of farms showed the average age of farmers has increased from 55 to 57 years of ago. It shows that young people are not coming into agriculture and the older people are staying in it longer, which he called a “cliff effect.” Stulp said he is working with CSU on an ongoing agriculture literacy project and “ag in the classroom,” to get more education about agriculture opportunities into the schools. But he said it’s tough for young people to get into agriculture for financial reasons. Starting a farm generates high capital costs, and there’s really only two ways to get in, he said: “‘By the womb or by the tomb’ — someone dies and you inherit it or you are borne into it.”

To address the capital issue, Stulp said the department has a beginning farmer program, the Colorado Agricultural Development Authority, where the new farmer can borrow money at an attractive rate. “But you still need help from a friendly banker, willing family or good neighbor to get started on the production side,” Stulp said.

More successful is the effort to get young people into the agribusiness side, where they work for banks, agribusiness companies, agriculture processors of handlers, or chemical and fertilizer companies.

But Stulp said the recent boost in commodity prices has drawn in more young people who are interested in coming back to the farms and ranches. “If we can improve the profitability of agriculture, that has as much to do with it as anything.”