It didn’t take long for John Salazar, who represented CD 3 in Congress for three terms before losing his seat in the Republican tsunami of 2010, to rekindle his passion upon leaving Washington.
He’s returned home to Colorado where he and his family grow potatoes, hay, barley and raise cattle on his ranch in Manassa in the San Luis Valley. But the genial Salazar, who forged a reputation as a centrist in Congress as a member of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, also has a new role in the Hickenlooper administration as the state’s Commissioner of Agriculture. It suits him well. Salazar previously served on the Colorado Agricultural Leadership Forum and was also on the Colorado Agricultural Commission from 1999 to 2002 before being elected to the Colorado House of Representatives from 2003 until 2004. Now he spends his days helping the new governor market the state through its varied agricultural products.
Does he ever think about running for political office again and returning to the nation’s capital? His response pretty much says it all: “I love what I’m doing, I love being in Colorado, I love being able to be close to my family and you know, spend a little more time on the ranch,” Salazar says.
The Colorado Statesman interviewed Salazar recently at his Commissioner’s office in Lakewood and also spent some time with him in Grand Junction and Palisade as he promoted Colorado Wine Week. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Colorado Statesman (CS): How do you like living up here?
John Salazar: Well, I just stay here like three, four days a week. Mary Lou and I bought a house out here on Kipling. It’s about three miles away, it’s nice. But we have such a lot of work to do back on the ranch; we’re raising cattle and my son manages most of it but…Esteban, he’s 30. He loves it. He’s really excited about it.
CS: Are you growing potatoes and barley?
JS: We grow potatoes, wheat, barley, canola, certified seed canola and a lot of hay.
CS: A lot of hay. It’s been a good year, hasn’t it?
JS: Well, you know, it’s dry down south. That’s the biggest concern that we have. Most of the rainfall… It’s been a cool, wet spring, most of the rainfall, snow has been on the northern part of the state. But the south…
CS: Has been more dry.
JS: Probably the south half of the state is very, very dry. It’s not as dry as 2001, but our snow pack was about 70 percent to 80 percent of normal, max, and the wind has been brutal. Yesterday it was blowing 60 miles an hour all day long (laughs).
CS: And when do you harvest?
JS: We begin harvesting barley in August around about the 10th of August or so and then we begin harvesting potatoes towards probably… We try to start by about the 25th of August.
CS: And how long does that take?
JS: We raise certified seed potatoes, so it’s very difficult. But my brother LeRoy handles most of that.
CS: Is there still time this summer for it to be a good season in terms of rain?
JS: Oh yeah, yeah. We hope it comes a little bit early, that we start getting moisture. Right now there’s water… For example, the Rio Grande River is now starting to get larger and larger because the snow melt, the higher snow melt is actually just starting now.
CS: Do you feel comfortable in the new position (as Agriculture Commissioner)? Was there a lot to learn?
JS: Well you know, there’s a lot of the things that I have done over the last several years, actually. Creating the legislation, for example, the 2008 Farm Bill, there’s a lot to learn but I feel very comfortable where I’m at, I would say. We’re actually now able to implement some of the legislation that we have. For example, I was the author of the Specialty Crops Provision in the 2008 Farm Bill and now we’re actually implementing those programs. So actually it’s been a lot of fun, it really has. And I’m dealing with people I really care about, and the politics isn’t there, so that’s nice. It’s more about serving the public in a good way.
CS: And does it feel good to be back in Colorado?
JS: Oh, Colorado’s great. I mean I’m closer to my family and the commute isn’t nearly as far (laughs).
CS: Well, you had a huge district.
CS: I mean that must have been physically exhausting, just going back…
JS: Well, it was, it was. But you know, I enjoyed it… I have no regrets whatsoever. I enjoyed serving the public and I’ve never considered myself a politician, I’ve considered myself a public servant. We had so much fun, the district is so pretty and so beautiful.
CS: Oh, it’s beautiful.
JS: It is really. And I got Mark Udall to finally agree to that, but I did represent the most beautiful district in the entire country (laughs). I know he was a little partial to his, but…
CS: Well, you know, Colorado has beauty in a lot of different places but your district was always right up there.
JS: It is. And the difficulty with the 3rd Congressional is it’s so diverse and so you have your pockets of super conservatives and your pockets of super liberals. And in general, you know, it’s hard to… I’m a moderate and I try to bring both sides to the center and try to work things out. And sometimes it’s a little difficult but you know… I have no regrets. It was so much fun serving Congress.
CS: Do you ever think about possibly going back?
JS: No, no. No.
