FARM policy needs a new focus, former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman told rural development leaders as he keynoted the Senate Democrat Rural Summit April 25.
After decades of low prices and farm programs based on those low prices, Glickman predicted that those days are over.
"That doesn't mean we'll have heaven on Earth," he said, but it will offer stability to farmers as well as rural communities and businesses.
This will require farm policy attention beyond just the Title 1 commodity programs, most notably on research, conservation and rural development, areas where too little is currently being spent. "It's really important to recognize that investment capital determines how competitive we will be in rural America," Glickman said.
He warned that funding for agricultural research continues to drop in the U.S., unlike in China and India. Problems such as water resources, soil systems, pests, disease and climate need to be prioritized, he said.
It will take not only more money but an overhaul of the research system to focus more on competitive research, which currently makes up just 10% of agricultural research; this compares to the National Institute of Health and National Science Foundation that conduct close to 90% of their research through competitive grants.
Glickman, who was secretary at a time when large amounts of agricultural land were taken out of production, recognizes that today's pressure to produce more on less land will require incentivizing production practices that also help conserve and protect natural resources.
Last year, both the Senate and House farm bills called for creation of an undersecretary for trade at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a position Glickman said will be "critically important" for farmers and rural development because many trade disputes today result from non-tariff barriers.
Glickman said he supports creating a position exclusively focused on agricultural trade because trade "will decide how significant of a future rural America" is going to have.
Glickman also voiced support for working out a compromise on food aid reforms proposed in the President's budget.
Sen. Mark Pryor (D., Ark.), one of the co-chairs of the rural summit, noted that many people in Washington, D.C., don't understand agriculture and have no idea how it works. For many states, agriculture is the number-one industry or at least is among the top two or three industries.
"If you look at agriculture in the big picture, agriculture is the core strength of the U.S. economy," Pryor said. "We need to continue to invest and prioritize that part of the U.S. economy."
In times of tight budgets, it's important not to leave out the rural economy, he added.
Sen. Jon Tester (D., Mont.) said building the economy revolves around "education, infrastructure and research and development."
Sen. Mark Begich (D., Alaska) pointed out that the No Child Left Behind Act did not work, especially for rural areas, so it's critical for rural components to be addressed when rewriting education policy.
Whereas the "race-to-the top" approach worked great for urban areas, Begich said it does not work in remote rural schools that have difficulty attracting specialized teachers. In his home state of Alaska, he said utilizing telecommunications has been an opportunity to improve educational offerings.
Pryor said investment in infrastructure — more than just roads but also waterways, rail and broadband internet — offers short-term and long-term gains. The short term includes spending money on raw materials and hiring new workers, he said, and the long-term gains include investing in the future for a long ways out.
Pryor added that broadband internet access in rural America continues to be an obstacle: While 80% of all U.S. households have access to broadband, only 65% of rural American households do.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D., N.D.) said it would be unthinkable not to provide electricity to everyone in rural areas, and therefore, a national strategy and national priority are needed to connect the entire country with telecommunications and broadband, because this infrastructure allows rural communities to diversify.
Pryor added that a funding mechanism must be worked out to continue to expand broadband access. Big companies don't invest in rural America because there isn't a return, he said, which is why coordination is needed between universal service funds and state funds to subsidize expanding rural access.