“We Must Think Anew and Act Anew”: Rural Wealth Creation

(Promoted by Colorado Pols)

A rural electric gathering decades ago

We’re often our own worst enemy.

It wasn’t always this way.

It was Democratic Socialist policies, rooted in The New Deal, that gave rural America the foundation upon which we built our network of thriving agriculturally-based communities.  Rural electrification made possible irrigation across the broad expanse of the Central Great Plains; powering factories, and providing modern conveniences for our grandparents and great-grandparents. Federally subsidized crop insurance and crop support payments, providing the ultimate safety net for farmers and ranchers. Cooperative-based telephone companies; community district hospitals and extended living care facilities.  Water systems and rural waste treatment plants.  Most of these funded by the Rural Utility Service department of the United States Department of Agriculture.

Rural electrification empowered a Green Revolution on the Plains

Far from being our enemy, federal and state governments have been full partners in creating rural wealth.  Yes, it took our vision, initiative, and entrepreneurship, but this was made possible because of our mutually aligned interests.

Policy, both federal and state, continue to provide us with new opportunities, but we’ve lost our compass and not realizing the full extent of the possibilities.  We’ve become paralyzed with the us v. them mentality, disconnecting logic from the broader, necessary discussion; one that sees everyone else, those people, as our customers.  The imperative equation for a capitalist system, rural or otherwise.  An equation best served when sound public policy is driving the market as it always has, even though we in rural American try to pretend differently.

Over the past two decades, rural Colorado has missed two significant opportunities to flourish from public policy, Amendment 37 and Amendment 64. As a broad critique, we were lied to by our representatives, our rural cooperatives, our local leaders.  I’ll dive into each one separately:

Amendment 37

(Co-chaired by Democrat Mark Udall – Republican Speaker of the House Lola Spradley)

First citizen-initiated renewable energy standard in the nation

Passed in 2004 in spite of massive spending and legal challenges by Xcel Energy, Intermountain Rural Electric, and Tri-State Generation and Transmission, Amendment 37 set the stage for Colorado’s New Energy Economy.  At the heart of the Amendment was a 10% mandate for green energy by 2015.  Also at the heart of the movement was to bring new opportunities to community-based energy systems.  Implementation of the amendment’s language was arduous, thanks to a concerted effort by the state’s various utilities.  A settlement was finally agreed to only after giving Xcel the green light to build the Commanche III coal plant in Pueblo, which has proven to be an anvil around Colorado taxpayer’s necks.

Almost without exception every rural county (read: where we have the wind and solar resources to produce the product) voted against the amendment; every urban county (read: consumers willing to buy the product) voted for the amendment.

What did exist at the time was the support of urban progressives and environmentalists to maximize the amount of rural ownership of these systems. In this case, we had Front Range consumers, willing to pay a premium for a commodity they were willing to mandate into their electrical grid.  A commodity we were drowning in: rural wind and solar.

What rural legislator in their right mind wouldn’t have set aside their prejudices of those people, urban ratepayers, and environmentalists, and taken that deal?  Is there anyone who doesn’t believe a coalition of rural legislators and environmentalists couldn’t have taken on anyone in their path to achieving their vision?

But fight, we did.

For a coal plant in Kansas. 

In spite of the fact the Obama Administration had allocated billions to a RUS fund that was written specifically for rural electrics to tap said funds and build energy systems for export to other utilities,  we fought. And fought. And fought.  God forbid we give any environmentalist or a Democratic POTUS a win on green energy.  This was about freedom from tyranny!!!

Well that tyranny, in spite of valiant efforts by our representatives, is today causing billions of dollars in rural investment in wind energy systems. Systems that could have been owned by our rural electric systems and indirectly benefitting each and every rural electric patron in the state.  Many, but not all, of our rural counties, are benefitting from the property tax revenues (often the largest source of income in some counties) of these wind farms.

Had we looked at this opportunity through the lens of rural wealth creation, we’d have chosen a different path. We’d have enjoyed both the benefits of the property tax – and the wealth created by the ownership of those systems by rural cooperatives – benefitting every member of the cooperative system.

Amendment 64

Amendment 64 results: majority “Yes” = green

Old lies die hard, and none harder than our eight-decades relationship with prohibition, Nixon’s preposterous War on Drugs, and the perpetuation of industrial hemp as a scheduled drug under the Controlled Substances Act.

Colorado became the first unit of government in the world to end Prohibition.  Soon thereafter it was dubbed “The Great Social Experiment” by then-Gov John Hickenlooper.  In fact, the “Great Social Experiment” was Prohibition, and it failed miserably under any plausible metric.  It took the leadership of a majority-informed electorate, and an army of passionate advocated,  to begin the unwinding of this long-standing federal law.

