Sen. Michael Bennet: Farm Bill success is great for Colorado

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Finally, a Farm Bill.

Congress, after months of prolonged bickering turned into years of unnecessary gridlock, is finally on the verge of passing a full, long-term farm bill. That means strengthened conservation programs, additional resources for managing our forests, funding for rural communities, improvements for rural energy efficiency and needed stability for our farmers and ranchers.

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U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet

During the past several years, we’ve heard one unified message from Colorado’s rural communities — give us certainty. From Fox Ranch in Joes to Talbott Farms in Palisade, our rural communities wanted to know what was taking Congress so long.

The Senate actually was able to pass a bipartisan version of the bill as early as June 2012. But unfortunately, with that bill lodged in the House of Representatives, significant farm programs were allowed to expire in October. After muddling through a short-term extension, the House finally acted, and both bodies and parties came together to work out the differences to agree on a final bill.

While not perfect, the bill is the product of bipartisan, principled and practical compromise. It decreases waste by ending the days of automatically issuing direct payments to farmers regardless of their need and helps Colorado producers hedge risk by strengthening crop insurance. The bill also improves farmers’ ability to export goods overseas, which will help continue Colorado’s record-setting pace in agriculture exports, and it establishes a competitive grant program to support animal science research on priorities such as food security. It also includes strategic investments in other growing industries such as organics — which is creating jobs at a rate of four times the national average — and energy programs, which are booming in rural parts of our state.

The farm bill is not just important for our farmers and ranchers. It contains provisions that incent more opportunities for conservation easements and other ways to place more land in conservation. It upgrades the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003 to prioritize treatments of national forest lands that have been devastated by insect outbreaks like the beetle kill. The farm bill also provides funding for USDA rural development loans and grants, which have helped countless businesses in rural Colorado open their doors or make needed expansions and improvements.

One of our greatest accomplishments for Colorado communities in the farm bill is the restoration of the Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program. PILT is designed to offset the loss of property taxes resulting from large tracts of federal land within county boundaries by providing federal payments to local governments. Colorado receives more PILT funding than all but four other states in the country. On the farm bill conference committee, we worked to include an extension of PILT in the final bill after it was omitted from the recent government funding measure.

This farm bill process has been a long one, and I would like to thank all of the Coloradans who worked with my office as we drafted the bill. Your voices, stories and input were invaluable. In fact, much of the conservation title of the bill was shaped by Colorado’s farmers and ranchers. That’s a step in the right direction, because the best ideas don’t come from Washington, D.C. They come from people who are closest to the issue — working on farms, fighting fires or building businesses on Main Street.

The agriculture industry adds $40 billion to our economy annually and is essential to our state’s prosperity. Colorado producers and rural communities have been faced with unprecedented obstacles in the past few years, including severe drought in the southeast, historic levels of flooding on the Front Range and devastating fires throughout the state. It’s about time we got this done for their sake.

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