Senate Ag holds rural development hearing, first on 2023 farm bill

By Jerry Hagstrom, The Hagstrom Report
The Senate Agriculture Committee convened Tuesday in its traditional hearing room for the first time since the pandemic began. Courtesy photo

The Senate Agriculture Committee held a hearing Tuesday on the Rural Development and Energy titles of the farm bill.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., the committee ranking member, said the hearing was the first on the 2023 farm bill. It was also the first hearing since the pandemic in Room 328A of the Russell Senate Office Building, the committee’s traditional home. Since March 2020, hearings have been held in larger rooms that allowed for social distancing.

The Senate Agriculture Committee convened Tuesday in its traditional hearing room for the first time since the pandemic began. Courtesy photo
In his opening statement, Boozman said, “I am delighted we have returned to our historic hearing room. Our hearing room is very different from the other hearing rooms in the Senate. Instead of a dais, we have a table. Rather than sitting apart, we sit across from one another. Portraits of our predecessors remind us that we are part of a long tradition of working together to serve our nation’s farmers, ranchers, forest landowners, rural communities and those who are hungry. I believe the room is set this way on purpose, as a reminder that the work of this committee is too important — and impacts too many people’s lives — for us not to be able to look each other in the eye and reach across the table to serve our fellow Americans.”
Before the hearing began, Stabenow and other members of the committee celebrated the career of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a former chairman of the committee who is retiring. Leahy, who was elected in 1974, noted that he has served on the committee for 48 years. Leahy said that when he told Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., that he wanted to serve on the agriculture committee, Kennedy told him that agriculture is the easiest committee to get on and the hardest to get off. But Leahy said that even though he went on to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee, he has never wanted to leave agriculture.
Stabenow noted in an opening statement that the 2023 farm bill hearing process had started earlier this year with field hearings in Michigan and Arkansas, “where we heard from people on the ground what is working for them and what is not,” but that this is the first of a series of hearings in Washington to review titles of the farm bill.“
The Rural Development and Energy titles of the farm bill create good-paying jobs in rural communities like my hometown of Clare in northern Michigan and improve the quality of life for rural working families,” Stabenow said.
Boozman added, “Americans have been through a lot since the last time we gathered to write a farm bill. The pandemic, record-high inflation, breakdowns in the supply chain, the war in the Ukraine, floods, droughts, tornadoes, hurricanes, and wildfires have tested all of us. Rural America was not shielded from any of these challenges. In fact, in many ways, the impact in rural America was greater.“
This next farm bill will be informed by these experiences. As we develop the next farm bill, I believe our clear focus should be on rural America. How do the programs and the policies of the federal government help or hurt life in rural America? Because if one part of America is not living up to its potential, then all of America is held back.“
Today’s hearing on rural development and energy programs is the perfect way to kick off our committee’s title-by-title review of the 2018 farm bill,” Boozman added. “As an agency, Rural Development can provide loans and grants to basically build a community from the ground up. The range of assistance it offers is vast: From water, sanitation, electricity, and broadband, to loans for small businesses, financing for cooperatives and grants for community facilities, Rural Development is a tremendous resource.”
Compared with the often contentious hearings over the past three years, Tuesday’s hearing was more like traditional Senate Agriculture Committee hearings. Members of the committee warmly welcomed Agriculture Undersecretary for Rural Development Xochitl Torres Small, who was celebrating her birthday.
In her opening statement, Torres Small thanked Congress for providing more resources for Rural Development in the American Rescue Plan Act, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and Inflation Reduction Act. But she added, “As powerful and important as Rural Development’s programs are, they are rooted in the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, title V of the Rural Housing Act of 1949 and the Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act of 1961 and are thus dated, constrained and sometimes out of step with the needs of rural communities today. While Rural Development programs are often adjusted or updated around the edges, rarely are they considered holistically and with a comprehensive view of what it will take to keep wealth created in rural places in those communities and enable families to live their entire lives in the place they want to call home. The 2023 farm bill presents an opportunity to take that wider view and ensure Rural Development is the transformational partner rural and tribal communities need today.”
That said, Torres Small highlighted the Rural Partners Network, which the Biden administration has established to provide assistance to rural communities that are too small to hire the grant writers that many larger communities use to apply for Agriculture Department programs.
Nearly every member of the committee talked about the importance of easing the application process for programs such as building housing, helping hospitals and bringing high-speed Internet services to all of rural America. Several senators asked Torres Small about the definition of rural, which varies from program to program. But Torres Small noted that most of the definitions of rural for those programs are written in statute and can only be changed by Congress.
Members also asked about environmental and historic preservation reviews, which they said slow down the development of many rural projects. Torres Small said the environmental reviews are vital in order to address “environmental justice.”
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., criticized USDA support for confined animal feeding operations and said he sees linkages between food deserts in rural areas and urban areas. Booker said he believes that current farm subsidies encourage the growing of crops that lead to food deserts and that he wants to work on “realigning subsidies” in the farm bill.
Torres Small said that encouraging farmers to diversify their crops “can make farmers more resilient.”
A series of witnesses testified about the experiences with Rural Development programs.
Near the end of the hearing, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who is a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee but rarely attends hearings, said that he had gotten an electricity bill for his home in Illinois with no charge because he has installed solar panels on the house. But Durbin added that a hog farmer had told him that he cannot use solar panels to provide electricity for his hog facility because his electricity co-op has said it would have to upgrade his electricity service.
Mike Casper, president and CEO of Jo-Carroll Energy, a not-for-profit electric distribution cooperative, headquartered in Elizabeth, Ill., said his co-op’s electric lines were built in 1939 and that many co-op lines need to be modernized. Co-ops were set up to help farmers and other consumers and should be able to address these issues. Stabenow said a provision in the Inflation Reduction Act has “specific dollars” for the modernization of transmission lines.
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