April 27, 2012
On Wednesday, the House Agriculture Agriculture Committee held a Rural Development hearing, the first of eight in preparation for the 2012 Farm Bill. Panel witnesses emphasized the importance of continued investment in rural communities and fielded questions concerning consolidation of numerous programs targeting rural development. Both panels touched on the need for investments in water, wastewater, broadband, and infrastructure.
Rural Development Subcommittee Chairman Tim Johnson (R-IL) opened the hearing by acknowledging the tight budget situation and the vast number of programs geared towards rural communities. “It is, in part, the sheer number of programs which makes it difficult to gauge the effectiveness of current policy,” he said.
Ranking member Jim Costa (D-CA) followed, stressing the importance of USDA defining rural. According to Costa, 98 communities, or 80% of the local loan portfolio, in California will no longer be considered rural unless rural definitions are revised.
Costa later went on to applaud the Value Added Producer Grant Program (VAPG) and suggested giving priority to collaborative projects within the program.
Charles Conner, President and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, stressed the need to streamline both programs and application processes. He noted that VAPG was one such program that capitalized on group efforts by allowing cooperatives to access “new business opportunities that would go unexplored.” In his testimony, Conner recommended that USDA “keep the VAPG Program viable and available to farmer co-ops, and streamline other rural development programs.”
Tri-County Council for Western Maryland Executive Director Leanne Mazer testified on behalf of the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO). She, too, advocated for infrastructure development, as well as streamlining of policies, application processes, and reporting methods. Mazer pointed out that in her opinion the more flexible programs such as the Rural Business Enterprise Grant Program (RBEG) and Rural Business Opportunity Grant Program (RBOG) had been hit the hardest by budget cuts.
Commissioner of Brookings County, South Dakota, Donald Larson stressed the importance of the same lending programs– RBEG and RBOG–as well as the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program (RMAP) for increasing capital in rural economies. Larson echoed the need for rural development programs such as VAPG and sited the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act (BFROA) as “a model…for the kind of initiatives necessary to invest in the next generation of American producers.” He noted that the Local Foods, Farms, and Jobs Act provides “important policy suggestions for the Farm Bill” that promote local and regional agriculture.