[imgcontainer right] [img:sherrodbrown.jpeg] Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, will offer an amendment on the Senate floor that would restore funding for rural development in the farm bill now being debated in Congress. [/imgcontainer]

Small towns and the people who live in them are the “forgotten ones” of the proposed new farm bill developed by the Senate Agriculture Committee.  

If passed as it now stands, it would be the first farm bill in decades to invest no farm bill funds in rural development. 

Overall, the last three farm bills dating back to 1996 provided an average of $413 million for the Rural Development title. The new Senate Agriculture Committee farm bill includes no funding at all.

But help may be on the way.  Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) is developing an amendment to be offered as the farm bill is debated by the full Senate this week and next.  

It would invest farm bill funds in small business development, value added agriculture, beginning and minority farmer programs and small town water and sewer assistance.  

Last week, 185 leaders and rural organizations from across the nation sent a letter to every U.S. Senator urging each of them to work with Senator Brown in securing farm bill investment in rural development.

You would think that investments that create jobs — such as rural development — would at least hold their own in a period with the highest unemployment in a half century.  But that is not the case.  

Since, 2003, the federal investment in rural development has been cut by one-third, even as overall spending has grown.  Adjusting for inflation, it has been cut nearly in half.  

Most of those cuts were made in the appropriations process, through which Congress divides up the annual budget.

A farm bill with no funding rural development — for creating jobs or building communities — adds to those cuts.

Think of a farm bill without rural development.

Without farm bill funding, the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program will wither, denying loans, training and business plan assistance for rural enterprises with up to ten employees.  

The Value Added Producers Grants Program will shrink making it harder to launch innovative new agricultural enterprises. 

The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program will be cut in half, reducing training and other assistance to enable young people to create a niche for themselves on the land and in our communities. 

Funding will be cut by two-thirds for the Outreach for Socially Disadvantaged and Minority Producers program, reducing cooperative development and other services for minority farmers.

The waiting list will lengthen for small towns in need of federal funds for critical water and sewer upgrades.  In contrast with the last three farm bills, the Senate Agriculture Committee provides nothing to relieve the funding backlog for water and sewer upgrades, which now exceeds $3 billion. 

The 185 rural leaders and organizations that wrote the Senate aren’t oblivious to the nation’s budget. “We recognize the severity of our nation’s fiscal situation,” the letter said.

But they also noted that committee members had agreed to consider adding rural development funding before the floor debate, if Congressional Budget Office analysis showed they could do so while meeting the farm bill target of $23 billion in savings.  The CBO analysis demonstrated that they could do it, that they could fund rural development and still meet the goal for savings.

The 185 organizations wrote:

We urge you to take advantage of this important opportunity to reinstate mandatory rural development funding and to improve investments in the future of American agriculture and rural communities.  By ensuring continued investments in rural economic development and in the next generation of farmers, we can ensure that the Farm Bill is a ‘jobs’ bill that underpins and enables economic growth in rural communities throughout America.

It just makes sense that the so-called “Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act” should invest in jobs, and that means including rural development.  

But ordinary rural people are not a rich or powerful interest group.  That makes it all the more critical that our Senators hear directly from us. Rural people and communities should not be forgotten by the farm bill.

Chuck Hassebrook is Executive Director on Fellowship, at the Center for Rural Affairs. His email is: chuckh@cfra.org.

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