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May 15, 2021 04:27 PM UTC

“We Must Think Anew and Act Anew”, Colorado New Deal Edition

  • by: MichaelBowman

(Promoted by Colorado Pols)

Original Seal, USDA

On this day in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation to establish the U.S. Department of Agriculture and he later called it “The People’s Department.”  Lincoln believed in a robust, agrarian system.  Five days later he would sign The Homestead Act, bringing the opportunity of land ownership to over 400,000 families.  Six weeks later he would sign The Morrill Act, establishing our land-grant university system to “benefit the agricultural and mechanical arts.” 

President Lincoln created an ecosystem, one that ultimately gave birth to the greatest agriculture powerhouse in the world – thanks to political will and government resources. in 1922 Congress enacted the Capper-Volstead Act, giving “associations” of persons producing agricultural products certain exemptions from antitrust laws. It is sometimes called the Magna Carta of cooperatives

Dust Bowl, circa 1934

Less than a decade later those in the West would endure the hardships of two calamities: The Great Depression and The Dust Bowl.  FDR’s New Deal gave us rural electrification, price supports, a new soil conservation service, and the CCC.

Post-WWII was a time when we saw the vast expansion of our rural electrics, made possible through government resources; cooperative telephone companies, and farmer-owned cooperatives. The Eisenhower Interstate System gave way to a more robust transportation system to move our goods.

In the late ’50s, the development of groundwater resources brought a new wave of prosperity and production to not only our eastern plains, deriving its water from the Ogalla Aquifer but the San Luis Valley region.  The former becoming a powerhouse in corn and livestock production, the latter becoming one of the largest potato growing regions in the US, along with barley, and alfalfa.

San Luis Valley
San Luis Valley

Today, the future of both of these groundwater regions is at risk.  The eastern plains grappling with both dwindling groundwater resources and compliance obligations under the Republican River Compact; the San Luis Valley with very similar dynamics centered around the Rio Grande River.

For context, each of these areas contains approximately 500,000 acres of irrigated land; (collectively they represent approximately the same land footprint as Israeli farmland, a global, agricultural powerhouse).

Republican River Water Conservation District

The future for both of these critical agricultural areas, and our rural communities that depend upon them, is increasingly uncertain. Both districts, while collectively representing only something near 2% of Colorado’s population, also represent the majority of Colorado agriculture that depends on groundwater withdrawals.

Just like we did 159 years ago today (and every transition since), we face both our challenges – and – our opportunities with the requisite to couple government resources, research institutions, and our farming/ranching community with political will.

Building carbon-rich soils

If we’ve been taught anything over the last 159 years, it’s that within every crisis lies the seed of opportunity.  This September our legislature may have a generational opportunity to create the Colorado New Deal via its appropriation of stimulus funds; an opportunity to provide the necessary financial resources to transition Colorado agriculture into something designed with our Colorado values in mind. A generational opportunity to support the development of infrastructure that will bear generational fruit from our rural communities.  Significant opportunities abound in the growing US hemp sector; we’ve already piloted a successful fiber project in the San Luis Valley this past year. The Netherlands is the second-largest exporter of food and flowers, all accomplished with water-sipping, chemical-free production with 36,000 acres of greenhouses (3.6% of the combined groundwater district’s footprints).  Conservation opportunities to benefit from the emerging carbon credit marketplace will touch every farm and ranch in our state.

Next Generation Colorado Rancher

I’m writing this, knowing full well just how difficult our political divides make such a conversation. The legislators who will ultimately settle the allocation of these stimulus funds are characterized as the enemy by a vast majority of residents in rural Colorado. We’re in the midst of a third recall attempt of the Governor and it’s likely the very people, rural constituents, who could benefit from this discussion are amongst the first names on the latest petitions.   The stakes are high, high enough that it’s time for some earnest soul searching on our part.  For many irrigators, the proverbial wolf is at the door; many are wondering aloud Who Moved My Cheese? 

Next-generation food, feed, fuel, and fiber

If we look at the resources we have through the lens of Israeli and Dutch technologies there is little reason we, too, can’t be a global powerhouse in emerging markets, those driven in large part by Gen Z and Millennials who bring a new set of values and expectations to the global marketplace.  But this can only be done if we, rural Colorado, can humbly sit at a table and have this long-overdue conversation with our counterparts.  There is no them and us. We, rural Coloradans, are not independent, we’re interdependent.  

We can not and will not survive in a vacuum.

Let’s have this conversation.



21 thoughts on ““We Must Think Anew and Act Anew”, Colorado New Deal Edition

  1. There are a variety of opportunities to pursue to increase a sense of interdependence and connection. 

    There can be a better Colorado by integrating programs to fill needs AND develop a young workforce.  A "new deal" ought to include equivalents to the CCC, a Writers Project, and other work opportunities dedicated to installing new approaches to agriculture, expanding renewable energy installations, building out telecommunications to broaden access, revitalizing rural health and wellness facilities, improving public education, and developing other "social goods" to meet challenges of climate change.

