Ag committee members bridge urban vs. rural divide

The Colorado Statesman

Agriculture is Colorado’s number two economic engine, with receipts of more $8 billion in farm and ranch products in 2012. The legislative committee that has the most impact on that industry, the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee, saw some of its greatest turnover ever with the 2013 session, with eight new legislators from both sides of the aisle. None work in the agriculture or livestock industries. That led to concerns about a steep learning curve on agriculture issues for those first-year representatives. Those concerns also played a part in the so-called “urban versus rural” divide that some legislators claim took place at the state capitol.

Ranking Republican member Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, encouraged his colleagues during the session to learn about ag issues and spend time with ag and livestock producers.

In the past month, several members of the committee have done just that, spending time on the farm, learning about the agricultural lifestyle. And while none are employed in agriculture or livestock jobs, several note strong family backgrounds in the industry, or strong interests in the number one issue facing Colorado farmers: water.

State Rep. Paul Rosenthal, D-Denver, visits the Empire Dairy in Wiggins where he got to see the cows in their fiberglass “houses.” The dairy has 5,000 cows.
Photo courtesy of Paul Rosenthal

The committee dealt with a few agriculture bills during the 2013 session; most of the focus, according to both senior and new members, was on water. At least 13 bills on water conservation, water decrees and other water issues went through the committee this year, with a half-dozen coming from the Interim Water Resources Review Committee.

The committee missed out on the most controversial agriculture bill of the session, to ban routine tail-docking of dairy cattle, when it was sent to the House Health, Insurance and Environment Committee. The act of tail-docking is a partial amputation of at least two-thirds of a cow’s tail and the procedure is very painful. The bill, HB 13-1231, would have faced near-certain defeat in the ag committee, although its sponsor, Rep. Steve Lebsock, D-Thornton, is a member of that group. The bill died on the House floor when it became apparent that it didn’t have the votes to pass, an effort marshaled by Sonnenberg.

Sonnenberg said this week that the 2013 ag committee was more about building relationships and helping the committee’s new legislators learn who they could trust on rural issues. “When [the committee started meeting in January] the trust wasn’t there,” Sonnenberg told The Colorado Statesman. “Next year, hopefully the learning curve won’t be so steep.”

Sonnenberg also noted the committee’s focus on water rather than agriculture and livestock issues and theorized it was due to the large number of first-year legislators. But that also may be due to the interests of some of those freshmen legislators, who noted this week their own histories of working on water issues, the “natural resources” side of the committee.

Yet the biggest gap in committee knowledge, Sonnenberg said, is the lack of ties to agriculture. In years past, he said, legislators had family members who still worked on the farm, and that isn’t as common anymore.

Water issues are likely to dominate the committee in 2014, especially the governor’s statewide water plan. “I’m not sure what to make of that yet,” Sonnenberg said this week, and he is concerned that the group developing the plan doesn’t have enough input from the agriculture community. “My fear is that the group wants to tell agriculture how to conserve water so that urban areas can have more water. Agriculture leads the way when it comes to conservation” because it’s expensive for farmers to utilize it.

“It’s a little harder than normal when you have people with no agricultural background,” said Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose. Coram, a rancher, said some new members didn’t understand the background of what it takes to be a farmer or rancher. That meant that some issues that should have come to the committee (like tail-docking), didn’t.

The view of ag committee Vice-Chair Rep. Ed Vigil, D-Alamosa, is that members caught on quick and did the best they could. “It took a lot of time for them to reach out and find out some of the issues, but they did a good job. There’s a lot of learn.” Vigil noted that he mentored some of the new members, including his neighboring district member Rep. Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo.

At least three members of the ag committee’s first-year members have toured farm operations in the past two weeks. On July 19, Rep. Paul Rosenthal, D-Denver, visited the Empire Dairy in Wiggins and the Cooksey wheat farm near Roggen.

“When you’re a city legislator, you don’t see a lot of farms; maybe a vegetable garden at a school,” Rosenthal told The Statesman this week. He said it was good to go to a rural area and see the dairy and wheat operations; it also gave him a chance to talk to the owners about the agriculture issues legislators face, such as water and SB 13-252 on renewable energy standards for rural electric co-operatives.

The visit to the Empire Dairy was happenstance; Rosenthal met the owners, Britt and Norm Dinis, at a fundraiser and they invited him for a visit. That day expanded to include a second visit to the Cooksey farm. Rosenthal said he was impressed with both operations.

At the Empire Dairy, he got to see the magnitude of the operation, which has 5,000 cows and how they are milked, down to being able to tell how the cows are happy. “They don’t teach you that in grad school at DU,” Rosenthal quipped. He explained that he also got to see the cows in their fiberglass “houses” and the huge amount of feed that is needed to feed them every day. Rosenthal also talked with the Dinis’ about immigration issues; he said they’re supportive of immigration reform and want to see a better system of bringing in labor to work on the farms.

