Perdue Confirmation Hearing Underscores Role of Ag in the 21st Century

Today a confirmation hearing for President Trump’s nominee for agriculture secretary, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, is finally taking place. Assuming he is eventually confirmed by the Senate, he will take the helm of a federal agency whose constituencies and mission are far broader than what most Americans assume.

Twenty-first century agriculture is much different than 20th century agriculture when many of the current federal policies, programs and other initiatives were enacted. Today the U.S. agriculture sector produces much more than the food, feed and fiber needed to sustain our economy and quality of life. It also provides clean, renewable energy; biodiversity that enhances habitats; stewardship of natural, sustainable resources; and in most cases, a line of defense in efforts to reduce global emissions that contribute to a changing climate. In providing safe, abundant and affordable products, farmers, ranchers and foresters continue to serve an essential role in maintaining a strong economy, especially in rural areas.

USDA assumes the wide and complex responsibility of enabling agricultural and forestry producers to viably generate from the land these important solutions to our society’s needs.

Once in office, Perdue will manage a department with diverse mandates, from managing federal lands through the U.S. Forest Service to managing the nation’s food stamp program. For the energy sector, he will oversee USDA’s Rural Development Office and renewable energy programs. Funding for these programs is not particularly large, relative to other federal budget outlays. But these programs offer opportunities for investment in renewable energy and innovative energy projects across rural America.

Conservation efforts by farmers, ranchers and forest owners today means a thriving and sustainable agriculture for our future. Seventy percent of the nation’s land is privately owned and the conservation of private lands not only results in healthy soil, water, air, plants, animals and ecosystems, it also provides productive and sustainable working lands.

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) pays a yearly rental payment in exchange for farmers removing environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and planting species that will improve environmental quality (an enhanced offshoot of CRP focuses on conservation issues identified by both government and non-governmental organizations). The Emergency Conservation Program (ECP) provides funding and technical assistance for farmers and ranchers to restore farmland damaged by natural disasters and for emergency water conservation measures in severe droughts, while an Emergency Forest Restoration Program offers similar assistance to forestland owns. The Farmable Wetlands Program (FWP) also offers land owners annual rental payment to restore wetlands and wetland buffer zones that are farmed, while the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) pays farmers a rental payment to prevent grazing and pasture land from being converted into cropland or used for urban development. The Source Water Protection Program (SWPP) is designed to protect surface and ground water used as drinking water by rural residents.

On the energy front, USDA administers the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which provides financial assistance in the form of grants and loan guarantees to agricultural producers and small business for purchasing and installing renewable energy systems and making energy efficiency improvements in rural locations. The Business and Industry (B&I) Guaranteed Loan Program is designed to assist credit-worthy rural businesses in obtaining needed credit for most any legal business purpose, including energy projects. The Rural Utility Services (RUS) Rural Energy Savings Program (RESP) provides loans to entities that agree to make affordable loans to help consumers implement cost-effective, energy efficiency measures. Similar to the RESP program, the RUS Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program (EECLP) allows rural electric cooperatives and utilities to borrow money and re-lend it to help homeowners or businesses make energy efficiency improvements. And there is the so-called “9003” programs, which provides guaranteed loans for the development and construction of commercial-scale facilities or the retrofitting of existing facilities for the development of advanced biofuels, renewable chemicals and biobased products.

The intent of these programs, many of which pre-date the Obama administration, is to save and create jobs in rural America. Given the strong support President Trump received in rural America, we would expect – and call on incoming Secretary Perdue to ensure – that these programs to remain in place and assist investment interests in overcoming market barriers to rural energy development. We believe these and other programs the new agriculture secretary will oversee should continue to be key policy tools for rural development, generating job creation and economic development.

In providing safe, abundant and affordable products, America’s farmers, ranchers and foresters continue to serve an essential role in maintaining a strong economy, especially in rural areas. The 25x’25 Alliance extends our best wishes of success to the presumed agriculture secretary and we pledge our assistance in keeping rural America productive and the major economic engine it can – and should – be.

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