Sure, there's plenty to fret over in rural Colorado. Between the weather and the commodities markets, farmers and ranchers ride a rollercoaster that in some years can make Wall Street look like a walk in the park.
Family farms and ranches are disappearing from the landscape at an alarming rate, mirroring a national trend. Ag's representation at the state Capitol is ebbing as the state's population and lawmakers become ever more urban. Then there's the eternal war over water, the lifeblood of agriculture — and of everyone else in the West.
But you won't hear Shawn Martini fretting over any of it; he's too busy doing something about it as the VP for advocacy at the Colorado Farm Bureau. He's the kind of can-do, positive-thinking, knows-the-facts point man ag (or any industry) needs in its corner.
As a leading voice for Colorado agriculture at the legislature and beyond, Martini shares insights in this week's Q&A on big ag issues like trade, water, takings, the future of farming and more.
Colorado Politics: Last year, the Colorado Farm Bureau supported an unsuccessful ballot proposal to require compensation of landowners when government actions reduced their land’s market value. While a lot of the debate over that proposed constitutional amendment involved the oil and gas industry’s support for it, it was originally intended to address concerns among farmers and ranchers. What were those concerns, and how do you hope they will be addressed in the future?
Shawn Martini: Our organization has had policy for decades that identified a problem with private property takings in Colorado in that there is virtually no check on government's ability to take action that damages property values. Our members felt at the time — and continue to feel — concerned that they have virtually no recourse should state or local governments take action that unfairly singles out property owners and devalues that property. In agriculture that means land, but it also means water, minerals, etc.
We're proud of the fact that we worked so hard to highlight the issue. It upset a few folks, but that's what leadership looks like.
Our members identified a problem and proposed a solution, and the system worked as it should. While voters ultimately decided against our proposed fix, our initiative got the second-largest number of votes of any citizen-led initiative in the 2018 cycle. We will continue to raise this issue and remind policy makers about the problem. The U.S. Supreme Court recently found in favor of private property rights, which follows on a few other similar decisions, and we anticipate that trend will continue.
- Vice president of advocacy, the Colorado Farm Bureau Federation, since 2016.
- Senior communications director, HBW Resources, 2012-2016.
- Director of communications, Colorado Farm Bureau, 2008-2012.
- Earned a bachelor's degree from Metropolitan State University of Denver and an associate's degree in ag communications from Northeastern Junior College in Sterling.
CP: Colorado’s ag communities are generally among the more conservative, Republican-leaning regions of the state. Yet, it is our Republican president whose trade policies have unnerved a lot of our state’s agricultural producers given their need for overseas markets. For example, our state exports corn, wheat, beef and beef hides to China. Colorado wheat exports worldwide amount to about $400 million per year. The Trump administration has in some key respects been a free-trade skeptic even as Colorado’s own Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner has championed Colorado ag exporters in their quest for expanding opportunities abroad.
How does the Farm Bureau, and the state’s ag community in general, navigate that somewhat awkward standoff? How is the renegotiation of NAFTA going to affect Colorado agriculture in exporting to Mexico and Canada?
Martini: The interaction with China, in particular, is concerning, but agriculture is generally aligned on the need to pressure China to be a more responsible actor when it comes to global trade. Producers are looking at this in the long term and hoping to ensure that the next generation of farmers and ranchers have free and fair access to foreign markets, in China and other countries.
Unlike some other states that are very exposed to China, Colorado's largest trading partners are Canada, Mexico, South Korea, and Japan. This makes the USMCA (United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement) critically important for Colorado agriculture. We've worked extensively with the business community, policy makers, and our friends in the Mexican and Canadian consulates to ensure USMCA was negotiated well and will ultimately be ratified by Congress.
The new agreement is expected to add $2.2 billion to total U.S. ag exports on top of the $40 billion we have under the current NAFTA, and Colorado is well positioned to capitalize on that increase. We've also been buoyed by recent actions that provide us increased access to Japanese and European markets for Colorado's top ag export, beef.
