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All Coloradans have a stake in the outcome of the next Farm Bill

A farm in Julesburg, Colorado shows a snow covered hay field with farmhouses and barns in the background.
Rae Solomon
The Farm Bill affects what producers grow on farm like this one, outside of Julesburg, Colorado on December 30, 2022, through spending programs. The Farm Bill's influence is much broader and impacts the entire food system, from producers to eaters and everyone in between.

The Farm Bill, a massive federal spending package that comes up for renewal about every five years, is up for negotiation again in Washington D.C. While the legislation occurs at the federal level, Coloradans will feel the effects of the spending in and outside of agricultural communities. Much of the spending is directed toward farmers and farm programs, it also represents an opportunity to shape broad food system policy for the next half decade, which impacts the nation as a whole.

The last time Congress debated a Farm Bill – back in 2018 – the entire package totaled about $428 billion. That bill expires in September and lawmakers in Washington, D.C. are now negotiating a new 2023 Farm Bill.

The Farm Bill might be a complex piece of legislation now, but it grew out of a simple immediate need for direct assistance to farmers during the Great Depression. The first Farm Bill programs “started in the 1930s during the Dust Bowl,” said author Daniel Imhoff, who has written extensively about the Farm Bill, “We had a real crisis of climate and agriculture and the soil was blowing away and farmers really needed to change their practices. They also needed a lot of economic assistance.”

Dust Bowl Farm in Texas
Dorothea Lange
Library of Congress
A farm in Dalhart, Texas during the Dust Bowl Era shows crops dying in dusty, dry earth that was constantly blowing away. The climate issues of that era created a need for the Farm Bill.

Since then, the bill has grown in size and complexity and now it covers twelve funding categories, including commodity crops and crop insurance subsidies, as well as forestry, energy, conservation, research, rural development and beyond. In fact, the biggest share in recent years has gone to nutrition assistance and hunger-fighting programs like SNAP, or food stamps, which accounts for 75-80 percent all 2018 Farm Bill dollars.

That broad scope of funding is why Imhoff likes to describe the Farm Bill as legislation with near universal impact. “It's a story where you pull the string and you find practically the whole world attached to it,” he said.

“If you care about wildlife, if you care about freshwater, if you care about nutrition assistance, and whether or not we're going to even have healthy soil and viable agriculture and rural communities to grow our food in the next 20 years, whether you're concerned about climate change and its impact on our ability to grow food and sustain ourselves – this is all related to the Farm Bill,” Imhoff said.

The Farm Bill and Colorado

This year, Colorado has solid representation at the Farm Bill negotiating table. Senator Michael Bennet sits on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. Congresswoman Yadira Caraveo, who represents Colorado’s new 8th Congressional District, which includes Greeley, serves on the House Committee on Agriculture. Both lawmakers are directly involved in negotiating the 2023 Farm Bill, making it more likely that Colorado’s priorities will help shape it.

Both Bennet and Caraveo, and some other lawmakers who aren’t on either agriculture committee, have been going around the state, listening to constituents to learn about their Farm Bill priorities.

Lawmaker's listen to local priorities

At a recent Farm Bill listening session at Colorado State University that was held by Congressman Joe Neguse, Rocky mountain Farmers Union Director Dan Waldvogle, talked about the need for more support for family farms in the next Farm bill.

All of it comes down to increasing viability for family farms and ranches,” Waldvogle said, adding that he wants to make sure “that the folks that are producing our food - if it's ag workers, if it's farmers and ranchers - that they're able to make a modest income and cover the costs of that production.”

Congressman Joe Neguse held a Farm Bill listening session at Colorado State University on April 14, 2023. Farmers and ranchers came to tell the congressman about their priorities for the 2023 farm bill, as did nutrition and anti-hunger advocates, foresters and researchers. The Farm Bill funds all of those interests and more.
Rae Solomon
Congressman Joe Neguse held a Farm Bill listening session at Colorado State University on April 14, 2023. Farmers and ranchers came to tell the congressman about their priorities for the 2023 farm bill, as did nutrition and anti-hunger advocates, foresters and researchers. The Farm Bill funds all of those interests and more.

Waldvogle said that means creating a strong safety net for family farmers, including basics like crop insurance and health care. But he says a holistic farmer safety net means increasing investments in conservation programming that helps farmers move towards climate-smart agriculture“to mitigate the harmful effects of human caused climate disruption,” he said.

“[It’s] something we don’t necessarily always think of as a safety net, but in a lot of ways really is - thinking about practices that we can help people adopt that's going to make them more resilient to erratic weather, to drought,” Waldvogle said.

Meanwhile, Dr. Kim Stackhouse Lawson, director of CSU’s AgNext program is hoping to get Farm Bill funding for her research into mitigating methane emissions from livestock.

“We're asking for funds to better understand baseline emissions,” Stackhouse Lawson said. “Our research is exceptionally expensive to conduct because we're measuring gas molecules from cows. That equipment is very expensive. I think it's certainly worthy of the Farm Bill. “

Nutrition assistance was also a priority. Food Bbank for Larimer County CEO Amy Pezzani said her charity relies on the nutrition title of the food bill – in particular SNAP, also known as food stamps.

“For every meal that the Food Bank network can provide, SNAP can provide nine. It is an incredibly effective and beneficial program to Americans who are facing food insecurity.”

Pezzani said she wants to see the Emergency Food Assistance Program grow to keep up with increasing need. She was also there to make sure the SNAP program remains robust, and wants to see SNAP benefits taper off more gradually as income rises.

State Forester Matt McCombs, came to the event to advocate for much needed resources for state and tribal nurseries, where trees are grown that will eventually reforest Colorado’s wildfire scars.

Grace Hood
Evidence one year after a 2012 wildfire in High Park, a well-defined burn scar marks the landscape in the mountains west of Fort Collins in Larimer County, Colo. State foresters are asking lawmakers to create resources and funding to replace trees lost to wildfires.

If you think about the Cameron Peak fire or the East Troublesome Fire or the Grizzly Creek Fire there in Glenwood Canyon, all of those landscapes are in desperate need of reforestation,” McCombs said. “The current capacity doesn’t come anywhere near the demand.” He hopes Farm Bill funding earmarked for forestry projects can change that.

The 2023 Farm Bill is expected to pass by the end of September.

I am the Rural and Small Communities Reporter at KUNC. That means my focus is building relationships and telling stories from under-covered pockets of Colorado.
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