Future of Farming

Could the farm bill save parts of the West from turning into a Dust Bowl? Michael Bennet thinks so

A black and white photo of Michael Bennet is seen over a green-tinted image of dried and cracked ground
Valerie Morris/Greg Nash/Associated Press-John Locher

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Fine-tuning certain sections of the federal farm bill could help prevent the U.S. West from decaying into a Great Depression-era Dust Bowl, according to Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.). 

The third-term senator is on a mission to ensure that the region’s agricultural sector can continue to thrive amid inhospitable climate conditions, as negotiations begin on the 2023 federal package of food and farm legislation. 

“How do we advance the real challenges that producers and rural communities are facing in the context of a 1,200-year drought?” Bennet asked, in a recent interview with The Hill. 

Bennet has been a prominent voice in shaping the farm bill, having contributed to the past two renditions. He’s now working on the upcoming version. 

As regional water supplies become increasingly scarce, Bennet is looking at ways the bill can help prioritize this resource. 

“In the broadest strokes, I think there’s been a focus more in the Midwest that’s kind of tended to organize people’s thoughts around water quality, not quantity,” he said. “In the West, we obviously are focused on water quality, but quantity really is the big question.” 

Many federal agriculture programs are not “designed with Western farmers and ranchers in mind,” according to Bennet. 

One idea he has put forward, is folding a bill he recently introduced — the Protect the West Act — into the bigger farm bill package.

The Protect the West Act calls for a $60 billion investment in the region’s forests, grasslands and watersheds. The bill would aim to address a “backlog of restoration, fire mitigation and resilience projects” while measurably improving water quality and quantity in priority areas. It’s a bipartisan bill, introduced with Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) and co-sponsored by Sens. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

Speaking at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing in March, Bennet began by apologizing to his colleagues for being a “broken record about the 1,200-year drought we’re facing in the West.” 

These conditions, he explained, are driving producers to look at federal conservation programs “root and branch,” with the goal of understanding “how they can better serve the people.” 

“We’ve got to do more preemptively and proactively, and I hope to be able to persuade my colleagues that spending money preemptively is going to be better than spending it on the back end,” Bennet said. 

As it stands today, the country’s agricultural programs contain “misaligned incentives” that don’t necessarily realize the conservation that they espouse, according to the senator. 

Bennet specifically referred to farm bill-backed initiatives like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. Through these programs, farmers and ranchers can receive a yearly rental rate from federal and state entities by removing environmentally sensitive land from production. 

But the rates vary according to the value of the land in question — a situation that has made the initiatives far less effective, according to Bennet.

“We’re seeing bids of $13, $15 an acre in the heart of the Dust Bowl region, at the same time that farmers in other parts of the country are seeing an average of $300 per acre,” the senator told committee members, referring to areas of southeastern Colorado. The rates are “soil-specific” and are updated based on county and whether they are irrigated or nonirrigated cropland, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Obviously, these low prices discourage anybody from putting their farm into the CRP program, which is the opposite of what we should be encouraging,” he added. 

While Bennet said he understands the rationale “from the standpoint of raw economics,” he stressed that this is “not the only question we should be asking.”

“We should be asking, what is the most erodible with land in America and where is it we want to prevent another Dust Bowl from happening,” he told The Hill. 

The existing rates under these programs “are not going to create the result that anybody wants,” according to Bennet. 

“People are going to make a different choice,” he said. 

In preparation for farm bill negotiations, Bennet has for months been holding “listening sessions” with farmers and ranchers throughout rural Colorado to better understand their needs. He said he has found that “there’s no doubt that drought is at the top of everybody’s list.” 

Ranchers and farmers, he explained, are questioning whether they are “going to be able to leave something to their kids and their grandkids.”

Other concerns he has repeatedly come across are insufficient labor availability, the high cost of inputs and supply chain disruptions lingering from the pandemic. 

Even amid today’s tumultuous politics, Bennet expressed confidence that he and his colleagues would produce a farm bill that reflects the collaborative legacy of the Agriculture Committee. 

“I absolutely believe we will reject partisanship in the Agriculture Committee. We’ve done it before. I think we’re going to do it again,” the senator added.

Tags 2023 Farm Bill Jason Crow John Hickenlooper Michael Bennet

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