CP: Colorado’s decisive swing to the left in last November’s election is arguably a symptom of an underlying, and much longer-standing, realignment of the state’s population away from our rural communities toward a more urban-suburban axis. That seems to be reflected in a legislature whose members include fewer members from agriculture from one election to the next, regardless of the legislature’s partisan makeup. All of which has the potential to deepen Colorado’s rural-urban divide.
How do farmers, ranchers and rural communities in general stay relevant and maintain a voice in that evolving political culture?
Martini: Working in the world of agricultural public policy, the divide between rural and urban Colorado is nothing new. It's always been our responsibility to ensure that policy makers have the tools and information they need to assess how their votes will impact our communities.
We find that a lack of prior experience in agriculture or rural issues doesn't prevent legislators from being willing to learn and defer to our expertise. We have great working relationships with many urban legislators and we love providing opportunities for them to increase their knowledge and make better policy.
We are also working to engage as a rural voice in policy discussions that aren’t typically considered agriculture-centric. For example, you found us engaging heavily on transportation issues in the last couple of sessions, and on issues like family medical leave last session. Our members are committed to continuing that engagement in the future and I think you will increasingly see us have a voice in those kinds of conversations.
CP: One dynamic of the state’s rural-urban standoff is the perennial joust over water. As cities grow along the thirsty Front Range, is there hope for a lasting truce in Colorado’s water wars?
Martini: Most of what we hear in terms of solutions, such as increased conservation, management tools like alternative transfer mechanisms, and more trans-mountain diversions, only exacerbate the water wars and delay the inevitable. We need more supply, and that means more storage. Our population growth alone will necessitate more storage, but growth in other states, particularly in the southwest will put pressure on us as well. And as a headwaters state, we can't rely on an upstream state to fill our demand.
All of Colorado, not just agriculture, has a responsibility to fulfill our interstate water compact obligations, and we need more storage to meet future demand, here and in other states.
CP: What are the other top policy issues facing agriculture in the state right now?
Martini: We continue to be concerned about the inability of the legislature to find a solution to the state's transportation funding problem. And while progress has been made on expanding opportunities for continued broadband buildout, we think more can be done at both the state and local level to encourage investments in broadband infrastructure.
This is all set against the backdrop of dramatically low commodity prices and a looming agricultural financial crisis. Nationwide, net farm income is half what it was five years ago, so we are on the lookout for legislation or regulation that could increase our cost of doing business and squeeze our almost nonexistent margins.
CP: Tell us a little about your background and what inspired you to enter the world of policy advocacy.
Martini: I grew up in the ag industry and have spent time on cow-calf ranches, feedlots, row-crop farms, and performance horse facilities. I was lucky enough to be introduced to Farm Bureau in college where I studied ag business. I worked in communications early in my career and pivoted to policy and advocacy when it became clear that agriculture needed to broaden its base and start reaching out to other industries that shared our policy aims, priorities, and values. Those broadened stakeholder efforts have created productive partnerships which advance Farm Bureau policy in telecom, energy, utilities, and transportation in addition to our work on traditional agriculture and farm policy.
CP: As is the case in agriculture nationwide, it’s getting harder to keep a lot of Colorado’s farms and ranches in operation. Among other considerations, farming and ranching is hard work, and as a business proposition, it’s risky and subject to a lot of uncertainties. It’s understandable that a lot of young people growing up in agriculture will be lured away by the job prospects and relative prosperity of city life. What policies could help encourage young people to stay on the farm, so to speak, and pursue careers in agriculture?
Martini: Its a tricky problem that our entire industry faces. The brain drain from rural communities is a real problem. But that is changing, with more people in agriculture putting a premium on keeping multi-generational farms and ranches profitable and in the family. Our land grant universities are doing a great job training students for the agriculture careers of tomorrow, with an emphasis on new farm and ranch management techniques and emerging technology.
Many young people with non-agriculture backgrounds are showing an interest in joining the industry. While that path is difficult, we are working to ensure resources are available to help make those operators as successful as possible. This has all been a problem for a while, but I see agriculture turning a corner to where we have all the talent we need to be successful far into the future.