Farmer-legislator Sonnenberg teaches his urban cousins at the Gold Dome

State representative is a strong advocate for agriculture

By Jimy Valenti

Welcome to the middle of nowhere,” said Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg from his tractor’s cockpit.

It looks like rain. Clouds are slowly darkening the Eastern Plains sky.

“The only guy I ask for help out here is God,” said Sonnenberg, R-Sterling. “God bails me out on a number of occasions. I’m hoping he will bail me out with a little rain because we’re drying out.”

Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg stands by the tractor he uses on his 2,500 acre wheat farm, which he’s been farming since 1979.
Photo by Jimy Valenti/The Colorado Statesman

Photo by Jimy Valenti/The Colorado Statesman

Sonnenberg’s hands rest on his lap. Guided by GPS, the tractor’s steering wheel bounces back and forth planting perfectly straight rows of wheat. He only has to turn the tractor around at the field’s end before the computer kicks in again.

The Rocky Mountains are nowhere to be seen from the large windows in Sonnenberg’s tractor. The landscape is more Nebraska than Colorado. His 2,500-acre wheat farm and another 2,500-acres of ranch land in Sterling roll on in all directions.

“I’ll sit here in the tractor and think about production and think about policies that could help agriculture and what could hurt agriculture,” said Sonnenberg, who has been farming this land since 1979. “You try to come up with better ideas.”

Last year he sponsored several bills in direct response to problems he and his neighbors run into every day. House Bill 1123 drops arson charges for anyone whose agricultural burn gets out of control, Senate Bill 98 allocates resources to fight noxious weeds on public land and House Bill 1027 is a joint resolution urging Congress to recognize industrial hemp as a valuable agricultural commodity.

However, according to Sonnenberg the toughest issue facing agriculture is one that’s hard to legislate.

“Quite frankly, our biggest obstacle is getting our urban cousins to understand the importance of agriculture and what we do out here,” Sonnenberg said.

A couple generations ago most people had a closer connection to a farm, he explained. Back then it wasn’t uncommon for people to spend a week or two visiting a grandparent or uncle on a farm and they understood the hard work it takes to put food on the table. Sonnenberg said now when there is a salmonella outbreak in eggs people blame the grocery stores and don’t comprehend the entire industry behind their breakfast.

Sonnenberg believes this misunderstanding leads to policies and regulations that hurt his industry. This year House Bill 1195 suspended the state sales tax exemption for storage and use of agricultural compounds used in caring for livestock, semen for agricultural and ranching purposes and pesticides.

“Agriculture was singled out and now pays sales tax on those raw products,” Sonnenberg said. “The chemicals that I spray and the vaccinations for my livestock are now taxed. My expenses went up 2.9 percent.”

Sonnenberg said he understands the state’s fiscal woes, but believes levying additional taxes on agriculture will not improve the state’s coffers. He said farmers in his area are already making the trek to Nebraska to purchase their pesticides and vaccinations. The tax only hurts small co-ops selling those products, he said.

Sonnenberg said Coloradans must understand that a 2.9 percent tax increase amounts to thousands of dollars. He purchased $70,000 worth of chemicals alone last year. His fear is that next session Democrats will eye the sales tax exemption on tractors. He said tractors can run upwards of a half million dollars and a sales tax would drive most tractor sales out-of-state.

Along with many Colorado wheat famers, Sonnenberg had a bumper season this year, primarily due to a wet spring, a Russian drought and increased demand. The last two seasons he saw a profit for the first time in seven years. Sonnenberg said he now has to save enough income to last him for the next seven years.

“It’s nice to actually show a profit for a change,” Sonnenberg said. “I have had two bumper crops in a row and gave a lot of it back in taxes. I would rather have invested that money in a new piece of equipment and helped small businesses out.”

The legislator’s first priority for the 2011 legislative session is overturning HB 1195. He hopes to prove that the increased taxes have not increased state revenue.

“It’s underdog legislation even if the Republicans take control of the House and Senate, but its one that is important to rural Colorado,” Sonnenberg said. “Getting my urban cousins to understand the issue will be a huge task.”

The state capitol can be frustrating. For reprieve, Sonnenberg occasionally drives home to work on the farm the rest of the day. Planting wheat is Sonnenberg’s therapy.

Sonnenberg, 52, was born into the business. He started farming at age 21 and graduated from the Colorado Agriculture and Rural Leadership Program at Colorado State University. His grandfather moved to the area in the early 1900s. His father, himself and his children were all raised in the same modest light blue house.

“My father raised me in that house,” Sonnenberg said. “He knew I’d never move out, so finally he did.”

Water is the new gold
Sonnenberg is also a tireless advocate for water storage projects in the state. He said Colorado allows 500,000 acre feet of water to leave the South Platte River basin each year above Colorado’s compact obligation. This water is unused by Coloradans and flows east into Nebraska and surrounding states.

Sonnenberg would rather see the excess water stored in reservoirs giving cities and farmers the right to use it. He said storage projects would put less pressure on cities to water used by farmers. According to Sonnenberg, the City of Parker has already purchased multiple ditches in his area.

“I don’t care how we do it, but let’s find a way to keep Colorado’s water in Colorado,” Sonnenberg said.

Over 100 years ago the first reservoir and 60 miles of inlets were built in Sterling with horses and wagons to allow farmers access to water that only flowed in the peak snow melt months of May, June and July, noted Sonnenberg. He said the Northern Integrated Supply Project, a controversial proposed water storage project in Northern Colorado, is mired in 20 years of bureaucratic paperwork.

“The only thing the legislature should do is stay out of the road, so you can have those public-private partnerships,” Sonnenberg said. “The NISP is exactly what needs to happen.”

The rural legislator said people opposing water storage facilities built through public-private partnerships are concerned about giving a private company control over water, but he said the water is already flowing out of Colorado everyday. He said opposition also comes from people who want to stop growth along the Front Range.

Sonnenberg is currently unopposed in seeking his third term in the legislature. He was elected to represent HD 65 in 2006 and re-elected in 2008. He said many of his neighbors asked him to be a strong voice for agriculture and rural Coloradans.

“And I accepted,” Sonnenberg said. “I’m thrilled to do it and I love what I’m doing.”