By Michael Bennet
This week, Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack hosted a rural economic development summit in Greeley as part of a statewide conversation prompting counties to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses and to think with vision about what will drive their economies over the next 20 years.
It’s a conversation that couldn’t come at a better time.
Over the past two years, I’ve seen first-hand the stress rapid change is placing on rural communities. Our state is diverse, so that stress manifests itself in many ways: Some communities are growing with an influx of tourists and retirees, while others are dwindling as populations decline.
On the Eastern Plains, depopulation is depriving communities of the capable people who make small towns flourish.
Main street businesses struggle as people continue to move out of town. Schools are closing. Good jobs are harder to find.
Water is scarce as wells are shut off and it is shipped downstream to fulfill compact obligations.
Aside from these challenges, the role of agriculture in rural America is changing.
Over the last 40 years, the nation has lost more than 1 million farmers. But still, agriculture remains a critical part of the economy with 1 in 12 jobs nationwide somehow tied to agriculture.
In Colorado, the agriculture and food industries account for 100,000 jobs and generate an estimated $20 billion of economic activity every year.
Maintaining a vibrant agricultural economy is not only a critical component of a robust rural economy, it is a critical component of Colorado’s and our country’s economy. But agriculture alone cannot be the sole driver of the rural economy.
This should compel all of us — farmers, ranchers, rural, suburban and urban residents alike — to action. We must use this time of economic hardship to have a national dialogue about the proper role of government to forge a future where rural America prospers.
I am working with Gov. Hickenlooper, Sec. Vilsack and my colleagues to develop a new foundation for rural development that combines tools with a past record of success with new and innovative ideas.
First, our foundation will be based in the development of new markets to provide new income opportunities for American producers by continuing to increase our exports abroad, but also by supporting domestic local and regional food systems that keep wealth in rural communities.
Second, we must capitalize on the culture of entrepreneurship and inventiveness that already exists in rural Colorado with improved access to credit and investments into rural broadband that can lead new opportunities for prosperity and small business growth.
Third, we must build our own energy economy on domestic, clean and renewable energy sources we have in abundance here in Colorado, from sun to biomass and natural gas.
We can and must do more to make sure developing these resources is a prosperous undertaking that creates good and lasting jobs in rural communities.
Fourth, we must do more to conserve and restore our natural resources — water, forests and open spaces—while fostering tourism by promoting recreational uses like hunting, fishing and other activities that create jobs.
Last, we must make prudent investments in critical areas such as research, infrastructure and education to ensure our farmers, ranchers, small businesses rural residents and communities have the resources they need to prosper.
As we think with vision about what we want rural Colorado to look like in 50 years, regional collaboration is essential.
We will all lose if towns compete against one another or decide to go-it-alone without recognizing that a neighboring town or city may be an ally for growth.
Only in working together and recognizing the opportunities, needs and strengths of each community will rural Colorado be successful in forging a vibrant future — and it looks like we’re on our way.
Michael Bennet, a Democrat, is the junior senator from Colorado and a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture.