So far this summer, there have been twenty Congressional farm bill field hearings, sixteen held by the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee and four held by their counterparts in the Senate. The primary focus of the testimony and discussion at these hearings has focused on commodity subsidies and major farm program payments.
In the recent Senate hearing in Iowa there was more discussion about conservation, particularly the Conservation Security Program, than in any previous hearing. Likewise, ethanol and the role of the farm bill in alternative energy development received more mention in Iowa than in previous hearings.
But there is an untold story in all of these hearings. Not one hearing has included a substantive discussion of rural development, not one. No one could reasonably criticize the Committees’ efforts to hear testimony from farmers about the farm bill programs that impact their lives directly. But providing no opportunity to discuss the provisions of the rural development title of the farm bill means that rural citizens who have much to offer and much at stake in this debate are not being heard.
It should not come as a surprise, rural development programs have come to be the last funded and the first cut – fully ninety percent of the new money promised for rural development in the last farm bill has been cut in order to meet budget targets while keeping unlimited commodity payments flowing to the nation’s largest farms.
We do not, however, have to choose between having effective farm programs and effective rural development. We must simply find a reasonable balance between spending on immediate income support and investment in the future of our rural communities. Moreover, that balance can be accomplished through sensible reforms that make farm programs work better.
Limitations on farm program payments to mega farms that reduced the cost of farm programs by ten percent would free up in excess of $1 billion to invest in the long term future of rural America. Leading us to ask, is Congress willing to spare a dime for the future of rural America?
Actually, it would only take a nickel to make a real difference and fund an historic investment in rural communities. The Center for Rural Affairs has proposed a quadrupling of rural entrepreneurial development – including agricultural entrepreneurship and innovation as well as effort to foster a new generation of family farmers and ranchers.
Payment limitation reforms that reduce the cost of farm programs by just five percent, just a nickel from the farm program dollar, would fund this proposal at no additional cost to taxpayers and would still provide an additional $250 million for investment in bio-energy, broadband telecommunications and rural development related research.
This editorial was originally published in the Des Moines Register on August 16th, 2006.