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A ‘state of agriculture’ address

By John Stencel

January is the month for state of the state (in Colorado) and the state of the union (in Washington, D.C.) addresses. On behalf of producers in the Rocky Mountain region, I would like to use this column to offer the “state of agriculture.”

Colorado’s economy is expected to make a modest rebound in 2003. Unfortunately, production agriculture is not likely to be among the sectors posting gains. Before you dismiss this article as a “feel sorry for the poor farmer” piece, keep in mind that agriculture is the second largest industry in Colorado and the largest in Wyoming.

Even if you don’t care about the job farmers and ranchers do to retain rural landscapes and open spaces, and even if it’s not important to you that locally-grown food is vital to U.S. food security, you should be interested in the state of agriculture from the viewpoint of its impact on the local, state and national economies.

It’s like this: The student who always scores A’s on his homework, but cannot do better than a C on tests cannot expect more than a B for his final grade. In the same way, if one sector of the economy is flourishing, but another sector is falling behind, the overall economic performance is mediocre. Production agriculturists are falling behind for a number of reasons over which they have no control. The incomes of producers in the Rocky Mountain region have been decimated by the worst drought in recorded history. Crop yields were a fraction of what they normally are and fully one-half of the Colorado cattle herd has been liquidated. An estimated 30-40 percent of Colorado family farmers and ranchers will go out of business in 2003 if they do not get emergency disaster funding. Even with funding, it may be too late for some operators.

Coupled with the drought are commodity prices that have remained virtually unchanged over the past several decades. When adjusted for inflation, the prices farmers are receiving are considerably less than they were 20 years ago, while input, land and other costs have risen. Even one with no empathy for the producer’s plight can see that the farm sector’s disposable dollars are shrinking.

Communities that depend greatly on agriculture are currently experiencing a very rapid decline. Directly related businesses, such as implement dealers, along with restaurants and other commerce are closing shop. Banks are in trouble, whether or not their portfolios include agricultural lending. Schools and other government services are being forced to drastically reduce budgets due to the decrease in tax revenue.

If help is not forthcoming, many rural citizens—farmers and non-farmers—could be forced to move to metropolitan areas to find work. In addition, there will be an increase in the demand for social services, such as unemployment, Medicaid and food stamps. None of this bodes well for the economic recovery for which we all are working and hoping.

Despite the jeopardized condition of the agricultural economy, President George Bush failed to address it in his multi-billion dollar economic recovery plan.

I see three immediate things that need to be done to start production agriculture on the road to recovery. First, we need to lean heavily on Washington, D.C., to pass emergency disaster assistance and to do it soon. Second, we need to thoughtfully debate and make policies in regard to water usage and storage facilities that will be good for urbanites and rural citizens alike. For example, why not fund building of multiple, small-sized water storage facilities high in the mountains? These could be used for recreation, city water supplies and farm irrigation. Thirdly, as state governments, we need to establish programs that promote family farm and ranch agriculture and land stewardship instead of taking it for granted.