JS: I’m happy where I’m at, I really am. My wife was asking me that actually yesterday, day before. She said, “You know…” Because I talked to some of my friends like Dennis Moore and John Tanner — we were Blue Dog Coalition, as a matter of fact, the ones that are actually voted out, most of the centrists in Congress. And some of them are actually having a few withdrawals.
CS: Withdrawal syndrome?
JS: Withdrawal syndrome. But you know, I don’t. I just love
it. I love what I’m doing, I love being in Colorado, I love being able to be close to my family and you know, spend a little more time on the ranch. We had expanded our cattle herd, too. A little over 600 cows. We had already done that previous to the actual election. And so dealing with that, it’s like a brand new experience for both my son and I because we used to have some cattle but it wasn’t this huge.
CS: What do you do with the cattle?
JS: We raise organic beef. And what we’ve been now doing is we had to brand all these new cattle that we bought, but we’re also calving, so we have a calf operation. And for example, we just moved them up to our spring range, which is the Bureau of Land Management, BLM range. And around June 21st we’ll actually be moving them out to the mountains, Forest Service permitting. And that’s above the Rio Grande Reservoir, it’s beautiful country and we ride horseback a lot up there. And it’s a new experience for us because we’ve never owned a Forest Service permit. My grandfather used to have some but this is really great.
CS: You said it’s organic beef?
CS: Is that a lot different than raising cattle?
JS: Well, it’s more labor intensive and you have to be…
CS: There’s more regulation, isn’t there?
JS: Yeah, and intensive record keeping. We keep daily
records on every cow. You know, what we feed them, if we vaccinate them, when we brand them.
JS: When we move them from one pasture to another. It’s pretty intensive record keeping.
CS: But it’s worth it? Can you tell a lot the difference in taste and everything?
JS: Well, I do. I mean of course I’m partial to Salazar organic beef, but it’s actually very good. A lot of people think it’s a little tougher but if you work it properly and you have the right breed of cattle you can actually get it to marble out so it is healthier and at the same time it’s very tender.
CS: What do you do with it? Do you sell it?
JS: Yeah, to Whole Foods.
CS: Do you really?
JS: Um-hmm. Yeah, we have one contract with Whole Foods and actually, if we could produce more, they’d take it all probably. Right now there’s huge demand on cattle. You know, the numbers… the livestock industry is doing very, very well because the numbers of livestock, of cattle in the entire United States have gone down quite a bit. And what’s happened is the American consumer, they actually have a little bit more disposable income to spend on food. You know, for example several years ago they were spending up to like 12 to 13 percent to 15 percent of their disposable income on food. Now they only spend 6.8 percent.
CS: In Colorado or just in the country?
JS: In the country in general. But a lot of people don’t mind paying a little extra for organic stuff. And you know, our export markets continue to grow here in Colorado, we’ve been pushing the president to try to get Congress to ratify the Korea Free Trade Agreement. We had the Korean Ambassador here, Senator Udall and I were with them for a whole day here in Denver. And you know, things I worked on in Congress such as the Columbia Free Trade Agreement, I worked with the Secretary and President Bush to try to get that ratified. And we’re hoping that that would happen.
CS: How would that affect Colorado in particular?
JS: Colorado’s one of the largest exporters of wheat to Columbia right now and we could actually expand that market, and I’m sure our beef market. Korea is our fourth largest, I guess, trade partner as far as Colorado goes. Let me just give you some stats on that so that I don’t make a mistake here. Korea’s Colorado’s fourth largest agricultural export market. Colorado supplies 5 percent of Korea’s U.S. hide imports and it represents $19 million. Korea is also a major importer of hard red winter wheat to Colorado.
CS: So it’s a large…
JS: Right. And if we can ratify this Free Trade Agreement, I think our markets will pick up.
CS: Is that a likelihood?
JS: I think there is a good chance. I mean I know the president has been pushing for it. He’s been pushing for, actually, all three of… I mean that’s been one of his priorities. And if you listen to Secretary Vilsack, almost every word he speaks he talks about the importance of ag exports out of the United States. Just because we firmly believe that agriculture is what’s going to help lead this country out of the recession. And Governor Hickenlooper believes that as well as I do and he has mandated that we help increase exports out of the state by 40 percent over the next four years. And to be honest with you, the first quarter of 2011, ag exports out of this state alone have gone up by 32 percent. So I think things are looking very positive.
CS: Great, great.
JS: So we’ve just got 8 percent to go and we will have achieved our goal. But we think we can actually surpass our goal. We’ll see what the overall average is for the year…
CS: Another important concern of yours, am I correct, is water?
