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for people who care about the West

All (climate) politics is local

During a dry spring, Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet visits rural Colorado to talk economics and agriculture.

 

Grand Mesa rises from desert scrub and farm fields 25 miles north of Olathe, a town of 1,800 people in western Colorado. The mountain’s flanks were a shade darker than the cobalt sky in late March. They should have been frosted white with snow, but monitoring stations showed some of the lowest snow readings in decades. Closer to town, farmers who depend on the water stored in the Western snowpack were turning over their fields, getting ready to raise this year’s corn and hay, dust devils of dry earth rising in the wakes of their tractors.

Outside the Olathe town offices, American and Colorado flags flapped in the sun. Inside, local officials shook the hand of Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat visiting western Colorado farming country to learn about the economic obstacles places like Olathe face, and the policy concerns of the farmers and ranchers that live there. Bennet told me he plans to initiate a statewide conversation on climate change that crosses political and rural-urban divides.

Grand Mesa rises in the distance above a street running through Olathe, Colorado.
Emily Benson/High Country News

For farming and ranching communities like Olathe, drought is a major worry. Mayor Rob Smith said if the town had to dry up lawns to keep agricultural water flowing — and the local economy healthy — it would. “I’d rather eat than worry about a lawn,” Smith, a Republican, told me.

When the fields circling town are irrigated this summer, the water will come from the Colorado River Basin. Climate change is already shrinking the Colorado and other water sources across the West. It’s a threat that most Coloradans know is real, Bennet said, but not one that politicians have rallied bipartisan support to fight. “I do not believe that the Democratic Party or the environmental groups generally have done a great job of reaching farmers and ranchers on issues related to climate,” Bennet told me. “And to my mind, they’re the people that really are the stewards of this land; they’re the ones that want to have something to pass to the next generation of Americans…I think it would be nice if we had a political conversation around this that was not repellant to them.”

Such a conversation might start in a town like Delta, Bennet’s afternoon stop, 15 minutes down the road from Olathe. In a stuffy courthouse conference room, about 50 people sat on folding chairs and lined the walls, eager to tell Bennet, a member of the Senate agriculture committee, what he should champion in the 2018 farm bill, which distributes billions of dollars to conservation, food assistance, agricultural subsidies and other programs.

John Harold, a corn grower from Olathe, stood up to introduce Bennet. “I’m going to take your water, ‘cause I’m out of water,” he said to another farmer, reaching for a plastic bottle sitting on the speakers’ table. The crowd laughed, and someone, perhaps thinking of late summer, dry fields and stunted crops, called out, “Already?”

As Bennet took notes, ranchers, farmers and local leaders highlighted the policies and programs that can boost or sink their businesses. Looming concerns over exports caused Bennet to suggest that those present urge their Republican representatives to “moderate the rhetoric” in Washington. “Our farmers and ranchers … need the president to behave responsibly,” he said.

Within a week, American agriculture would be caught in the middle of an escalating fight between the U.S. and China over tariffs. In 2017, Colorado exported goods worth more than $580 million to China, or about 7 percent of the state’s total exports, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Beef, pork, wheat and other grains are some of Colorado’s biggest agricultural exports, and farmers and ranchers say prices are already dropping because of the trade dispute.

Sen. Michael Bennet, center, takes notes as Delta County officials, farmers and ranchers discuss what they'd like to see included in the 2018 farm bill.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

As the hour-long meeting in Delta wound down, a man who introduced himself as a scientist asked about whether Bennet planned to support including land-use policies that address the realities of climate change and drought in the farm bill.

Bennet, an ardent champion of climate action, said he plans to barnstorm Colorado this summer, soliciting discussions and concerns and ideas — from conservatives and liberals, city-dwellers and small town residents — for how to build a coalition dedicated to addressing climate change. But working those priorities into the farm bill itself may be difficult, given the climate change denialism of the Trump administration.

“Will the politics of it let us get it done?” Bennet replied from his seat at the table in the front of the room, flanked on one side by a county administrator and on the other by the executive director of an agricultural land trust. “I don’t know.”

Sen. Michael Bennet, center, speaks at a listening session regarding the 2018 farm bill at the Delta County Courthouse. Other speakers leading the conversation included, from left, Tom Kay of the Delta Conservation District; Erik Glenn of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust; Robbie LeValley, Delta County Administrator; and Scott Armentrout from the U.S. Forest Service.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

Emily Benson is an assistant editor at High Country News.