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Staff of US Senator Michael Bennet Host Listening Session on Farm Bill

Members of Colorado US Senator Michael Bennet’s staff recently held a listening session in Paonia to gather community input on the 2013 Farm Bill. Bennet was selected to serve on the Farm Bill Conference Committee this year, a bipartisan group tasked with bringing together two very different versions of the bill passed by the House and Senate. Farmers, ranchers, county representatives and interested citizens met to ask Bennet’s staffers about his position on agricultural issues, and to offer guidance on where legislative efforts should be focused going forward.

Much of the discussion at the meeting revolved around how or whether the Farm Bill can address issues related to Western Colorado’s organic industry, centered in the North Fork Valley but spread across Delta and neighboring counties as well. Organics are a staple of the regional economy, both in terms of food supply and increasingly recreation and tourism, and the industry continues to grow. 

"There's alot more demand than there is supply," says Kevin McGruther, President of the Crested Butte Farmer's Market. He's seen the industry's growth firsthand.

"At this point, most of our farmers, especially the main bulk of their crop, they're selling out by the middle of the market," he says. "We run from 10 to 2, and they're selling out by noon or 1. We need a lot more help getting more supply, and it's a long game.

He says farmers are having a hard time producing enough to sell for the whole market day. Though not likely to be passed anytime soon, I ask him if government subsidies for organics would help.

"Well I’m not a fan of necessarily of subsidization, because it doesn’t show the real cost of food to the consumers," McGruther says. "If you were to go ahead and have subsidizations anyway, I would say that anything you could do that would direct it to specialty crops in particular, that that's going to help a lot."

"Subsidies...we don't get subsidies," says Mark Waltermire, President of the Valley Organic Growers' Association and part-owner of the 16-acre Thistle Whistle Farm. 

He says that while the Farm Bill’s funding of large-scale commodity crops like corn and wheat needs reform, he doesn’t expect to see that money diverted to organic crops anytime soon. But he says other aspects of the Farm Bill can directly help, such as research programs into organics, alternatives to pest controls, alternative crops and marketing.

Those kinds of programs have traditionally been lumped under the bill's conservation section. While not a direct crop subsidy, one of those conservation efforts does contain an Organics Initiative, which allows budding organic farmers to apply for money that they can use to make sure their operation is environmentally sustainable. That doesn’t necessarily translate to more revenue for farmers, but it does provide some sort of framework for those wishing to transition into organics or jump straight into the industry, especially young farmers. As America’s farmers continue to age, less young people are getting into agriculture, and those that do aren’t interested in conventional growing.

But Waltermire says organic growers tend to favor independence over government assistance. Most growers in the Valley don’t even get USDA organic certifications, choosing instead to just communicate directly with their customers about the farm's standards:

"It's expensive and a hassle and we don't want to do it," he says. "I'm small enough that it doesn't matter whether I certify or not. I'm in direct contact with the people who buy my stuff, and if they have questions about the methods I use to grow it, they can ask me."

But he says organic farming is still hard, and the government could take some steps to address challenges faced by small-scale farmers.

"It's quite possible that the Farm Bill could be a key to helping small-scale organic growers find a more reliable, a more secure income," Waltermire says. "But we have a long ways to go to get there."

"There is more support for organic agriculture production this time around based on the fact that this is what people want and it’s a new source of a wealth in agriculture," says Grant Colvin, Legislative Assistant for Senator Michael Bennet. 

Colvin says that Bennet's staff has a "big reason" to support the organic industry in Colorado.

"It benefits everybody to make sure that agriculture’s thriving around here, and if that’s organics, then we need to find a way to make sure we’re giving you guys the tools you need in order to get it done," he says.

Most of the current Farm Bill debate in Washington surrounds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is drastically de-funded under the House version passed in June. Waltermire says he's started to see a jump in his customers using food stamps, with those sales sometimes accounting for 20% of his profits at farmer's markets. 

While that might be a sign that Farm Bill programs do have the potential to bolster the organic industry, it's still unclear whether lawmakers will be able to pass a Farm Bill at all before the current programs expire on September 30th.