As we approach the new year, those of us with farm or ranch land already have started to receive our "every five-year" package from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, looking for information. It's the agriculture census. They want to know how much land we each have and how it is used, whether for crops or for pasture. They want to know how much agricultural equipment we have and how old it is. They want to know how much the land has produced. And, they want to know whether we have jobs other than agriculture.
As the children would say, in a long, drawn-out syllable, "Duh."
The fact of the matter is that there are very few families who try to survive on just the income that they can generate from a ranching operation, without at least one family member working at a job in town. And the hard reality is that the sale of agricultural products will not pay for a large mortgage or for a lot of new equipment. These realities can be overwhelming in an area such as Routt County, where open land prices are being driven up by the demand of visitors who want just a few acres.
With 2008 being an election year, there will be additional opportunities to be counted - in caucuses, primaries and in the general election in November. Personally, it is comforting to be represented by a congressman who has been a rancher, and who can take wry delight in quizzing a president about how many cattle of what breed is he running on his "ranch" in Crawford, Texas. The personal values of hard work, caring for family, dealing with adversity and cooperating with people of diverse interests are more than just words - they are values that have been essential for survival and for success.
Meanwhile, here in the Yampa Valley, the Community Agriculture Alliance's Board of Directors has begun to re-evaluate its activities and its mission. In the face of the ever-increasing pressures on our farmers, our ranchers and the lands that they work, the Ag Alliance has begun a difficult discussion, considering, "How do we keep agriculture viable in this community?"
The answer is not by providing subsidies or handouts. The answer may lie with government action that will level the playing field a bit, so that the farmers and ranchers in this area can compete with the mega-agricultural conglomerates that provide cheap food in bulk quantities.
A fledgling program, just under way with the assistance of the Ag Alliance and other community organizations, is the Northwest Colorado Products Initiative. This effort is designed to help provide outlets and marketing for local products within the region, and to provide handmade or home-grown alternatives to what is available in the big-box stores that are starting to pop up with more frequency.
So, why is this a year for Agriculture to be counted? First, in spite of the intrusive nature of the questions from the U.S.D.A. and the threat that you are "required" to prepare and file their census form by early February, the federal government does use this information in the development of laws, programs and budgets that impact agriculture. We need to give them the information they are asking for, to be able to promote our own region's interests.
Second, the Community Agriculture Alliance was initially created to provide input to the United States Congress on issues that should be addressed in the Federal Farm Bill. As its Board of Directors considers whether to continue to focus on local programs, or whether to attempt to influence state and federal agricultural policies, it needs community input. Your comments are invited.
Third, it is a year of critical elections, from our local elections all the way to the presidential election. It is a year to educate ourselves and to vote.
Rich Tremaine and Jo Stanko are the co-chairs of the Community Agriculture Alliance. Marsha Daughenbaugh is the Executive Director and can be reached at 970-879-4370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.