Don Schwindt and Drew Peternell: Farm Bill partnerships reap benefits

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Ranching and farming is tough business. Families who have worked the land for generations to raise beef or grow food do so on thin margins. Especially in today’s volatile economy, it’s a struggle for growers to stay economically competitive while remaining good stewards of our state’s land and waters. 

That’s why Congress must act swiftly to reauthorize the Farm Bill in 2012. The Farm Bill is one of the nation’s most successful and powerful drivers of on-farm conservation and innovation. More than ever, for producers to reduce risks and remain competitive, they’ve got to make sure they’re operating as efficiently as possible.

But for many farmers and ranchers, investing in new irrigation upgrades often is cost-prohibitive. 

The Farm Bill’s little-known but highly effective Title II conservation programs play a key role. For more than 75 years, they’ve helped fund infrastructure modernization and conservation projects that benefit agricultural operations while helping protect stream health and wildlife habitat.

Moreover, in the West, where balancing water use and conservation can make for some tough decisions, these projects foster good-faith collaboration among landowners, agencies, conservation groups and other partners and leverage resources in a way that serves diverse needs.

For example, in Delta County, Trout Unlimited is working with a rancher and the Natural Resource Conservation Service to improve several antiquated diversions that block trout from accessing habitat. The rancher will receive improved operational systems, and the fish will get healthy stream flows.

In southwestern Colorado, irrigators in the Montezuma Valley and Mancos River areas have used Farm Bill projects for many years to improve on-farm irrigation infrastructure and to enhance wildlife and stream habitat. The largest part of those farm program dollars has been available as part of the Colorado River Salinity Control Program, which has strong support across Colorado River Basin states.

With these Farm Bill projects, family-run farms and ranches gain a surer economic footing through more efficient and profitable operations. Wildlife and wetland habitats have been improved and stream flows have been enhanced. Taxpayers get shovel-ready projects that put people to work and improve our food supply. Rural communities are strengthened.

Farm Bill conservation programs work for America. They grow strong partnerships that address diverse needs, from operational efficiency and cost savings to water quality and food security. And they send a healthy economic ripple through hard-strapped rural communities.

We neglect our nation’s agriculture economy at our own risk. Nationally, the median age of farmers never has been higher. Only 6 percent of farmers are younger than 35. The next Farm Bill must provide programs and create policies that can attract and retain young farmers for the future of American agriculture.

The 2012 Farm Bill is an opportunity to build on existing Farm Bill successes and bring additional resources to conservation partnerships in the Colorado River Basin region. As members of the House and Senate agriculture committees, Rep. Scott Tipton and Sen. Michael Bennet have a unique opportunity to ensure Farm Bill programs endure as a wise investment in the future of our rural economy. We applaud Tipton and Bennet, along with four other members of the Colorado congressional delegation, for their recent letter expressing strong support for Farm Bill reauthorization. We urge our delegation to continue to show leadership on this critical issue. 

Don Schwindt, of Cortez, is a board member of the Family Farm Alliance. Drew Peternell is director of the Colorado Water Project for Trout Unlimited.

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