    1. Biden's Climate Corps could help preserve soil and water, say advocates

      Nearly 80 years after President Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps put millions of young men to work restoring public lands during the Great Depression, President Joe Biden wants to employ the nation’s youth in a new CCC that could help private landowners fight climate change and combat soil erosion.

      Lawmakers are debating the shape of the new Civilian Climate Corps as committees draft a massive climate and infrastructure bill.

      Some conservation and environmental groups say the new CCC should create private landowner partnerships with the Agriculture Department to protect soil, both to reduce greenhouse emissions and protect water quality.

      Biden signed an executive order in January requiring the Interior Department and USDA to collaborate on a strategy to create the Civilian Climate Corps. The goal is to “mobilize the next generation of conservation and resilience workers and maximize the creation of accessible training opportunities and good jobs.” 

      Then, in April, he included $10 billion in funding for the CCC as part of his $2.7 trillion American Jobs Plan. An Interior Department spokesperson told Agri-Pulse in an email the department is on track to deliver a report to the National Climate Task Force and looks forward to sharing information with the public in the coming weeks.

      Several lawmakers have introduced bills in the last two months offering ways to structure the CCC. 

      Sens. Chris Coons, D-Del., and Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., along with Reps. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., and Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., introduced a bill in April that aims to increase the number of conservation and restoration projects on public lands while helping disadvantaged communities adapt to climate change, and protect biodiversity and ecological resilience. 

    1. Thanks, Duke!  We've got to decide whether we want to perpetuate the laughable 'War on Rural Colorado' nonsense or decide we want to put our big boy pants on and be an 'Innovation Economy'

  2. Yes, another excellent diary. It deserves wider publication – maybe High Country News or ??

    I find myself worried about the Oglalla aquifer – the links you provided show that people are taking conservation measures like retiring land from irrigation, negotiating surface water rights, and taking more water from wells. But don't the wells also deplete the aquifer? Am I wrong about that?

    So….what is the plan B, if the Eastern plains get down to those last few thousand acre-feet? Is there a plan B?

    Hemp is a miraculous plant, and your work promoting hemp production is part of the solution – but hemp can't be the miracle cure for over-irrigation.

    The Savory people are showing how to produce meat while enriching the land. But this relies on fewer people buying meat and paying more for higher quality, yes? McDonald's and Wendy's won't like that.

    It seems that consumers will have to "suck it up" if all the water is sucked out of the Oglalla aquifer.

    1. Thanks KW.  Both groundwater districts are facing the same need to retire acres to meet various, legal compliance agreements.  The question is how will we simultaneously retire significant acreage and maintain the viability of the districts. In the case of the Ogallala, we're not going to enjoy the luxury of high-production, monoculture corn grown under the Farm Bill programs.  Hemp isn't a silver bullet but it is part of the solution set.  Greenhouse operations and migrating to crops like peas (great protein source with high demand).  Working, grazing lands on the balance.  

      Interestingly enough, the Ogallala only produces about 11% of our national corn supply; advances in genetics and production in Corn Belt production displace what we grow. We're going to have to be smart about this; even with our dwindling aquifers, places like Israel would take that resource and turn it into a global 'food' powerhouse.  

      I'm going to write a short series of diaries under this 'Think Anew – Act Anew" theme and dive deeper into some of these silos.  Hope it will be helpful for our legislators as we look at the historic opportunity to support Colorado agriculture in this necessary transition this fall as we decide how to divvy up the stimulus dollars. 

    2. KW – here's a nice piece on Bloomberg about @whiteoakpasture, a Savory Land-to-Market partner.  Connecting Biden's desire to bring back the CCC to support working lands, and new food systems that address climate, would be a real winner for our rural communities: 

      The Biggest Ideas in Farming Today Are Also the Oldest

      Regenerative farming is much more labor intensive than conventional agriculture, which Harris counts as a good thing after watching his farming community suffer huge job losses over the decades from industrialization. At the height of its own profitability in the 1990s, White Oak Pastures needed four employees to raise 1,000 head of cattle each year. Now Harris raises 3,000 cows with 190 employees — nearly double the total population of his town. And he's created a model of local, vertically integrated production that isn’t vulnerable to the kind of supply-chain disruption that plagued the centralized meat industry during the pandemic.

    3. KW – a nice piece in Civil Eats today on holistic grazing in the San Luis Valley. Yet another example of why government policy should be supporting these transitions with more robust financial incentives. In this game, everyone wins. 