JS: I signed up to be on Governor’s Water Task Force, John Stulp and I and others as well. And that is one of our major challenges to Colorado; as Colorado continues to grow we have limited water supplies and of course they’re more abundant in some areas this year than in others. But we’re going to have to develop a plan, I think, for Colorado’s future growth because we can’t continue to dry up agriculture. Agriculture’s probably one of the greatest or has one of the greatest impacts on our state’s economy, because agriculture touches almost everything. Whether it’s the steel industry, whether it’s manufacturing, whether it’s fuel, almost everything that ag uses, it touches almost every other sector of the economy. And so we’re hoping that we can come up with a statewide future water plan so that we find alternatives to ag dry-up. You know, as long as this country continues to be able to produce great food, the most abundant and safest and most inexpensive food supply in the world, we’ll continue to be a safe country. We’ve seen what’s happened when other countries end up producing… like our petroleum products, you know, they can bring us to our knees pretty quickly and it’s very expensive. So hopefully we can continue to maintain our food independence status and become, actually, a surplus country where we actually can provide food to other countries.
We face a major challenge. But over the next 50 years, American farmers will have to produce as much food as the entire world has produced over the last thousand years.
CS: Last thousand? That’s quite a bit.
JS: It is. But see, the American farmer is very, very efficient. Like I said, you know, consumers now are spending even less for their food than they have in the past.
CS: You’re a statewide official, so you represent all of the state.
CS: Do you still find that there is a division between like Denver people who want their water and other parts of the state, that there’s an education gap maybe?
JS: Absolutely, and that’s one of the things that we were actually trying to reach out to the general public. I was in (the) state Legislature and ever since we’ve been… I’ve always represented the Western Slope and the San Luis Valley, and of course there’s always been this intense pressure to bring water from those areas for urban growth here. But we have to educate our urban counterparts.
You know, agriculture is so important to the state and we can’t dry up the prettiest part of the state to just continue growing here in this part of the state. But I believe there’s alternatives and there are solutions. For example, there’s new technologies that have been developed through our work and the space station, a lot of technologies have been developed in Israel where we can actually begin to build self sustaining urban areas. For example if we, instead of growing out we should be growing up and we should be able to use the tech- nologies that we already have and implement them here in the urban areas. As long as you don’t use water in a consumptive way for greenery for golf courses, for lawns, water can be cleaned to infinity and it can be recycled and used over and over and over again. So it should not have a limitation on growth. But we have to invest in the technology. For example, in the space station, astronauts don’t take tankers of water up there every time they fly up there but they have such a self sustaining capsule. When I talk to the astronauts they tell me that they even recycle the condensation from the walls of the space station, even the sweat, you know, and they have good, clean drinking water. But they have a way to recycle.
CS: Do you think we’ll get to that point where…?
JS: I think we’re going to have to. If agriculture continues to still supply an inexpensive water supply, that’s where people will go to get their water. But I think if people begin to understand that it’s such an important part of Colorado, agriculture is, I think we’ll start developing those technologies. It’s expensive, and that’s the problem.
CS: Right. I think people in Denver, and myself included, we see all the rain that we’ve had…
CS: And the snow pack is higher than usual so we think everything’s okay. But as you mentioned, in the southern part of the state it’s very different.
JS: We’re very, very dry. As a matter of fact, winds were blowing there yesterday about 50 to 60 miles an hour and I thought oh my goodness, dirt flying all over the place. We have enough irrigation water, I think, to start our crops but we’re hoping that the monsoon season will bring us more moisture down south.
CS: Colorado does have its own wine industry now.
JS: Right. Actually our department actually runs the Colorado Wine development board. For example, let me just show you: the industry here in Colorado has increased almost 70 percent over the last five years. Colorado now has an estimated 120 grape growers and they tend nearly 1,000 acres of vineyards. And so we also have more than 80 licensed commercial wineries and tasting rooms. June 5th through the 11th, the governor is going to proclaim as Colorado Wine Week.
CS: Do you ever see Colorado actually competing with California or anything?
JS: Well, just think several years ago Colorado wasn’t the largest beer producing state in the country and now we are.
CS: That’s true.
JS: I don’t think that we’ll ever be able to grow… because we just don’t have the land and the water that California does, but I think that we grow some very, very good specialty wines and with our wine marketing promotions that we do through the department, we’ve done quite well.
CS: Have you taste sampled Colorado wine?
JS: Have I? Yes, actually. There was a Wine Caucus Day when they’d host receptions in Washington and the Department and the Wine Board would actually take Colorado wines to Washington and I’ve sampled them. I buy Colorado wines as well. I like red wines.
CS: What are your goals as commissioner?
