Grahn: Three disruptions provide opportunity in rural America
SALT LAKE CITY — Emphasizing that he was speaking as a private citizen, not an Agriculture Department official, David Grahn, principal deputy counsel general at USDA, last Saturday told the nation’s agricultural lawyers that he sees three “disruptions” providing opportunity in rural America with which they can help.
In a speech to the American Agricultural Law Association, Grahn, a longtime USDA attorney who was director of the Office of Regulatory Policy at the Farm Credit Administration before returning to USDA at the beginning of the Biden administration, said one such disrupter is the “great social experiment” of living with COVID-19.
Besides the obvious health issues, Grahn said, the situation has proven that office work can be done from outside the office.
He noted that when he finished law school at the University of Minnesota and wanted to work for the federal government, he had to move to Washington in 1986. “Today, if I want to work for USDA, would I have to move to Washington? Maybe not,” he said.
For rural America, this means that “we have a chance to have a new influx of people, have a chance for people who don’t want to live in cities.”
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will provide rural America with assistance on broadband that can make it easier to work in rural America, he noted.
Beyond that, “the sleeper” in the Build Back Better Act, he said, is the Rural Partnership program that will allow rural communities to create their own economic development plans.
The second disrupter, he said, is climate change, which is causing the creation of carbon markets.
Farmers will accept carbon markets, he said, because they will get paid to sequester carbon, “but ranchers do not see their seat at the table.”
Grahn said that farmers are conservationists, but when he asked for reactions from the lawyers in the room, one lawyer said farmers are not conservationists, but resource extractors and users.
Another said farmers are suspicious carbon markets will start as a voluntary program, but will become mandatory.
Grahn noted that USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service programs have been voluntary except for sodbuster and swampbuster.
But he added that it’s necessary “to find room for livestock at the table.”
The third disrupter, Grahn said, is the development of the next generation of farmers.
USDA has a young and beginning farmers program that makes loans to these farmers, he said, but officials are “coming to the conclusion that giving farmers access to loans is not enough.”
Provisions in the Build Back Better Act, he said, would make it easier to provide these young and beginning farmers “wrap-around services” provided by nonprofit groups rather than Farm Service Agency county offices.
Also, there would be provisions to modify their loans “to catch them before they get into financial trouble,” he said.
Told by a member of the audience that young farmers need mentorship, Grahn said NRCS has a good organic mentorship program.
Noting that carbon markets and other policies are still in the development stage, Grahn urged the lawyers to learn about their clients’ concerns, such as the livestock raisers who maintain they don’t have a seat at the table, and engage policymakers.
“We are at a stage in the process where the needle still can be moved. If those concerns are not raised by people like you, the train is going to go by one way or another,” Grahn said.
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