PUEBLO, Colo. (AP) – To hear John Salazar tell it, Congress is no place for a farmer.

Some 10 months after the Democrat and former member of the U.S. House’s powerful Appropriations Committee lost a bitter re-election campaign for a fourth term, he says he’s happier in jeans and a cowboy hat leading the Colorado Agriculture Department.

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Salazar, a Manassa potato farmer, smiled broadly as he greeted farmers and local water officials to the Colorado State Fair last week. He shifted gears effortlessly on any number of farm topics — from the weather (perfect in some parts of the state, a full-blown drought in others), labor problems facing farmers and ranchers and the high demand for hay prompted by shortages in Texas. Everywhere he went, farmers and even old political foes seemed glad to see him.

Climbing into a golf cart to zip across the fairgrounds, Salazar talked about expanding his southern Colorado farm and shook his head when asked whether he misses the marble halls of Congress.

“Everything’s gotten so ugly there,” said Salazar, the older brother of U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and a former state lawmaker. “While I loved the experience there, the climate has gotten so ugly I don’t wish I was there. I love Colorado, being here.”

Salazar was elected to Congress in 2004, representing a sprawling southern and western Colorado district about the size of Arkansas. He replaced former Republican Rep. Scott McInnis, who stepped down to honor a term-limit pledge. For six years, Salazar benefited from a national and state turn toward the Democrats. In 2008 Salazar won with nearly two-thirds of the vote.

But Salazar was defeated last fall by Republican Scott Tipton, a Cortez businessman who lost badly to Salazar in 2006. Tipton’s rematch capitalized on voter dissatisfaction with the economy and a health care law Salazar supported.

Democrats are gunning for Tipton, indicating the 3rd District may be their best shot in Colorado to knock off a Republican in 2012. State House Democratic Leader Sal Pace of Pueblo hopes to unseat Tipton.

Salazar said he never considered running again.

Can Democrats take the seat back? “It’s a tough row to hoe,” Salazar said, and then changed the topic back to farming.

Even though Salazar didn’t talk much about the position he lost, he heaped plenty of scorn on Congress as a whole while talking to farmers on an advisory panel that meets several times a year.

“The partisanship in Washington is as horrible as it’s ever been. There’s no working together any more, it’s just like this,” Salazar said, pounding his knuckles together.

Salazar told the farmers not to expect much from this Congress. There are too few working farmers there, he said.

“People that are creating ag policy know nothing about agriculture,” Salazar said.

Salazar may have soured on national politics, but he’s not averse to politically charged dilemmas facing farms. He’s had a tumultuous few months in his new gig.

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A few months after taking office, Salazar had to calm nervous horse owners after a Western outbreak of equine herpes virus hit Colorado harder than any other state.

About the same time, a Fort Morgan dairy was raided by federal immigration authorities, sending ripples of fear through an industry that relies on foreign workers. In July, Salazar successfully pushed a resolution by the Western Association of State Departments of Agriculture backing a guest-worker program.

Talking to the farmers in Pueblo, Salazar said the industry needs to push Congress to take up immigration so that farmers and ranchers can find help.

“We should create a guest-worker program that includes something about human rights, that families can stay together and immigrant workers are treated fairly,” Salazar said in Pueblo. The farmers nodded.

The plan would require workers currently here illegally to pay a fine, take English classes and undergo background checks to get permission to stay. Salazar was careful to point out what’s not in the guest-worker plan.

“It doesn’t talk about citizenship at all,” Salazar said.

A Republican at the fair said he’s a Tipton supporter but gave Salazar high marks for addressing the delicate immigration question.

“He seems to be doing a real level-headed job,” said state Rep. J. Paul Brown, a sheep rancher from Ignacio. “I like the guest-worker idea. I am totally opposed to illegal immigration, but I’m in favor of having legal workers. We can’t find the workforce here.”

Salazar’s predecessor, former Agriculture Commissioner John Stulp, said Salazar’s political experience, his understanding of Congress and the political sensitivities around a topic like immigration, makes him a valuable asset for farmers.

He has that “added dimension” of knowing federal issues that impact agriculture here, said Stulp, now a special adviser to Gov. John Hickenlooper on water issues.

Even some farmers who said they have little time to pay attention to Washington say Salazar’s background makes him a good fit for his new role.

“It really helps to have someone with that connection,” said Barbara Marty, who raises corn and barley on 480 acres in Strasburg.

– By Kristen Wyatt, AP Writer

LINK:  Colorado Department of Agriculture

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