The recent U.S. Senate Democratic Rural Summit in Washington, D.C., drew a wide cross-section of leaders of agribusiness, rural development agencies, and farm groups. Most attendees hoped to gauge just where the U.S. Senate would go with Farm Bill funding priorities and budget negotiations.
Most left with more confusion than clarification, some mumbling references to the event being a "dog and pony show". Maybe, however, it was foreboding of future Farm Bill priorities.
As Frank Gasperini, Jr., executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, puts it: "It was about poverty, disadvantaged populations and infrastructure – interesting and important, but not about agriculture." Immigration reform was scarcely touched upon.
Rural America and diverse rural communities were the often-repeated theme words. "[The Rural Summit] left me the impression that there wasn't really clear focus on the most important rural issues to address first, with limited resources," he adds. "Their best strategy was to talk in generalities."
Most panelists were U.S. Senators from least populated states – Alaska, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. While important players, concedes Gasperini, "we can't overlook states with rural communities on the fringes in very wealthy and populated states such as Florida, California, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Summit focus seemed to be on those so remote and isolated as to be out of the mainstream even for rural issues."
Stephen Goetz, director of the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development, also came away disappointed. "My take-away was that rural investment needs are huge, and resources available to support rural development are dwindling.
"But as resources become tighter, there's a growing need for evidence-based analysis of where scarce public and private funds should be invested for greatest returns. This challenge is compounded by the fact that rural communities are so diverse," adds the Penn State ag economist. "One-size-fits-all recommendations don't work."
Key Rural Summit policy issues
There are some Farm Bill certainties. Givens are a safety net for farmers, conservation and transportation funding. But the U.S. Senators on the panel discussions constantly referred to agriculture with a broader brush.
Senator Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), for instance, defined agriculture as a rural community, a larger common denominator than farming. "Rural America must be a high priority," she noted. "A strong rural development sector is very important" for expanded rural development loans, opportunities for biofuels, broadband communications, healthcare and etc.
Capitalizing on rural development is crucial, noted Mark Begich Alaska and chairman of the summit host Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee. "Being able to capitalize businesses that help move fresh fruit and vegetables and increase access is important."
"We have to be very choosy about what we fund in this economy, added Senator Heidi Heitkamp (N.Dak.). "Some things we can do today we won't be able to do tomorrow. We must focus on value-added fuel, fiber, and food. We need more 'bridges to the urban sector."