Sen. Gardner hears area ag concerns
Availability and compliance issues associated with the agriculture worker visa program, grazing permit concerns and foreign trade policies were high on the minds of Garfield County sheep and cattle ranchers who met Tuesday with U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner.
The Republican senator visited the Roberts sheep ranch north of New Castle as part of his annual Colorado farm listening tour to discuss agricultural policy and other issues impacting the industry.
“We’re a small family operation, and we can’t afford to hire a big staff to do all the paperwork,” Kevin Roberts said during the senator’s visit to his father Calvin Roberts’ ranch overlooking Grass Valley just off the Buford Road.
Besides the limited number of visas available through the H-2A guest worker program, stringent rules governing worker housing and equipment make it difficult for Colorado’s wool growers to comply, he said.
A required 500-foot setback between worker quarters and livestock facilities in particular is “uncalled for, unnecessary and quite frankly asinine,” Roberts said.
His uncle Warren Roberts agreed and related a recent experience when three Department of Labor inspectors showed up at his ranch.
“I’m all right if they come in and tell us what’s wrong, and we’ll do what we need to do to correct it,” he said. But the inspections are “overbearing” and the fines for small violations over the top, he said.
Gardner said he has heard similar complaints during his tour, which began Monday night in Craig and included a roundtable discussion in Meeker before his stop in Garfield County.
The gathering included some of the Roberts’ neighboring cattle ranchers. Later Tuesday, the senator was set to visit a beekeeper in Cortez and an anasazi bean grower in Dove Creek, followed by stops in the San Luis Valley today.
“We have to find a fix to the guest worker side of H-2A … so you have the workforce you need,” Gardner told the gathering, adding he is in favor of loosening the rules.
Federal grazing land permits are also being squeezed by efforts to protect bighorn sheep habitat, Calvin Roberts said.
“We’re getting pushed farther and farther every year,” he said.
The ranchers also expressed concerns that both the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, have said they oppose ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Gardner said the deal could mean $250 million in new economic activity for Colorado’s agricultural industry.
“This will have to be dealt with in the lame duck session of Congress, because we can’t wait for a new administration to come in,” Gardner said, adding that either Trump or Clinton could be swayed on the issue if it comes to that.
“If we walk away, our trade partners are going to say they can’t count on the United States,” he said.
The meeting also touched on agricultural water rights issues and high health insurance costs and lack of competition under Obamacare, which affects farmers and ranchers as independent business owners.
“Colorado agriculture is so diverse, and coming from rural Colorado myself I know how important it is to have policies that make sense for our farmers and ranchers,” Gardner said after the meeting.
As an aside, asked what it would take for him to endorse his party’s nominee for president, Gardner said he would have to be assured that Donald Trump shared the values that are important to Colorado.
So far, Gardner has remained silent about whether he supports Trump. On Monday, however, he joined a growing group of Republicans critical of Trump’s recent verbal feud with a Muslim-American couple whose son died while serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq, after the father of the soldier called Trump out during the Democratic National Convention last week.
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