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RURAL DEVELOPMENT ISSUES: One title that stands out as the 2018 Farm Bill is formulated is Rural Development and its place in USDA. The title that provides for everything from first responders to expanded broadband access is part of a USDA reorganization that gives it an assistant secretary and, maybe, elevated status.

Ag committees in 'listening' mode should put farmers in 'talking mode'

As Congress ponders the ins and outs of a new farm bill, it's a good time for farmers to let their representatives know what is and isn't working.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a series of articles examining the issues and the debate surrounding the 2018 Farm Bill.

Congress is officially in "listening mode" on the 2018 Farm Bill. That makes it a really good time for farmers to get into "talking mode."

Staffers for the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, chaired by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., say the next several weeks or even months will be spent listening to stakeholders in all areas of the broad-reaching bill and determining what their greatest needs and concerns are.

Roberts and ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., have already held field hearings in Kansas and Michigan and have held committee hearings on the farm economy, research, and conservation and forestry titles.

Hearings are announced about two weeks ahead, and the Senate committee website is open for comments for five days following a public hearing. All hearings are also archived on the senate website at ag.senate.gov.

Constituents with questions or concerns can also weigh in with senators by email, letters or phone calls at any time.

What works, what doesn't
It is important, Senate Ag Committee staffers say, to weigh in not just with general comments such as "save crop insurance" but with more specific issues on what programs are working and not working for individual farmers. For example, are you still waiting on disaster payments from events in 2015 or 2016? Have you had to break highly erodible land out of the Conservation Reserve Program because your contract was not renewed? Are you worried about resistant weeds and want more money dedicated to research? It is important to let lawmakers know what is and isn't working and what you would like to see changed.

Several areas of conflict are likely to emerge as the next bill moves forward, with all of them influenced by budget concerns. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, subsidies for crop insurance, an improved safety net for dairy producers, support for commodity organizations' efforts to open new overseas markets, and strengthening the supports for cotton producers and conservation programs are all on the line.

Rural Development fight
One major title, however; stands out in the current debate and that is Title VI of the current bill: the Rural Development Program.

Included in that title are economic planning, emergency management services, health care, water systems, waste disposal systems, expansion of broadband access, value-added product development, support for beginning and disadvantaged farmers, rural housing, support for rural businesses, upgrades to the electrical grid and recovery from natural disasters. All are supported by the guaranteed loans, direct loans and grants of USDA Rural Development.

President Donald Trump's proposed budget puts funding for USDA Rural Development at zero and makes deep cuts totaling $4 billion in other programs.

However, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has eliminated the undersecretary for rural development position and replaced it with an assistant to the secretary for rural development, a move that he says is intended to elevate its importance.

It is also important to note that only a few programs in Rural Development — notably water systems, microenterprise assistance and value-added grants — are mandatory funding, meaning they automatically get the money allocated by Congress. Most, including programs from housing to broadband expansion to telemedicine, are part of discretionary funding, which means that money has to be in each and every year's budget for them to actually receive operating funds. Even if those programs are all maintained in the farm bill, their existence will depend on annual budgets.

Appropriations subcommittee bucks Trump
For its part, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture was marking up spending legislation for USDA and the Food and Drug Administration ahead of the Fourth of July holiday, and its bill provides $20 billion in discretionary funding, about $876 million less than last year. The House bill provides $2.8 billion for agricultural research and $2.6 billion for rural development programs.

The House bill includes $1.25 billion for rural water and waste water loans and $473 million for grants — programs that Trump proposed to eliminate.

FDA funding levels would remain flat under the spending bill at $2.8 billion.

The spending bill would allocate $1.8 billion for overseas food aid and to promote U.S. agricultural exports, including $1.4 billion for Food for Peace and $185 million for the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition program, both of which Trump called for eliminating.

Next: Farm bill priorities from the House ag committee

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