At the Cooksey wheat farm, Rosenthal was impressed with the “wide open spaces and huge distances between farms.” He got to see the different kinds of agricultural products produced at the farm and talked with Jerry Cooksey about water and SB 252. Although it was late in the day, he also got to see the harvesting of the wheat and the number of combines running late in the day. What impressed him was not only the very high-tech operation but how hard everyone worked and how late into the evening everyone worked to harvest the wheat.

Rosenthal, a teacher, said he has a business background but had no experience on ag issues. However, he added that he understood some of the ag issues from the business side, such as crop price fluctuations, the price of harvesters, leasing, water, fertilizer and power costs. “But seeing it on the ground helped me to visualize these issues,” which will help him in the next legislative session.

Rosenthal also briefly chatted with the Dinis’ about the tail-docking issue; the Empire Dairy is the only dairy identified during the most recent legislative session as still doing tail-docking on their cows. Rosenthal said he agrees with Lebsock’s perspective on the issue, but said “on the other hand it was good to what a dairy is like and what the cows are like” and to see the environment they are in. Sonnenberg this week lauded Rosenthal for his initiative in learning about agriculture operations.

This week, Reps. Perry Buck, R-Windsor and Lori Saine, R-Longmont, visited a grain mill, although for Buck, an event planner, the experience is much closer to home. Her father, former state representative Bill Webster, operated the Webster Feedlot in Greeley for 30 years. Buck’s brother, Wade, is a medical doctor in Seattle who recently developed a new technology for preventing illnesses in dairy cattle, according to a 2012 report in The Greeley Tribune.

Saine said this week that while her employment background is not in agriculture, she has spent a lot of time talking with farmers in her district. Her background also includes championing the Northern Integrated Supply Project, or NISP, a proposal to provide 40,000 acre feet of new reliable water supply for 15 northern Front Range water partners. “When you talk to farmers, the conversation turns to water and how much you have,” Saine told The Statesman. “It’s important to our economy” and for job creation, she explained. She believes her own learning curve on ag issues was fairly low because of her work on NISP. “I’m not unfamiliar with ag processes” because of NISP and because she worked to educate people about the project. “You can’t know everything” but it’s important to ask the right questions, she added.

For Rep. Mike McLachlan, D-Durango, water also is his reason for being on the ag committee and he noted that his rural district includes three of Colorado’s smallest counties. McLachlan, a Durango attorney, grew up on military bases and said none of his family worked in agriculture. But his law practice has included representing agriculture interests on oil and gas issues as well as land use. To get up to speed on the agriculture committee, McLachlan cited two mentors: former state senators Jim Isgar and Bruce Whitehead. Isgar, who owns a farm in Hesperus, is the state director on rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Whitehead is the executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District.

Getting up to speed on agriculture issues was like “drinking out of a fire hydrant,” even with his own experience in working with farmers and ranchers in his law practice, “It’s been difficult but not impossible,” he said, noting that he also relied on committee chair Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins. McLachlan also said that briefings from Colorado State University on the state of agriculture have been helpful. “It’s a challenge” to have a non-farmer or rancher on the ag committee but there are benefits in other areas, such as water, he added.

Having so many new members has placed more responsibility on the committee’s senior members, like Fischer. He said this week that the knowledge base was there to some extent, but it was up to him and other senior members to get the new legislators up to speed on the committee’s issues. That everyone elected to public office is bright and intelligent and motivated to learn helped in that process, he added.

Fischer noted that he had been mentored as a first-year legislator, and used that experience to help educate the new members for two reasons: things go more smoothly if people are more knowledgeable, and that education helps them make good decisions. “We had a very successful year as a committee,” Fischer said.

The committee continued its practice of holding 7:30 a.m. meetings during the session for the purpose of helping everyone learn about the issues, and that included the presentations from CSU and others in the agriculture industry. He cited a presentation from Kathay Rennels, CSU assistant vice president for community and economic development and leader of the Colorado Agricultural Cluster on the “value chain in the agriculture economy” that Fischer said drew a lot of positive feedback from ag committee members.

Last year, a few members of the committee, then controlled by Republicans, toured a working farm. Fischer said there are no plans at this time for the full committee to do the same, but said that opportunities for such activities are there and he encourages members to take advantage of them. He noted that this week that he and Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, toured a dairy near Wellington but that he had not invited other members of the ag committee to join them. But “that’s the kind of experience that’s valuable.”

Lebsock, who carried the tail-docking bill on behalf of the U.S. Humane Society, most recently worked as a contract specialist for the U.S. Department of the Interior. But he also has a family history in agriculture: his grandfather operated a farm near Sterling that is now run by his uncle; he also said his father works the farm four months of the year.

Marianne@colroadostatesman.com