Blog for Rural America

The Center for Rural Affairs, a private, non-profit organization, is working to strengthen small businesses, family farms and ranches, and rural communities. Permission to reprint items from this web log is hereby granted, on the condition that clear credit is given to the original source of the material. If the blog provides information for a story, please let us know by sending an email to johnc@cfra.org.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Invest in a Rural Future

- from the desk of Chuck Hassebrook, Center for Rural Affairs, chuckh@cfra.org

Invest in a Rural Future

The debate unfolding in Congress over $3 billion in farm and rural budget cuts will come down to an age old choice – protect the common good of the many or cater to the vested interests of the powerful few.

If the rich and powerful prevail; small town residents, family farmers,poor kids and ultimately all Americans who share a stake in protecting our land and water will pay the price.

Conservation programs that help farmers protect land and water will be cut. Small and mid-size farmers will lose farm program payments and find it harder to survive. Food programs for poor kids will be cut. Small towns and rural families will lose already limited access to vital programs for small business, cooperative and community development.

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and a bipartisan team of farm state cosponsors have a better approach – save money by capping farm payments to mega farms. Reducing subsidies that mega farms use to drive smaller operations out of business is the most effective thing congress could do to strengthen family farms.

It seems like a "no brainer", but has set off firestorms of opposition from mega farms and the powerful organizations they control. The strongest opposition comes from the South. But Western and Midwestern farm and commodity groups have also been critical in blocking reform. The outcome will be determined by the response of Senators and Representatives from family farm regions in the Midwest and Great Plains.

If they aggressively and uniformly back reform, it will pass. If they protect the interests of their states’ largest farms, it will fail.

The stakes are high in family farm regions. They have the largest concentrations of farm dependent communities suffering from falling incomes and population loss. Their predicament results from misguided federal policies of over investing in mega farms and under investing in small business, communities and family farms.

If we want these communities to die and control of the land to concentrate in a few hands, we should continue current policy. If we want these communities to thrive, however, we must change policy.

We must invest in opportunities for family farm revitalization. Such as the growing number of consumers willing to pay a premium for food produced in ways they support – natural beef for example. USDA’s Value Added Producer Grants have helped family farmers and ranchers develop new cooperatives and processing operations to reach those markets. But Congress has eliminated 60 percent of its funding while protecting mega farm subsidies. It will face deeper cuts if Congress again protects subsidies for the largest farms.

We must also invest in protecting soil and water. The most innovative feature of the last farm bill, the Conservation Security Program, pays farmers based on how intensively they manage their farm to protect the environment.

It is essential to the farmers and ranchers who have done the most to protect the environment. They have been penalized by commodity programs, which reward maximized commodity production. The CSP has lost more than a third of its funding and will again go on the chopping block if Congress chooses to protect mega farms.

Finally, we must lay the groundwork for major investments in rural entrepreneurship in the next farm bill. Most new jobs in the nation’s most rural agricultural counties come from very small businesses. But Congress invests little in entrepreneurship.

A nationwide rural small business development program was slashed from the last farm bill because of its $15 million annual price tag – the cost of subsidies to five mega farms. Opportunity can flourish in rural America with a major investment in small entrepreneurship in the next farm bill.

If we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always got. It’s time for citizens who care about their communities to step forward and demand change. It time for their elected leaders to step up and make the change.

Chuck Hassebrook, Executive Director
Center for Rural Affairs
402-687-2103 ext 1018
chuckh@cfra.org
http://www.cfra.org/newsroom/op_eds/0705_paymentlimits_ch.htm

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