Farm Bill Looks Past Politics to Help Future Generations of Farmers and Ranchers
Remarks as delivered following Senate passage of the 2018 Farm Bill
A few months ago, I had the chance to go up to the Colorado-Wyoming border to spend a night at the Ladder Ranch. It’s a beautiful property, situated in the Little Snake River Valley. If you were designing a postcard for the American West, you’d struggle to do better than this place.
The ranch is owned by Pat and Sharon O’Toole. It’s been with the family for six generations, dating all the way back to 1881. To give you a sense of how long ago that was, at the time, the state of Colorado was just five years old. The Ottoman Empire was still around.
Our world has transformed since then. But the Ladder Ranch has endured through the Depression, the Dust Bowl, through two World Wars, and the transformation in our economy. And, of course, that didn’t just happen by chance. It happened because the family looked ahead and made hard choices to deliver that ranch from generation to generation. Pat and Sharon are continuing that legacy today, and they’re joined on the ranch by their daughters and their son and a whole bunch of grandkids.
I’m sharing the story of Ladder Ranch, because in many ways, it’s the story of farmers and ranchers across my state and across the country — of people applying their ingenuity and common sense to hand more opportunity to the next generation. And one of the privileges of representing a state like Colorado is that I’ve had the opportunity to learn about places like Ladder Ranch and the legacy every one of our farms and ranches represent.
When I joined the Senate Agriculture Committee, the truth is that I had no idea how hard it can be for our farmers and ranchers. Like many people, I had very little appreciation for where our food comes from, and knowing that, if you’re in agriculture, you can do everything right and still fall behind because of forces beyond your control.
And today, our farmers and ranchers are facing tremendous uncertainty. They’ve got persistent drought and threats of wildfire, which are going worse due to climate change. They’ve got low commodity prices and challenges with finding people that can work because of our immigration debate here in Washington. And now, on top of all of that, they’ve got the confusion of the existing trade policies of the United States.
Two weeks ago, the USDA announced that farm incomes are projected to drop 12 percent this year. When you add it all up — all the uncertainty up, the policy up, the politics up — farm incomes are going to be down 12 percent this year. All of this acts like a weight on our farmers and ranchers, making it even harder for them to pass on the legacy of their work to the next generation.
Earlier this year, our Ag Commissioner in Colorado, Don Brown, who is himself one of the most successful farmers in our state, said, “You’re only 22 once.” And by that he meant, there’s an entire generation out there deciding whether or not to pursue a career on the family farm or ranch. And they’re looking at all this uncertainty, and a lot of them are deciding that it’s not worth it. That’s why the average age of farmers is what it is in the United States.
We owe it to our farmers and ranchers to provide consistency where we can, and to help preserve the legacy of American agriculture for years to come.
By passing the 2018 Farm Bill, that’s exactly what we’ve done.
This bill means more certainty for America’s producers. In this volatile environment, this bill maintains crop insurance and makes risk management tools more effective. Most important to Colorado, this bill helps our farmers and ranchers diversify their operations.
For the first time in over 50 years, because of this Farm Bill, this bill fully legalizes hemp. The Majority Leader was out here earlier. I want to congratulate him on his work to do that. In Colorado, our hemp growers have operated under a cloud of uncertainty for years. Our farmers worried about maintaining access to their water. They couldn’t buy crop insurance or transport seeds. Some ran into red tape opening a bank account or even applying for federal grants.
Despite these challenges, hemp cultivation in my state grew six-fold over the last four years. And again, it’s interesting that the Majority Leader has wanted this as well, because the climate in Kentucky and the climate in Colorado have almost nothing in common, but hemp grows in Kentucky, and it grows in Colorado. And we see hemp as an opportunity to diversify our farms and manufacture high-margin products for the American people. Now, Coloradans will be able grow and manufacture hemp without a cloud of uncertainty hanging over them.
The bill also helps farmers and ranchers hand more opportunity to the next generation. It increases funding for conservation easements and makes it easier for people to secure them. It invests in America’s farm economy to drive innovation in agriculture to keep up our competitiveness in the 21st century. It doubles funding to help communities in places like my state to deal with forest health and protect our watersheds better.
Working with Senator Daines from Montana, we increase funding for wildlife habitat and provide more opportunities for hunting and fishing on private lands. Working with Senator Bozeman from Arkansas to give rural communities new ways to improve housing and infrastructure.
The bill also provides new resources to help farmers and ranchers adapt to major challenges like climate change. For example, it creates tools for farmers and ranchers to sequester carbon, to improve soil health, and become more resilient to drought. And we increase resources in this bill for renewable energy and energy efficiency for rural businesses.
All in all, this 2018 Farm Bill is an excellent piece of legislation. And a lot of credit lies in the approach we took in the Agriculture Committee. It should be like this for all our committees. We don’t have partisan differences. If we have differences, we have regional differences, and we work them out.
And that’s why that Committee, which I’m proud to serve on, is one of the only functioning committees in the Senate. We passed a five-year Farm Bill the last time there was a Farm Bill, not a six-month one, not a six-day one, but a five-year Farm Bill. And this is another one, because Republicans and Democrats both know that we’ve got to support our farmers and ranchers, not create even more uncertainty for them.
The other privilege of being on that committee is that I spend a lot of time in my state in counties where it’s unlikely that I’m ever going to win 10 or 20 percent of the vote. But I keep going back and back, not because I think I’ll win, but because I think that, as a country, we’ve got to find a way to bring ourselves together and solve problems.
Our farmers and ranchers are a model for that. They’re applying their ingenuity to challenges like climate and drought every single day. They don’t have the luxury — and I would say we don’t have the luxury — of pretending that politics is the only thing that matters. They’re focused on delivering their farm or ranch to the next generation and handing them more opportunity, not less. To them, that’s all that matters. And that’s the ethic we should be applying to our national politics.