fb - voice of agriculture
March 2004

Bridging the Rural Development Divide

Bob Stallman
American Farm Bureau
By Bob Stallman
President, American Farm Bureau

Divide and conquer. That's the apparent strategy behind a notion that drives a wedge between funding for the farm program, which supports rural families, and funding for a program that supports development of rural communities.

While most supporters of those two concepts are synonymous, this latest proposal making the rounds would devote more federal funding to rural development at the expense of direct support to farm families.

Proponents admit that for their plan to work other nations would also have to give up their domestic agricultural support programs. There’s no arguing with that part of the concept. The recent U.S. offer during world trade talks to decrease domestic farm supports in conjunction with significant tariff and export subsidy reform, however, has not been embraced by other nations.

Worldwide Reform Needed

AFBF has been consistent in its support of true reform of the three pillars - export subsidies, market access and domestic support - of world agricultural policy. Farm Bureau members reaffirmed that commitment at this year’s annual meeting. But let me be very clear -- Farm Bureau will adamantly fight any attempt to unilaterally cut the U.S. farm program.

When it comes to the idealistic concept of doing more in the area of rural development, however, Farm Bureau is just as big of an ally. In fact, our policy position is pretty black and white in stating that “we support legislation that encourages rural economic development - particularly to foster agriculture.”

As much as we might want more funding for rural development, it must be forcefully stated that our farm program does more to support the asset base that primes the economy of rural America than any other initiative in the history of our nation. It’s tough to logically argue with that point.

Priming the Pump

Each year our farm program pumps approximately $15 billion into our nation’s countryside. That’s money used to buy seed, fertilizer, feed, equipment and other items for the normal operation of family-owned farms, ranches and households. It’s also money that supports the price of land - taxes from which support nearly all the infrastructure that makes rural American work, from roads and bridges to schools and senior services.

Very conservatively, it is estimated that each of those farm program dollars turns over about three and one-half times in our local communities. So, what we have is more than $52 billion annually in rural economic activity, thanks to direct farm program payments.

While Farm Bureau supports additional rural development funding for the Agriculture Department to stimulate commerce in rural areas, we recognize that it would truly take a massive expenditure for even the most production-inducing rural development program to match the economic value rural America currently receives through the farm program.

Coordinated Effort

Make no mistake, rural America deserves more infrastructure upgrades, improved services, modern hospitals and even better access to the Internet. Sure, we need more employment opportunities not tied directly to production agriculture. All those incentives and enhancements, however, can and must be made by enhancing support through our current rural development structure.

Production agriculture will continue to fuel the economic engine that powers the bulk of rural America. The economic priming effect of our farm program provides a foundation on which an enhanced rural development program can build. Without the farm program as a base, however, the footings of any stand-alone rural development initiative would crumble.

A coordinated strategy that acknowledges the importance of the farm program and targets rural development initiatives to fill specific needs is the best route to take. Judging by the growing number of urban Americans who are relocating to rural areas, I conclude that the rural development support created by farm program spending has made rural communities a fairly attractive option. And that's a development that is more about building bridges than driving wedges.