WASHINGTON (Nov 3, 2008)—Since 1973, farm bills have included a Rural Development Title. The 2008 farm bill builds on that tradition, addressing a wide range of policy issues affecting rural communities.
Subjects covered by the title include economic planning and development; essential community facilities (such as emergency first responders and healthcare); water, waste disposal, and other infrastructure needs; local value-added agriculture capacity; and modern technology in telecommunications.
About half of rural development programs are administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The department targets resources to financial and technical projects in areas with the greatest need for funding and assistance through guaranteed loans, direct loans, grants, and intermediaries.
The rural development title puts funds toward critical investments in the infrastructure of our rural communities by renewing and updating outdated projects and creating new ones to meet communities’ emerging needs.
Of the major allocations, the largest are the Pending Water and Wastewater Loan and Grant Applications, with $120 million in mandatory funding. These ensure that our rural citizens have access to clean drinking water and proper sewage infrastructure. This part of the bill has been an important component of the title since its inception in the 1970s.
Most of the programs that fall under the Rural Development mission are funded through discretionary spending; the funding will have to be secured through each year’s appropriations. Projects with mandatory funding—funding that does not need further congressional approval—include the Water and Wastewater Loan and Grant Applications, the Value Added Product Grant (with 10% reserved for disabled and socially disadvantaged farmers), and the Rural Microenterprise Assistance Program.
The title aims to meet growing rural healthcare, emergency, and first responder needs through an improved Rural Firefighters and Emergency Medical Service Assistance Program, expanding 9-1-1 access through loans to telephone companies and grants for weather radio transmitters capable of increased coverage during emergencies.
One of the most important tools available to Americans everywhere is education and access to information. For education to flourish, people need the right tools. To level the global playing field, our rural communities need access to the advantages afforded by modern communication technologies. This relatively new program has shot to the top of the USDA’s priority list.
Title VI sets a framework for improving rural access to high-speed Internet broadband access by focusing loans on underserved areas. In areas where profit margins might otherwise be too low to attract carriers, crucial broadband access will come and give rural communities the countless benefits afforded by higher transmission speeds and easier access to information, making rural America a more realistic option for businesses.
The rural development title also aims to attract and retain residents and businesses to rural areas by improving access to technology, services and new markets, locally and regionally. There is $15 million for a new Rural Entrepreneur and Microenterprise Assistance program that will provide technology and finance to support small businesses with fewer than 10 employees—an even more important tool now that credit markets have tightened in a sector of the economy that often had difficulty accessing credit even before the latest financial meltdown.
In addition, Title VI extends Rural Business Opportunity and Rural Cooperative Development grants, programs designed to give job training and establish centers for rural cooperative development. It also extends the Agriculture Innovation Center Demonstration Program, a program that provides technical, outreach and marketing assistance to value-added agricultural businesses.
There are also provisions for studies that will help America map out its emerging new energy economy, of which rural America is sure to be a critical part given the new importance of biofuels and renewable energy sources like wind that flourish in rural parts of the country.
Rural America has a unique set of development needs—but it also has a unique set of solutions to offer the country as a whole. While rural communities might need a little assistance with building infrastructure and attracting business, these same communities are constantly innovating and improving our food and energy supply. In this day and age, rural America is even producing an ever-larger percentage of the fuel and energy sources that are our economy’s lifeblood. With the provisions of Title VI, they should be able to meet their new 21st century challenges with 21st century solutions.