NSAC's Blog

USDA Trades Away Rural Development

May 12, 2017

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue announces and signs the order signifying the creation of an undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs. Photo credit: USDA.

In its first reorganization in over two decades, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) stands to lose one of its core Mission Areas – Rural Development – according to a plan released yesterday by USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue.

The Department’s restructuring is the result of a congressional directive included in the 2014 Farm Bill, which instructed USDA to create a new Undersecretary of Trade. In addition to creating the new undersecretary position, USDA has also elected to demote the Rural Development Mission Area to the status of “office,” and shift the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Farm Services Agency (FSA), and Risk Management Agency (RMA) from two unique Mission Areas (each with their own undersecretary) to a single “Farm Production and Conservation” Mission Area.

Rural Development Demoted

While the Administration has attempted to spin the demotion of Rural Development (RD) as an “elevation” – arguing that because the office would report directly to the Secretary, rural development needs would receive greater attention – it is in fact a trading away of rural, domestic priorities in favor of boosting international trade.

All undersecretaries, including the Undersecretary of Rural Development, already report directly to the Secretary, so the assertion that this would be a new benefit of RD’s re-categorization is misleading. In its current position as a core USDA Mission Area overseen by an undersecretary, RD is part of the USDA subcabinet; the reassignment of RD to “office” would remove it from the subcabinet and rescind the decision-making power that comes with being a USDA Mission Area.

Moreover, the Rural Development Mission Area is made up of three agencies – Rural Business and Cooperative Service, Rural Housing Service, and Rural Utilities Service – all of which would be eliminated by the proposed reorganization. The RD Mission Area and its agencies deliver numerous grant and loan programs to rural American communities, and have many complex decisions to make on a daily basis. To assume that a downgraded office with a limited number of staff and no high-ranking leadership will be better positioned to carry out the important tasks and decision-making currently done by RD is questionable at best.

Although Congress directed USDA to create a Trade Undersecretary, USDA was under no legal obligation to eliminate another Mission Area and undersecretary position to accomplish that directive. They therefore could have continued to serve rural development needs at the same level while simultaneously stepping up their focus on trade, but they chose not to do that.

The demotion of RD, taken together with the Administration’s recent attempt to wipe out rural business programs, water and sewer loans, and grants for rural communities through the appropriations process, sends a clear signal that the President does not understand the critical nature of rural development to the American economy.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is committed to working with our 118 member organizations, Senators and Representatives from across the country, and our allies in the rural and agricultural communities to reverse this misguided decision demoting the rural mission of USDA.

Conservation Concerns

The reorganization also involves shifting NRCS, FSA, and RMA under a single Mission Area, Farm Production and Conservation. The success or failure of this shift will depend on the details. Without a full proposal detailing this part of the reorganization, it is difficult to say whether or not it will result in more effective outcomes for farmers and the environment.

It is quite possible, however, that this shift is the beginning of a longer-term effort to meet President Trump’s March 13 executive order, which directs the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to propose a plan to eliminate “unnecessary agencies” and merge agency functions. The President’s budget preview, which proposed privatizing conservation technical assistance (the backbone of NRCS’ conservation work with farmers), adds credence to these concerns.

NSAC has long called for better coordination between USDA agencies, and has routinely provided detailed recommendations on ways to implement data sharing, collaboration, and evaluation. We agree that enhanced collaboration between NRCS, FSA, and RMA would be helpful, but also underscore that each of these three agencies provides critical and unique services and programs. Given the connected but unique nature of each agency NSAC urges USDA to ensure that any changes made through the reorganization strengthen, not weaken or eliminate, their work. NSAC will oppose any long-term effort to eliminate NRCS functions and field offices as part of a broader reorganization effort.

Trump Budget and House and Senate Hearings to Follow

Yesterday’s announcement by the Secretary provided no new information on the Administration’s upcoming budget request for fiscal year (FY) 2018, which OMB plans to release the week of May 22. NSAC expects that request will include further details about the Administration’s plans to eliminate rural development programs and privatize conservation planning, among other proposals.

Our new Secretary of Agriculture will have two key opportunities to defend the proposed reorganization in the coming weeks: next week before the House Agriculture Committee and the following week before the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. A Senate Agriculture Committee hearing is also in the works, and will likely be announced soon.

It is our hope that both the authorizing and appropriations committees defend the need for USDA to be involved in promoting rural jobs and community development. The Committees can best make this stand by refusing to appropriate funds to allow the elimination of RD as a core Mission Area. Trading away rural America is wrong. Congress has the power to stop it; we hope they make the right choice.

Categories: Budget and Appropriations, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Rural Development

5 responses to “USDA Trades Away Rural Development”

  1. Dede says:

    This makes me furious and I could see it coming.
    Who are all those people applauding in the background, could it be Big Ag folks?
    Could it be they want to keep Rural Land prices down so they can buy up massive amounts of acreage for their GMO Pesticide laden crops. Maybe when we have an EXTENDED DROUGHT and all their land goes up in a giant dust bowl, Sonny Perdue will lead a national prayer for rain like he did when he was gov. of GA.
    This was just on the news last week:
    Farmers are NOT going to be ignored.
    Sonny Perdue had better listen

  2. Chuck Ziccardi says:

    As a university educator of culinary arts, sustainable gardening and environmental stewardship, I believe it is critical to our society to continue improving upon existing policies, rather than breaking them down in an effort to “shrink government”. Caring for the environment in a TRULY sustainable manner, is the a avenue to caring for one another. Granted, that if all Americans were responsible and forward thinking enough to support efforts that benefit equal opportunity and compassion for ALL, we would not need complex, multifaceted layers of governance; but now, especially, these governing branches are critical. NSAC, please use every ounce of your power to fight against this down grade of governing bodies that support our sustainable environmental efforts. While I vow to continue to educate every person on our immediate needs.

  3. Donald Miller says:

    I think that it is also short sighted for the president and the secretary to ignore the responsibility of the USDA to help create a new generation of farmers as a means of supporting the community and the countries connection to the land that has so far served this country so well

  4. C Graham says:

    I do not agree with the other commenters belief that this action is geared toward the farmers. It seems to me that NRCS, FSA and RMA would work well together and eliminate redundant spending. I do agree with looking at Rural Development. There are 3 federal agencies that assist with home mortgages. That is a total waste of funds. All three programs could be brought together. This would cover all aspects of home loan areas and save money for the government and the American people.

  5. Reana Kovalcik says:

    We definitely believe USDA agencies need to better coordinate together (in fact we’ve had a few blogs on it, here’s one), but there is some valid concern that moving NRCS would reduce the Department’s conservation work. Conservation programs are already wildly popular and don’t even come close to being able to meeting farmer demand, so any reduction or diminishment of them would be a great loss. That said, we do not yet know what the implications of the NRCS move will be, so we are withholding judgement at this point. Regarding RD, while there is bound to be some redundancy or appearance of redundancy, the demotion of the Mission Area is not routine efficiency checking – it is a total gutting of the work. RD provides farmers and rural communities with absolutely critical services across the country. As an “office” with an Assistant to the Secretary (not to mention the proposed total cutting of RD’s budget by the President) instead of an Under Secretary, they will be largely unable to do this important work.