U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue holds a meeting of the Agriculture and Rural Prosperity Task Force at the USDA headquarters in September 2017 (USDA via Flickr)

A government report that recommends steps to “promote agriculture and rural prosperity” focuses on eliminating regulations, coordinating the work of government agencies, and eliminating duplicate programs. It has little to say about existing U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that support community development, water and sewer systems, broadband, and other infrastructure.

The report was issued by the president’s Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity last week in conjunction with President Trump’s speech to the annual convention of the American Farm Bureau Federation. USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue chaired the task force, which included a representative from each Cabinet department along with representatives from another 12 federal agencies, commissions, and White House policy offices.

The task force identified broadband connectivity as the keystone to reach goals for economic development, innovation, ag production efficiency, research, and other measures. “E-connectivity is fundamental for economic development, innovation, advancements in technology, workforce readiness, and an improved quality of life,” the report said.

The broadband recommendations include getting President Trump to authorize an inter-agency group to make a rural broadband plan, adding White House staff to manage that process, and looking at the effectiveness and duplication of current federal broadband funding programs.

Christopher Mitchell, a community broadband advocate with the Institute for Local Self Reliance, said the proposal looks like a document that will be used to eliminate broadband funding, not improve it.

“To me, this looks an effort to de-fund important programs that are bringing broadband to rural America, not a set of policy proposals looking to solve the problem,” he said. “It’s a report whose number one recommendation is to ‘establish executive leadership to expand e-connectivity.’ It’s a plan to make a plan.”

USDA currently funds broadband deployment through its Rural Utilities Service, which also helps communities with funding for telephones and the power grid

The report says lack of private investment is holding back rural broadband. For that problem, the task force blames low population density, difficult terrain, and bureaucracy. “… [B]roadband providers often face bureaucratic obstacles to building a network, including arduous application processes, lack of access to infrastructure, and burdensome regulatory reviews.”

The Federal Communications Commission was one of the entities represented on the task force, and recommendations in the report mirror current FCC priorities. For example, the FCC is considering a proposal to allow cellular service to qualify as broadband, and that recommendation is in the rural report.

As we modernize and reduce regulations, we should also consider the full range of means to connect rural communities, including satellite, fixed wireless, and cellular networks.

The report alludes to the historical role USDA played in funding deployment of electricity and phones for rural America, but says money isn’t the sole issue.

Although capital investment is one aspect of bridging the divide, far too many government policies stifle network buildout. By streamlining the deployment process, allowing access to existing infrastructure, and reducing barriers to buildout, risk can be reduced and providers can be encouraged to expand networks throughout rural America.

Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self Reliance said the strategy of luring private investment seemed like it was “right out of the old playbook” that had failed to adequately serve rural families and businesses in the past.

“The Administration seems to believe that given enough time and enough subsidies, the private sector will provide high quality broadband to rural communities,” Mitchell said. “That’s not true. This is not a problem that the private sector is solving.”

The report includes references to commercial agriculture in several sections, but it does not deal with crop insurance, which has a direct impact on farmers of soybeans, corn, and wheat.

A family farm advocate said the omission was glaring.

“I just don’t see the substance,” said Family Farm Action’s Joe Maxwell, a Missouri farmer and former lieutenant governor and state legislator. “The report identifies some important issues facing rural America, but I don’t see any substantive proposals that will support farmers and key farm programs during these challenging times.”

Maxwell said it’s hard to consider rural prosperity with so many questions hanging about the Trump administration’s farm policy.

“This year we will be re-writing the farm bill,” Maxwell said. “We’re looking at the fourth year in a row of declining farm income. Where’s the meat, the recommendations related to how this administration is going to support family farmers?”

The Farm Bureau convention audience gave Trump a warm reception in Nashville last week, but Maxwell said he thought the speech was off message.

“I’m not sure how you speak to a room full of farmers and talk about how thankful we should be for a booming stock market,” he said. “Farmers have to make a profit to build wealth. We don’t depend on the rising value of our 401k’s.”

Maxwell did applaud President Trump for speaking with a farm organization. “It is positive to have a president, any president, speak to farmers directly about the issues they care about. That means that we can have an important conversation about the health of rural communities and our economies.”

Secretary Perdue said the Trump administration is committed to rural Amereica.

“Since his inauguration, President Trump has made agriculture and rural America a high priority,” Perdue said at the Nashville event last week. “On the day he swore me into office, he tasked me with chairing the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity.”

The president’s budget outline, presented last year, indicates the administration would like to make deep cuts in Rural Development programs. One of Perdue’s first actions was restructuring USDA to eliminate the undersecretary for Rural Development in favor of creating an undersecretary for trade. Perdue was the last Cabinet official the Trump administration nominated, and Perdue did not receive Senate confirmation until April.

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