From The Denver Post (Lynn Bartels):
Outgoing agricultural commissioner John Salazar could barely contain his pride as he pointed out the John Fielder photographs, the file cards containing decades of cattle brands and the conference rooms named for Colorado rivers.
“Mira,” he said, pointing to the quilt hanging on the landing between the first and second floors of the new agriculture headquarters in Broomfield.
“Mira,” he said, showing off former Gov. Roy Romer’s picture on a wall of photographs. “I bet you didn’t know he used to be the agricultural commissioner.”
Look at this. Look at that. Mira.
John Salazar spoke little English before going to school and he still sprinkles Spanish into some of his sentences. Look at that stunning picture of the Rio Grande headwaters. A closer inspection reveals it was shot by Salazar himself.
“That’s what I’m going home to,” Salazar said.
Salazar opted against a second term as Colorado’s agricultural commissioner so he can return to the San Luis Valley and his family. A replacement has yet to be named. Asked if his wife, Mary Lou, was thrilled to have him home full time, Salazar laughed. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe you should call and ask her.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper wasn’t that surprised by Salazar’s decision. “His heart is on the ranch,” Hickenlooper said, calling Salazar the “patriot of the prairie.”
“And you want someone to run that agency who would rather be ranching. You want people who understand the ups and downs of farming in Colorado, somebody who knows that life.”
John Salazar knows that life. The 61-year-old grew up with seven siblings on a ranch that has been in his family for six generations.
Salazar served on the Governor’s Economic Development Advisory Board during Romer’s tenure, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and the Colorado Agricultural Leadership Forum. He also served on the Colorado Agricultural Commission from 1999 to 2002.
He and his younger brother, Ken, made national news in 2004 when they were both elected to Congress. John, a state lawmaker from Manassa, won a seat in the U.S. House, while Ken, the attorney general, won an open seat in the U.S. Senate.
Their humble beginnings provided for a great story line. The Salazars’ parents, Henry and Emma, had stressed an education above all else — John used to check out a slew of books every week from the Manassa library. The ranch didn’t have electricity until 1981; the children studied by oil lamps.
“Send a farmer to Congress,” was John Salazar’s slogan, and voters did just that in three elections. But his political fortunes changed in 2010, a tough year for Democrats. Republicans turned the slogan around, saying, “Send a congressman to the farm.”
By that time, Ken Salazar was serving as President Barack Obama’s secretary of the Interior.
After John Salazar lost to Republican state Rep. Scott Tipton of Cortez, Hickenlooper, who had just been elected governor, asked the outgoing congressman to serve as the agriculture commissioner.
Salazar said when he discussed the position with the governor-elect in 2010, he asked for the autonomy to run the department “as I saw fit.”
“The governor has been awesome,” Salazar said. “You know what I love about him? While he may not be a farmer or a rancher or know a whole lot about about agriculture, he knows the importance of it.”
State Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, said he thinks Salazar has been a better agricultural commissioner than he was a congressman.
“As the commissioner he did what he thought was right and he did really well,” said Brown, who raises sheep. “He understood our issues.”
Coming out on top
But the Colorado Department of Agriculture is more than ranches and farms, as it points out on its website. “If you’ve ever bought groceries, adopted a dog, or fertilized your lawn, the Colorado Department of Agriculture has served you.”
The department measures grocery store scales to ensure they are accurate. It inspects dog groomers and breeding operations. It oversees the Colorado State Fair and conducts pesticide inspections.
The biggest disaster under Salazar’s tenure came in 2011 when more than 25 people died eating Colorado cantaloupe improperly processed by Jensen Farms, sparking one of the deadliest American food-illness outbreaks in 100 years.
In the wake of the outbreak, Rocky Ford cantaloupe growers implemented changes, creating the Rocky Ford Growers Association where members must agree to twice-a-year safety audits conducted by inspectors in the state Agriculture Department.
“We came back stronger than ever,” Salazar said.
Despite historic fires, floods and droughts, the export of agricultural products, which was $869 million in 2009, is forecast at $2.25 billion this fiscal year. Colorado ships 66 percent of all fresh-market potatoes sent to Mexico.
“We’ve accomplished a hell of a lot,” Salazar said, and then corrected himself. “Say we’ve accomplished a heck of a lot.”
Born: July 1953 in Alamosa, the third eldest of Henry and Emma Salazar’s eight children
Raised: On the family ranch 14 miles north of the New Mexico border
Family: He and his wife, Mary Lou, have three grown sons: Esteban, Miguel and Jesus, and three grandchildren
First political election: Won a seat in the Colorado House in 2002
Congress: First elected to the U.S. House in 2004, the same year that his younger brother Ken was elected to the U.S. Senate; served three terms.
Colorado: Tapped by Gov. John Hickenlooper to serve as the state agricultural commissioner in 2011