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Revitalizing rural communities

By John Stencel

One or more years of the worst drought in history, several years of low commodity prices, increasing urbanization, long-term water problems. . . . . Conditions in rural Colorado could not be worse.

Farmers have been affected by low yields and have had to sell off livestock. The resulting shortage of cash and the inability or unwillingness of producers to obtain credit has devastated the rural infrastructure, from implement dealers and fertilizer companies to public school budgets and local diners.

Rocky Mountain Farmers Union will continue to work on a number of fronts toward solutions.

An allocation of emergency disaster assistance is vital to the survival of many of the state’s producers. Although a bill was passed in the U.S. Senate to allocate nearly $6 billion for losses in 2001-02, and a similar bill was introduced in the U.S. House, it has not been a priority for Congress. Although he may have softened somewhat, President George Bush at one time said he would veto any allocation that was not offset by the farm bill budget.

Although Farmers Union will be pushing Congress to pass this legislation before year end, suffice it to say that an emergency allocation for farmers and ranchers is not high on the congressional priority list. Another area in which Rocky Mountain Farmers Union is working is that of economic and cooperative development. I recently spent two days at a meeting of the Ogallala Commons Project, where representatives from a variety of sectors, including farmers, economic developers, educators, cooperative directors and bankers, met in eastern Colorado to discuss ways to keep rural communities viable. All recognized the dire economic realities facing rural communities, yet all felt strongly that rural communities had to be saved and strengthened.

The key to revitalizing rural America is identifying and marketing existing resources. In the case of one producer from south central Colorado, this means using byproducts of one enterprise to enrich another. This producer raises fish and alligators for meat. He gets heated water from the hydroelectric plant, but does not use nearly all of what is available. He would like to see the water, which is rich in minerals, used to irrigate vegetable fields in the summer and to irrigate and heat greenhouses in the winter. He currently buys fish food from out of state, but would like to see local oilseed producers invest in the machinery necessary to produce the feed locally.

Other ideas ran the gamut from direct marketing of agricultural products to historical restoration that generates tourism dollars. The answers to rural Colorado’s economic woes are not easy, and not every idea will become a successful enterprise, but there is no doubt we will have to begin to think and plan this way if we are to survive.

The Ogallala Commons Project is a wonderful think-tank that will likely emerge into some type of umbrella organization that will help rural communities come up with socially and environmentally sustainable enterprises and provide the know-how and other resources to increase the likelihood of their success. A steering committee is currently forming. Anyone interested in this sort of project is invited to call Rocky Mountain Farmers Union at 303-752-5800.