JS: Our goals are to pass that 40 percent goal that the governor has as far as increasing exports. And trying to develop that water plan that John Stulp and I and others are working on. One other thing that I’ve been working on and five other commissioners before me tried to do, is to try to consolidate our department because we’re spread out all over the city. There are seven different divisions in this department. We have the brand boards way down there at the stockyards, the inspection services down on Zuni. And so we’re trying to figure out a way where we could actually consolidate and be in one building so that we could, I think, create more efficiencies and have better relationships with all the different divisions of the department.
CS: The State Fair is one of the divisions, is it not?
CS: That’s always been an economic issue, whether the fair’s made some money.
JS: This is actually the first year that the State Fair has been able to cash flow. We have Chris Wiseman who is a great manager and he’s really been able to organize that and cut down expenses. If you look at what happened with the State Fair, it’s a huge economy for southern Colorado.
JS: In Southern Colorado we just don’t have things that
create economies and so I think it’s really good.
CS: There’s been some talk, we hear it every once in a while, of perhaps moving the State Fair.
JS: Well, you know, as long as I’m commissioner, I don’t think that’s going to happen. At least not if I have any say so in it. I think it belongs in Pueblo. We’ve made a lot of investment there and almost for the last 50 years people have thought of moving it to somewhere else (laughs), but…
CS: But that’s not going to happen.
JS: It’s not going to happen, I don’t think (laughs).
CS: Have you traveled to Israel?
JS: I did in Congress.
CS: Did you go into the Negev Desert at all?
JS: Yes, very much so, yes. Oh, you were there?
CS: I’ve been there and we saw the tomato plants that grow with very little water. It’s amazing what they’ve been able to do there.
JS: You know that Israel was the country that actually developed the drip system. And we were there with (former Israeli Prime Minister) Sharon, in fact Mary Lou accompanied me on that trip. But we went through the Negev Desert and we were able to see self sustaining villages where I mean they take brackish water and…
CS: It’s amazing, isn’t it?
JS: That’s what I’m talking about, this technology is incredible. It’s there, it’s just a matter of implementing it and being able to spend enough or have the money to implement to a greater scale. We can do that here in Colorado… We’re going to have to do it.
CS: Do you see that as like a way to the future?
JS: Yeah. You create efficiencies and you start lowering demand on our limited water supplies. I mean it was incredible…
CS: It’s funny because just as water is so important in Colorado, it’s very important there too.
JS: Can you imagine how limited a supply they have there? You know, desalinization plants, I don’t know how… I mean I know they have some in California that they use… I mean the ocean has a lot of water, maybe somehow we could do that here. I don’t know, I mean bring ocean water here, I don’t know (laughs).
CS: You like being back in government?
JS: Oh, it’s great. And it’s great to be in a position where you continue to serve the public without politics being involved.
CS: Right. One thing I did want to ask you about are potatoes, because we have been talking to the Colorado potato farmers and they were upset that at the beginning of the year, you know, the pyramid of eating in the schools, they were talking about decreasing potatoes.
JS: The consumption of potatoes, yes. Well, it hasn’t actually gone into effect. That’s what Secretary Vilsack and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has talked about. And we’ve been in constant contact with Secretary Vilsack and with (USDA Under Secretary Edward) Avalos trying to overturn that decision. You know, potatoes are a very healthy vegetable. I mean they’re high in potassium, high in iron, calcium, and they’re inexpensive as a meal. And it’s what you put on them that actually makes them unhealthy or if you fry them in fatty stuff.
CS: Is it an issue in Colorado with potato farmers objecting to it?
JS: Well, yeah, most potato farmers are very concerned about it, because…
CS: You too, or…?
JS: Yeah, well very much so. I’m a potato farmer myself and so… We believe that potatoes are one of the healthiest foods on the planet… Colorado’s the third largest fresh growing state in the country as far as potatoes. So it’s a great economy here in Colorado. Most of the potatoes are grown in the San Luis Valley, some up in the northern part by Greeley, but not that many. And so the impact on the San Luis Valley and the state, the less we eat potatoes, it’s going to have quite an impact.
And that brings up another point — we’ve been also working with Secretary Vilsack and with the administration, President Obama. When I was in Congress we actually were able to bring President Calderón from Mexico to meet with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus where we brought up the issue of a free market. There’s been some limitations on vegetables moving into Mexico because there’s been a controversy over the Mexican trucking issue. Now we’re in the process of resolving that, so that seems very promising. Once the first Mexican truck comes across the border, then there will be a free flow of vegetables from this country. Supposedly that’s what the agreement says. And so we’re very excited about it because it’ll actually create another great economic benefit to Colorado. Actually of all of the fresh market potatoes that go into Mexico right now, we only have access to the 26-kilometer zone, free market zone. But half of those fresh market potatoes actually come from Colorado, Colorado provides them. So we are just situated in just an ideal location to be able to ship more and export more potatoes from here to Mexico.
