WASHINGTON, D.C. — A task force of 22 federal agencies led by the USDA has recommended to the White House a sweeping reform of regulatory and policy issues affecting farm communities across rural America that, if adopted, could boost farm income and change the lives of millions of farm families.
Established through executive order by President Trump last April, the interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity (TFARP) makes 100 recommendations that identify a wide breadth of changes the government says could transform life on the American farm.
The 43-page comprehensive report addresses five key areas; e-Connectivity for Rural America, Improving Quality of Life, Supporting a Rural Workforce, Harnessing Technological Innovation and Economic Development.
Beginning with a massive overhaul of the internet grid, the report calls for closing the e-connectivity gap that, until now, has stifled the progress of nearly 60 percent of those in rural America without high-speed internet access.
The report examines a wide range of farm labor issues, including launching an initiative adopting enhancements to the troubled H-2A visa program so farms have “access to the lawful workforce that is needed.” It calls on the agriculture industry to create new jobs for veterans and to connect skill sets to jobs of the future.
The TFARP urges a stepped-up campaign to increase public acceptance of biotech food products and streamlining the science-based regulatory policy, and increasing and expanding farm production and food safety through new research and development.
The report was released last week by USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, who authored the study, at the 99th annual convention of the American Farm Bureau Federation meeting in Nashville. To support the Task Force recommendations, he traveled 2,200 miles over several months last year in an RV visiting 30 states, “listening to the voices of those living in rural America.
“You have no better way to assessing the situation (of rural America) than to speak directly to the heartland,” Perdue said to a crowd of more than 7,000 farmers and ranchers.
“It was clear that people believe the folks in Washington, D.C., have stopped listening to rural America over the years. In fields, dairy barns, machine sheds, front yards and gymnasiums, thousands of people came out to these town hall meetings to express their frustrations and to offer their suggestions.
“In short,” he added, “we found citizens with a real hunger to be heard.”
Specifying calls to action
The USDA describes rural America as encompassing 72 percent of the nation’s landmass with 46 million people, with farms mostly concentrated in the upper Midwest, the Great Plains, California and parts of the Eastern Seaboard, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture.
To act on the USDA’s recommendations, the Task Force proposes establishing a federal commission on agriculture and rural prosperity, headed by a managing director and supported by an advisory council of stakeholders to advise the commission. There were no details on how much was being budgeted for this.
The Task Force set up the study under five “Call to Action” initiatives, each containing dozens of recommendations. The following is a condensed version of the targeted areas:
•Achieving e-connectivity for rural America
Electronic connectivity is not simply an amenity – it has become essential. E-connectivity is more than just connecting households, schools and health care centers to each other, as well as to the rest of the world. It is also a tool that enables increased productivity for farms, factories, forests, mining and small businesses.
•Improving quality of life
Quality of life is a measure that can be identified through economic and social indicators. Modern utilities, affordable housing, efficient transportation and reliable employment are economic indicators that must be integrated with access to medical services, public safety and education.
•Supporting a rural workforce
To grow and prosper, every rural community needs job opportunities for its residents, and employers need qualified individuals to fill those needs. This requires identifying employment needs, attracting available workers from urban and rural centers alike and providing the workforce with training and education.
There are many opportunities to partner with local businesses and organizations to identify gaps and to work with all levels of educational institutions to provide career training and development. Providing rural communities, organizations and businesses with a skilled workforce helps people thrive and grow prosperous communities.
•Harnessing technological innovation
By 2020, the U.S. population is projected to increase to almost 400 million. To feed a hungry world, we will need to harness innovation to increase output across American farmlands. In addition to increased crop yields, technological innovation can improve crop quality, nutritional value and food safety.
Leveraging these innovations is an increasingly data-driven economy that will require further development of rural data management capabilities.
•Developing the rural economy
By promoting innovative farm technologies, energy security, recreation, agritourism and sustainable forest management, communities will be empowered to leverage rural America. Investing in rural transportation infrastructure is needed for carrying more “Made in America” products to markets at home and abroad, and will boost the country’s global competitiveness.
Reducing regulatory burdens and attracting private capital will support the ultimate mission of empowering rural America to clothe and feed the world.
In response to the study, National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said, “For too long, rural communities have lagged behind their urban counterparts, both socially and economically, and the federal government has not provided the tools or funding necessary to bridge the gap.
“The priorities outlined in this report are essential to tackling the longstanding disparities, by both bolstering the economics of as well as improving the quality of life within rural communities.”
Andrew LaVigne, president and CEO of the American Seed Trade Assoc., said, “The seed industry is built on a long history of innovation, and continued innovation is paramount to the future of agriculture, and our quality of life.
“Plant breeding innovation holds tremendous promise in funding solutions to some of the biggest challenges faced by our society today, from soil and water health, to nutrition and global food security. Newer breeding methods like gene editing have exciting potential for both public and commercial plant breeders in developed and developing countries and can be used across all agriculturally important crops,” he said.
“However, the full potential of these and other evolving breeding methods will not be fully realized until we have a policy climate, both home and aboard, that encourages continued progress and widespread access to new and emerging technologies.”
To view the full study, the USDA has set up a special Rural Prosperity website at www.usda.gov/ruralprosperity