      As the West Faces a Drought Emergency, Some Ranchers are Restoring Grasslands to Build Water Reserves

      “To be honest, we don’t have any miracle answers at all,” Julie Sullivan, who runs a grass-fed beef ranch in the San Luis Valley of Colorado, said in an email. Yet Sullivan and ranchers like her have found ways to lower the stakes by adopting management practices that can improve the land’s capacity to hold water–and, therefore, hold onto more cattle.

      The best bet? Improving or restoring the diverse, grassland ecosystem native to the land, and grazing it just enough to grow year after year. This doesn’t guarantee a rancher will avoid selling off cattle, or needing disaster assistance through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Yet, it does help create something like a buffer within the landscape so droughts and other natural disasters like wildfires are less threatening.

  3. Did not see much in the article as proposals to adjust water rights law in the west.  Few years ago, read an excellent article on an Israeli firm that came to California to sell its water saving technology to the nut farmers in CA who produce under similar conditions as the Israelis faced.  But they got no interest.  The problem?  Due to the law of prior appropriation, farmers with senior water rights had no incentive to conserve.  They got there allotment cost free every year no matter what.  So they had no real "savings" by adopting water conservation farming techniques.  This is a HUGE issue and particularly one that is politically difficult as those with vested senior water rights have a huge self-interest to oppose any changes.  So what would you propose?


    1. I didn't touch on that.  This particular diary is focused on the two groundwater management districts in the state – a different set of water laws governs them from the surface water law.  (I did write a diary some time ago on the Arkansas River Valley).  Courts have determined that groundwater withdrawals do affect surface water flows, as is the case in the Republican River Water Conservation District.  To date, compliance has been met by the district buying and retiring water rights. through a taxing system.

      In both scenarios, groundwater and surface water rights, a 'use it or lose it' system governs the formers, seniority governs the latter. Also in both cases, economic self-interests mean that conservation of the permitted resources is of little value to the individual. 

      None of the solutions will be easy, and we aren't going to fix the problems with the same thinking that created them. But, if we don't sit down and have a broad discussion on the challenges we'll just barrel forward in a Thelma and Louise moment, as we eventually run off the cliff.  

      Both of these regions are drowning in natural resources: soils, water to a definable extent, wind, solar.  We can produce anything and everything the new markets are clamoring.  Thus, we should be home to some of the most prosperous areas in the state. But, the exact opposite is happening.  As I said, we aren't going to fix these challenges in a vacuum.  Our urban counterparts and our legislative majority aren't our enemies…they're our customers

  4. Well written, Michael.

    For additional study, people may want to read the articles on the Morrill Act, land grant universities, and displacement of Native Americans caused by those universities, that appeared in High County News during the past couple years. I have no direct opinion on the author's premises. But I'd consider it required reading, as a follow on to Michael's diary.

    I'm far more familiar with the San Luis Valley owing to doing work on some conservation related issues there. For more reading, do a browser inquiry for the Closed Basin Project. The Valley has issues that eastern Colorado doesn't have; like sale of Valley groundwater by water speculators to the Front Range that is generally opposed by locals.

    Back in the mid-2000s, I researched and wrote a magazine article on the science behind the Great Sand Dunes. It's a giant loop: wind blowing sand grains up from the sand sheet on the Valley floor into the foothills; with the creeks carrying those grains through the dunes back down to the sand sheet. It's a highly complex eco-system that is much more than the dunes created by wind-blown particles coming off the San Juans to the west.

  5. Enjoyed the video very much.  One question:  there was a mention made of a recent year in which hemp was overgrown for the CBD market, and the price tanked that year, causing some farmers to abandon hemp.  What changed so that this didn't happen again?  

    1. Colorado (not Kentucky) has been ground zero for the robust development of the hemp industry since 2014 when the Farm Bill was passed.  The industry managed to waaaay overproduced in 2019, then COVID hit.  We still have some unresolved issues with FDA regarding food and beverage, too.  There is a lot of consolidation going on in the CBD space today, some driven by Canadian/Russian interests (I'm planning to write a diary on that).   The next wave will be the development of the industrial uses of the plant: fiber, bio-materials, animal feed.  Over time I expect those markets will far exceed the CBD industry.   Let's hope we can get this phase right so that our farmers can participate in those value-added enterprises. 

  6. Great news for both the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and the Republican River Water Conservation District: Governor Polis has signed Senate Bill 22-028 and $60 million ($30 million to each district) to facilitate their legal obligations to retire irrigated farm land to maintain compliance with the Kansas Compact. 

    The funds come from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (Let’s Go, Brandon!) As a gentle reminder, IIRC, both Buck and BangBang voted against that piece of legislation? 

    A big thanks to Gov. Polis for his support. This transition to a post-compact world is leaving its scars on our rural communities.  The Wray Gazette highlighted this signing ceremony as a “Once in a lifetime opportunity” – and they are right. We have so much opportunity, if only we would allow ourselves to “Think Anew” 

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