Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s plan for reorganizing USDA, which is now subject to a public comment period that ends June 14, would create an under secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs, realign department agencies under an under secretary for Farm Production and Conservation, and drop the under secretary position for Rural Development. (Under secretaries are second in the chain of command at USDA.)
While Perdue’s plans to “create a customer-focused culture of public service and improve the effectiveness, efficiency and accountability of agencies that provide services to agricultural producers” is an admirable goal, it is critically important that the department’s structure and core functions are in alignment with 21st century agriculture, which consists of much more than just the production of commodities.
In the 21st century, farms, ranches and forests will be increasingly important platforms for producing not just food, feed and fiber, but also clean energy, clean water, wildlife habitat and other important ecosystem services. And all of this must be done while simultaneously adapting to changing climatic conditions.
Perdue’s plan to drop the under secretary position for Rural Development has drawn some of the loudest criticism from rural advocates, including the National Association of Counties and the National Farmers Union, who fear the lack of distinct leadership will diminish the department’s focus on small towns and agriculturally dominant counties.
Included within the auspices of Rural Development at USDA are the Rural Utilities Service, which administers programs that provide much-needed support for infrastructure and infrastructure improvements to rural communities. These include water and waste treatment, as well as electric power and telecommunications services, all of which play a critical role in helping to expand economic opportunities and improve the quality of life for rural residents.
In addition, USDA’s Rural Housing Service offers a variety of programs to build or improve housing and essential community facilities in rural areas. The agency offers loans, grants and loan guarantees for single- and multi-family housing, child care centers, fire and police stations, hospitals, libraries, nursing homes, schools, first responder vehicles and equipment, housing for farm laborers and much more.
Also covered under the department’s Rural Development umbrella is the important Rural Business-Cooperative Service, which offers programs to support business development and job training opportunities for rural residents.
The department’s proposed realignment of conservation services is another move that should be reconsidered, given the impact it can have on USDA’s natural resources and environmental mission. Within this program, USDA ensures the health of the land through sustainable management. Its agencies work to prevent damage to natural resources and the environment, restore the resource base, and promote good land management. Furthermore, forests, farms and ranches are components of integrated landscapes, and as part of USDA’s evolution in the 21st century, the department should provide the resources and assistance for those lands to be managed as such.
And, of course, there are the critical farm energy programs, also a facet of the department’s Rural Development oversight. The Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) provides significant incentives for farmers, livestock producers and rural small businesses to make energy efficiency improvements, and to purchase or install renewable energy systems. The Biorefinery, Renewable Chemical, and Biobased Product Manufacturing Assistance Program offers financial incentives for the development of commercial-scale advanced biorefineries and biobased manufacturing facilities. And the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) provides financial assistance to agricultural land and private forestland owners and operators who produce sustainable, non-food, biomass feedstocks for delivery to advanced biorefineries.
All of these programs and services offer major benefits to rural America by creating jobs and boosting local economies. And they contribute greatly to the 25x’25 vision that by 2025, at least 25 percent of U.S. energy needs will be met with renewable resources from farms, ranches and forestlands. Stakeholders are strongly urged to use the ongoing public comment period to remind the Agriculture Secretary of his commitment made this week to conservation and rural development, including the farm energy programs that ensure the contributions that agriculture and rural America make to our 21st century national energy strategy.