CS: Are there any other issues that you want to talk about that I haven’t asked you about?
JS: In some parts of northeast and southeast Colorado, we’re having some issues with grasshoppers. We’re working on trying to get some funding so that we can help treat some of those areas because grasshoppers could have a devastating effect on our wheat crop.
CS: Is that federal funding?
JS: Of course we might be able to leverage some federal funding, that’s what we’re trying to do, and there’s going to be some local matches done. We have the county, Yuma County, that is actually going to spearhead the effort there. So what we do is we hopefully can put together an emergency fund that will actually provide a dollar per acre. The rest of the funding will either be coming from maybe some USDA grants or from private individuals. Because you know, it can really affect their crops. I mean it can devastate… In Montana, just grasshoppers have eaten much of the 4-H, or they have in the last few years. And so we’re very concerned about that.
CS: Did you grow up in 4-H?
JS: No. We were too poor, lived out in the country and we couldn’t get into town to do 4-H stuff. So we just grew up working around horses and cattle (laughs).
CS: And you go back every weekend or…?
JS: Yeah, actually I try to get home every weekend. It’s a lot of work, so I work both places (laughs).
CS: Do you think the president is doing well?
JS: President Obama? Oh, I think he’s doing great. If you look at what we were able to do in the last election cycle…the last 111th Congress, that was probably the most accomplished Congress. I mean we passed healthcare reform but at the same time we averted the country from going into a massive depression. And so we took some really, really tough votes and you know, we paid for it but that’s okay. It’s important and I’ve always thought public service is something that my father always used to talk about, he said, “Whatever you do, you always stand up for what is right, even if you’re standing alone.” I would never change…
CS: No regrets.
JS: No regrets. I would never change a single one of my votes because I always took them with… not with a grain of salt, I always made sure that they were well thought out votes. You know, if I felt that they were bad for my district I would vote against them and if I thought it was good for my district I would vote for it. And so when I look back, I have no regrets whatsoever. It was a wonderful experience.
CS: And no desire to go back.
JS: No desire to go back to Washington D.C. I love Colorado too much.
CS: Do you miss anything about Washington?
JS: I miss some of the people, some of the people. But you know, it’s…
CS: It’s a different life there.
JS: Well, I think to me, even when I first went in, the politics wasn’t so ugly as it’s gotten to be. For example, I have wonderful friends in D.C. and I have a lot of members of Congress, both on the Republican and Democrat sides who are no longer there. And you know, we talk about how different it used to be even six years ago.
CS: Even in that time span?
JS: Yeah, I saw a great change. I mean that was one of the ugliest, I think, campaigns that we have ever had, in 2010. But that’s life (laughs).
CS: Well, you have a good attitude. Do you pay much attention to your successor or what he’s up to?
JS: Not too much. There are some issues that people bring to my attention here and there, you know? For example the Piñon Canyon issue… I hope that they can get that resolved, now having implemented the funding ban on the military to prohibit expansion of Piñon Canyon, because these ranchers and farmers didn’t have… you know, they don’t have a voice. There’s not that many votes out there and so a lot of people won’t pay attention to them. And so I’m hoping that he stands up for them.
CS: Is there anything else you want to say?
JS: No, I think that we live in the most beautiful state in the entire country and it’s been a pleasure serving both at the state level in the legislative branch and at the national level. And now I’m serving the administration in Colorado and it’s been fun, like I said.
CS: You enjoy working with our new governor?
JS: Oh, I’ll tell you, John Hickenlooper, he’s going to go down in history as one of the best governors of the State of Colorado. That’s what’s so refreshing about John Hickenlooper, is his politics are so much like mine. I believe he’s a moderate, he understands reason, he’s not an extremist either way. And the greatest thing about him is that he likes to accomplish things. When you look at why I think his first legislative session has been so successful, is because he doesn’t look at it as politics, he looks at it as public service. You look at his cabinet appointments, they’re Democrat and Republican, they’re not just all from the urban areas, they’re from all over the state. That’s so incredible. I don’t think there’s ever been a governor that’s ever accomplished that.
And when I go around the state, I’ve never heard anybody beating John Hickenlooper up… They’re still looking but in general they have a very positive opinion of him.
CS: It makes you feel good about the state.
JS: Oh, absolutely. And I mean I love him as a friend, he’s just a good friend and he’s just a good, wonderful person. So let’s hope we can continue moving the state forward.