We’re not there yet, but in the journey to full US legalization (which we’ve accomplished with industrial hemp in the 2018 Farm Bill), many great things have happened: Colorado has been the #1 state in industrial hemp development since its conditional legalization in the 2014 Farm Bill (thanks exclusively to the work of then-Congressman Polis) and we’ve managed to develop a regulated marijuana market that has generated over $10 billion in sales.

Congressman Polis introducing hemp amendment to 2014 Farm Bill with US flag made from hemp in hand.

The passage of Amendment 64 revealed yet another disconnect in rural Colorado: even though the amendment included the constitutional right for every farmer to grow a new crop, industrial hemp, a crop that may well be a valuable transition crop from high-impact irrigated crops like corn and alfalfa being grown over the aquifer, we sent a resounding message via our ballot to Denver:  Hell. No.

Marijuana aside (the ballot initiative gave every unit of local government to ban grow houses and sales), even industrial hemp had its foes in the hinterlands.  Often referred to as the dreaded ‘gateway’; the ‘slippery slope to marijuana’.   What is factual in Colorado’s case is that it has been a gateway to bringing young entrepreneurs to our communities; a slippery slope from corn to something more sustainable – and profitable.

Where do we go from here? 

US Hemp forecast: 2020 – 2025

No single initiative or crop is going to be our silver bullet; a 21st-century agriculture is going to be more diversified, driven by new technology and global markets.  Will Colorado agriculture choose to lead, or wait for early movers to define the marketplace and rules of engagement.  Can we think big, like the Netherlands? A country smaller than Vermont that is the second-largest ag exporter in the world? Will we conclude that a robust livestock industry can thrive side-by-side with the global opportunities in plant proteins? Can we embrace the idea that the very people we describe as our enemies are actually our very necessary customers?

If we’re going to be serious about building rural wealth we have to think differently; we must change the narrative.  Building rural wealth isn’t just about money, it’s also making sure we’ve built rural communities that thrive in social, civic, health care, and educational endeavors. Let’s build bridges from the outreaches of our prairies and western slope to the Gold Dome; let’s create an eco-system that lets us leverage the entirety of our resources – human, natural, and financial – into a robust rural Colorado.

We don’t lack resources, we lack imagination.

To quote Steve Jobs, let’s “Think Different” this time around.



15 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. JohnInDenver says:

    Reading of the "anti-change" mindset that opposed alternate energy projects and legalization of an agricultural product with what appear to be sizeable advantages, I continue to wonder about the decision-making abilities of our public and the representatives they select.  "Conservatives" have often been found among agricultural populations, but we seem to have gone to an extreme version of conservatism in the past 40 or 50 years.

    During some eras of history I have read a bit more deeply in (Reconstruction, Progressive and, Depression), there were organized groups from rural locations who were significant backers of change.  Railroads and highways were endorsed, even as their development showed opportunities for corruption, shoddy planning, and exploitation of the weakest communities among us.  Social movements for economic balancing and more localized decision-making often were led by agricultural interests powered by rural populations.  Economic cooperatives for electricity, commodity storage and trading, and even social services emerged among rural populations.

    Any idea what tipped the balance and makes it less likely there are changes inspired by self-interest?  Any deeper answers to the question "What's wrong with Kansas?"


    • MichaelBowman says:

      I wish I had one, simple answer to your question, John. In my lifetime I can remember (and participated in) the Romer-era Tri-State Initiative, sponsored by the governors of CO (Roy Romer), KS (Joan Finney), and NE (Ben Nelson). It brought together representatives and citizens from the Ogallala, recognizing that state lines really meant little in the practical health of the region, that working on common goals was a valuable exercise. I’m convinced that we wouldn’t be managing this aquifer by attorneys and courtrooms had that initiative remained intact.  All three of those governors were Democrats, and all of them were succeeded by Republicans, who ended the support.

      From a Colorado perspective, the advent of the ‘God, Guns and Gays’ agenda as a replacement for policy focusing on rural development and market developments was the origination of the mindset we find ourselves in today. 

      Couple that with the current voices from our representation, case in point: Sonnenberg’s ridiculous obsession with MeatOut! Day (or as we Catholics call it, Friday). While we witness an explosion of the plant-based proteins market (domestic and globally), a sector or water-strapped farmers could benefit from, and emerging carbon practices that will likely pay for managed grazing systems – he (and Ken Buck as well) act as though packer concentration in the livestock industry isn’t a problem (I can only conclude that from their absence of comment on the issue).  

