Dear Secretary of Agriculture,
“Rural communities in America are at a critical point in history. For the past decade, rural America has not been well served by federal policies, and if Republicans and Democrats in Washington continue those misguided policies, rural families will see their economic fortunes fall further behind those of other Americans. But we have the power to set a different course. Innovative rural Americans have proven they can compete in the 21st century. But local initiative must be matched by federal policies that empower rural Americans and family farmers.”
Please consider these recommendations as you launch your efforts to achieve that mission.
Support grassroots entrepreneurship – The best development results from rural people creating their own jobs through small business, value-added agriculture, and other owner-operated ventures. It’s responsible for most of the new jobs in rural America. Grassroots entrepreneurship puts profits into local wallets of those who work. And it keeps control of the community’s future in the hands of its members.
But too often, rural entrepreneurs struggle to earn middle class incomes. Federal policy can give them a hand up. Good programs are already in place. The Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program funds loans, training and technical assistance for owner-operated businesses with 10 or fewer employees, the backbone of rural Main Streets.
The Value Added Producer Grant Program helps farmers and ranchers fund the feasibility studies, market research and business plans to launch value-added enterprises. USDA provides beginning farmer loans. The Farmers Market Promotion Program and Community Food Projects Grant Program create new opportunities for small farmers in local markets, while improving the diets of Americans.
But these are at the back of the line for funding. The new microentrepreneur program gets less funding each year to serve the whole nation than one mega farm got in some recent years. You can fix that by ensuring that legislation to jump start the economy with new federal spending supports each of these entrepreneurship programs.
We also need your leadership in developing a plan to get affordable high-speed internet service to every rural business and home. It’s essential to entrepreneurship.
The federal government stepped in to provide rural America access to mail, phone and electrical service so we could truly be part of America. In the 21st century, high-speed internet service is just as essential. Bring in the best experts to help you select the most promising approach among an array of emerging technologies. Money won’t solve the problem if you don’t have the right strategy.
Ensure that renewable energy builds wealth and opportunity in rural America – Rural America will provide an increasing share of America’s energy needs in coming decades. A recent Department of Energy study says it’s entirely practical for wind to provide 1/5 of the nation’s electricity by 2030, with Plains states providing the lion’s share. The plan calls for Nebraska, for example, to produce more wind electricity for export to other states by 2030 than we produce from all sources today.
The Department of Agriculture should help communities build lasting opportunities and wealth from the resulting boom. Develop policies to support local ownership of wind turbines by farmers and ranchers, communities, and the rural workers who maintain wind turbines.
Owner operation of farms and business made rural life better and rural communities stronger over the last century. Let’s take the same approach for the next century by enabling those who work in the new energy economy to share in the benefits of ownership.
Communities also need your help in building lasting wealth and businesses during the construction stage of wind energy development. Boom-bust cycles are good for no one. Communities with wind resources will need your support in transitioning their economies from the boom phase to lasting vitality.
Finally, help us find the right approach to biofuels. They can make climate change worse if we go too far in stripping crop residues from the land and thereby release soil organic matter as carbon dioxide. If we build the biofuels industry using a flawed approach, it will not serve America, and eventually the rug will be pulled out from under us.
As Secretary, you control the scientific resources to analyze the alternatives and develop strategies that make sense. You can help us avoid the economic pain that will be visited on rural America if we make the wrong choices.
Make federal policy work for family-size farms – No need is more obvious, or more politically difficult. But you have the backing of a president with a mandate for change. Seize it and move quickly.
Start by doing the things you can do on your own without action by Congress. Close farm payment limitation loopholes by requiring that payment recipients work and manage the farm or share rent it to someone who does. That will stop mega farmers from forming phony partnerships with 20 paper partners to receive 20 times the legal limit.
Use your authority under the 1921 Packers and Stockyards Act to level the playing field in livestock markets. Adopt regulations that prohibit packers from imposing an unfair competitive disadvantage on small producers by offering big volume premiums to mega producers.
Finally, move quickly with Congress by proposing legislation to impose a total cap of $250,000 on farm payments, and make the nominal $40,000 limit on direct payments a real limit. (Direct payments are the payments made every year regardless of commodity prices.) Work with Southerners to calibrate the policy so cotton, rice, and peanut producers reach the limits on comparable acreages to producers of Midwestern commodities and don’t take disproportionate cuts. We need payment limitations to strengthen family farms and save money, not to favor one region at the expense of another.
Embrace land and water stewardship and use it to create economic opportunity – The Conservation Stewardship Program will prove more valuable than farm programs to many farmers. Farm payments are tied to the number of acres farmed, so they get bid into higher land costs and often benefit the landlord more than the farmer.
But the Conservation Stewardship Program instead pays farmers according to how intensively they manage their farm to protect the environment. That makes the payments less likely to be bid into cash rents by high-flying mega farms.
There are also new opportunities to help communities use nature as a development asset. For example, the new Cooperative Conservation Partnerships Initiative can be used to beef up conservation program payments to entice groups of landowners to participate in area-wide projects that offer people access to restored natural areas.
Conservation, public access and entrepreneurship go hand in hand. New ecotourism businesses are sprouting in some of the nation’s most rural areas such as the Nebraska Sandhills. Access to natural space can draw customers to a range of businesses including guide services, wildlife viewing, and bed and breakfasts. And the quality of life it provides can draw new families to live in rural communities.
Harness the power of research to create a better rural future – The most powerful tool you have to create a better future in rural America may be the two billion dollar research program at the Department of Agriculture. One change in the way it is managed could make an enormous difference.
Begin awarding funding to scientists based in part on the potential of the projects they propose to improve economic opportunity in rural America; revitalize rural communities; support owner-operated family farms and businesses; and enable us to meet our food, fiber, and energy needs in an environmentally responsible manner.
Nothing would more quickly focus the attention of agricultural scientists and land grant colleges on solving the most pressing problems of America and its rural communities.
Please consider these priorities for rural America, as you also address the equally critical responsibility of meeting the nutrition needs of the poor in America and beyond.
Rural Americans are counting on you. And we are here to work with you.
on behalf of the Center for Rural Affairs