At the Center for Rural Affairs, we have begun crafting s series of proposals for the 2012 Farm Bill. We'll be adding to this page as more proposals are developed. Please send us your ideas too. Rural people have much at stake in the upcoming debate.
Investment in rural development has fallen by nearly one-third since 2003. Action to reverse this decline is critical to creating and sustaining vibrant rural communities. The farm bill already includes a diverse set of rural development programs that serve a range of rural community needs. What we lack is significant investment in these programs.
What We Propose: In the next farm bill, commit at least $500 million over five years to a new Rural Community Renewal Fund. The fund would be allocated by the Secretary of Agriculture to existing rural development programs, with an emphasis on capturing emerging opportunities in areas such as broadband, renewable energy, food systems and ecotourism. Priority would be placed on communities suffering population loss, low median incomes, high poverty or sudden and severe job loss.
A portion of the fund would be reserved to support each of the following areas:
- Rural Entrepreneurship through support for the Value Added Producer Grants Program, Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program, and additional loan and grant programs that support the start-up and development of small enterprises.
- Strengthen Communities through support for the Rural Community Development Initiative, the Community Facilities Programs and other community infrastructure and development programs that build the capacity of small communities.
Our proposal to commit $100 million per year to rural development represents less than one-half of one percent of farm spending allocated by the farm bill and one-sixth of one percent of total funding allocated by the farm bill. That amount of funding can be found within the existing pool of farm bill funding.
Though $100 million dollars per year is small in the context of all spending allocated by the farm bill, it would represent a significant increase in funding to build and maintain vibrant rural communities.
See our reports An Analysis of Awardees of the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program and Federal Rural Development in Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, both published in October 2011.
Cutting Paperwork in Rural Development Programs
The paperwork burdens of USDA rural development programs have grown to the point that some small towns don’t even consider applying. At the same time, top USDA officials are complaining that recent staffing cuts have left them with too few people to administer their programs.
These two problems share a common solution – simplify programs so it’s easier for rural communities to apply, and USDA staff can spend less time sifting through paper.
We have developed a proposal that we are shopping to Congressional offices to address the problem. It would direct the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a commission to recommend changes in USDA regulations to make Rural Development Programs less expensive to administer and more user friendly – so they are more accessible to small towns without professional grant writers and small rural development organizations.
The Commission would be made up of people using its programs – small town officials and rural development professionals – as well as experts in business and administrative efficiency.
There is precedent for such commissions prompting real improvements. The University of Nebraska has convened three similar commissions over the last 17 years. Each provided recommendations that resulted in savings and improvements in administrative processes.
Congress is preparing to take up both farm bill renewal and budget cutting legislation, making the next two years a critical time to focus on priorities that take common sense steps to cut spending.
The first step taken by the Congressional Super Committee convened to cut the budget deficit should be to cap the unlimited payments that subsidize the nation's largest farms to drive smaller operations out of business. Unlimited subsidies are the single most wasteful and counterproductive feature of current farm policy. Enough money could be saved by these reforms to reduce the deficit and invest in the future of family farming, land conservation, and in building a bright future for our small towns.
The Committee should start with federal crop and revenue insurance subsidies to mega farms. They are the most expensive element of farm programs, costing $7 billion annually. And if one big corporation farmed all of America, USDA would pay 60 percent of its insurance premiums on every acre for protection from low prices and crop failure. Why should the federal government pay 60% of crop insurance premiums on every acre of the largest farms and richest landowners in America in the midst of record high farm income and record federal deficits?
The Committee should also close loopholes in the cap on other farm payments. Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Tim Johnson (D-SD) have again introduced legislation to close those loopholes, but it is not incorporated in either the President’s proposal or any of the budget proposals introduced in Congress.
Many policy makers and agricultural organizations have called for eliminating the direct payments made every year when prices are high, in return for stronger protections against falling prices and failing crops. We agree. But the protection should be aimed at family size farms. There should not be a safety net to protect against the risk of farming the whole county and driving the neighbors out of business.
We have pulled together the best ideas from around the country for advancing new farming opportunities and turned them into a new piece of legislation.
The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act draws on progress made in previous farm bills but picks up the pace of reform, seeking a cross-cutting comprehensive approach to address beginning farmer and rancher needs.
The bill has been introduced in the House and the Senate. Some highlights include:
- Continue the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, a highly successful training and mentoring program for beginning farmers and ranchers. It calls for including an additional grant purpose on agriculture rehabilitation and vocational training programs for returning military veterans.
- Begin a Beginning Farmer and Rancher Individual Development Account Program that would establish a match savings program for beginners, enabling them to generate capital to use towards their farming or ranching operation.
- Create a new microloan lending category within the Farm Service Agency loan programs to help deliver credit to those beginners looking for small amounts of capital to get started.
- Increase the set-aside for beginning farmers and ranchers under the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program from 5 percent to 10 percent.
- Increase the advanced payment provision for beginning farmers and ranchers under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program from 30 percent to 50 percent.
These are just a few of the provisions from the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act. See more details here. We’ll fight to see these and all provisions of the bill incorporated in the new farm bill. These measures will make a big difference in giving our next generation of farmers and ranchers the opportunity to enter agriculture successfully.
In the debate over the 2012 Farm Bill, we will fight for a Conservation Title that rewards stewardship of the land and communities.
The 2008 Farm Bill included several conservation programs that were steps in the right direction. The 2012 Farm Bill should improve and enhance these provisions.
The Conservation Stewardship Program rewards farmers who practice environmental stewardship year round, while also providing opportunity to adopt additional conservation practices.
That is far better than only paying the worst actors to change, which places the nation’s best environmental stewards at a disadvantage in competing for land. The ultimate outcome shifts landownership toward those who care little about stewardship and practice it only when paid.
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program Organic Initiative helps producers transition into organic production systems. It also helps those who are already organic add additional conservation practices. The 2012 Farm Bill should maintain this support.
The next farm bill should make better use of the Cooperative Conservation Partnerships Initiative to bring conservation and rural development together as compatible goals. Uncrowded natural space is a key environmental amenity that many farm and ranch communities could provide. This program could give priority and bonus payments for enrollments that allow public access as part of a community development plan.
Last but not least, the new farm bill should bar federal crop insurance and disaster payments for conversion of native sod and fragile lands to cropland in response to high grain prices. The consequences of lost grassland are a significant step backwards in conservation.
Congress should remember that while we have a moral obligation to leave the land better that we received it, the public has an obligation to protect the land and water on which all of us – current and future generations – rely for survival. With continued pressure to reduce spending and bring our budget in line, important conservation programs that provide public benefits need not be sacrificed.
Contact Traci Bruckner for more information, firstname.lastname@example.org or 402.687.2100.
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