      One model that I’ve witnessed that seems to be working really well is the group of leaders in the Memphis area who launched  Davos on the Delta. Urban leaders from Memphis, and rural interests, businesses, and farmers alike, to determine how they can maximize the leverage of their financial, human, and natural resources and transform the Delta region into a global, value-added powerhouse addressing new markets. 

      We’re Colorado, not Tennessee so we should, and will, come up with our own blueprint.  A summit of some sort between now and the Fall Special Session would be useful to bring together not only our electeds who will decide how to allocate the stimulus funds, but the ag, land grant,  and financial community to build our own roadmap. 

      What I do know for certain is that with the abundance of natural resources in this state, including soil, water, wind, and solar resources, a world-class land grant university system, there are zero reasons for any of our rural communities to be anything other than both robust and resilient.  

      But to be repetitive, we’re going to have to Think Differently.  


  2. kwtree says:

    Market forces and obvious effects of climate change have combined to force the Big Three oil producers to seek lower-carbon-producing alternatives. They’re losing in courts, their sharehlders are revolting, and Bill McKibben is ecstatic. See Maddow segment, below.

    I have to think that rural folks who deal with practicalities will change their own practices, based on those same market forces and daily reminders of  climate change ( in Colorado, drought , flooding, and wildfires). 

    Your own work with promoting industrial hemp and regenerative soil practices will help propel that realization. I’m not sure the commercial beef industry as it exists now is worth saving. Higher quality meat, grown with more care and labor, and yes, pricier, is the natural transition- just as coal is dying as fuel, leaving space for other energy sources,  so must Big Beef. Market share will increase for plant based proteins and pasture-raised meat. But that transition will be seen as a culture war, us vs. them, instead of market science. 

    The key, I think, to creating widespread rural wealth and a sustainable agriculture, is to push the market and science facts, refusing to engage on the bogus culture war diversion.

    A thought-provoking speculative fiction book, Kim Stanley Robinson’s “ The Ministry for the Future”  opens a vision of how a sustainable future could happen. It’s Realpolitik and extrapolation from current science. So it’s all about “ thinking anew”.And it’s a good read. 

  3. Conserv. Head Banger says:


    Put wind turbines on your ranch in eastern Colorado and sell power to the Front Range. The smart business people in rural eastern Colorado already are doing that. Sonnenberg and Buck are behind the times.

    Of course, not every Front Range resident is a liberal; we do have Pat Neville and The Dudster. But you get my point.

    • MichaelBowman says:

      We had more than a handful of structural problems in the early days.  The rural electrics, hiding under their bogus Rural Utilities Service  'All Requirements' Contrac' language (even when the Secretary of Ag said the language was not meant to preclude new sources of non-coal energy) kept local projects at bay.  Much of that was resolved during the Obama years with FERC action and now any QF (qualifying facility) is required access to the system with good faith negotiations (still not sure how Trump missed that regulation as a 'roll back').  

      Thanks to DMEA (and now others), they have forced Tri-State into joining the 21st century and that's a good thing. This was a hard-fought battle but ultimately one where we were the victor. 

    • notaskinnycook says:

      CHB, the last time we drove to Chicago, we saw countless windmills in farm fields all along 1-70, and at least a dozen flat-beds hauling blades for them, so it is happening.

  4. Peromyscus says:

    Worse (i.e. more effective) than the GOP’s “God Guns & Gays” agenda, is their light-bulb moment realizing that anything good can be painted as socialist – and therefore anathema to rural folk.  No students of history they.  Michael has pointed out the good that came to our rural communities – the wealth built – from past “socialist” legislation.  I’ll use those as talking points as the summer neighborhood get togethers resume and conservatives gird their ignorant loins for 2022.

    Also I second kwtree's recommendation of KSR's "The Ministry of the Future".  A fine, fine read, whether  you're a science nerd, climate Cassandra, or SF fan.  Then read "New York 2140".  Then the Mars trilogy.  

  5. 2Jung2Die says:

    Enjoyed the link to Rural Wealth Creation. For future replies to secessionists and urban/rural divide warriors, I would like to see a fairly simple graphic showing how much Colorado tax revenue has actually been allocated to rural counties over the past say 50 years, for roads and infrastructure, schools, economic development programs, public lands and habitat protection, and the like. I know folks in rural counties do valuable work that can't be done in urban areas, but I suspect info about how much money flows to and toward all 4 corners would be useful in future discourse. 

  6. davebarnes says:

    Buffalo Commons is an alternative.

    Denver—the city—gained more people last year than the total populations of the 10 smallest counties.
    Time to send some counties to zero.

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