2018 Farm Bill-simplifying rural development

By Bruce Knight

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Over the years, rural development programs have multiplied and morphed to the point where it's difficult for farmers, small businesses, entrepreneurs and rural communities to determine which programs are appropriate for the projects they need help with. The 2018 Farm Bill offers a great opportunity to consolidate and simplify programs to improve transparency and make them more user-friendly as well as easier to administer.

The USDA's Rural Development offices run programs that help improve the economy and quality of life in rural America through grants and loan guarantees for essential services such as housing, economic development, health care, first responder services and equipment and water, electric and communications infrastructure. In 2015, Rural Development invested nearly $30 billion in more than 170,000 projects nationwide. That includes loans for single family dwellings as well multi-family buildings. Funds also went to build nearly 1,000 health care centers, schools, libraries and public safety facilities and bring the Internet to nearly 280,000 homes, businesses and public facilities.

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That's a lot of help for rural communities and families. The problem is not that the money is not well spent, but that it's hard for folks to know which program best fits their situation since the programs overlap. Each was created, over the course of a number of farm bills, to fill a gap or cover a pet project of a Representative or a Senator or meet the wishes of a special interest group. It's time to make sense out of the multitude of programs and revamp them in a way that works better for everyone involved.

We've found in our consulting business that organizations sometimes find it necessary to call in people to help them sort things out. And if they apply to one program that wasn't exactly right, then they need assistance to identify a program that's a better fit and reformat their information for the new application. Whether it's building an ethanol plant or a digester, several different rural development programs might be appropriate. The Advanced Biofuel Payment Program, the Repowering Assistance Program and the Biorefinery, Renewable Chemical, and Biobased Product Manufacturing Assistance Program all sound similar. These groups really shouldn't need to hire a consultant to sort through the programs and the applications.  

Fewer programs with broader categories would make things much clearer for applicants. We need to get away from requiring the people served by rural development programs to fill out multiple applications. Apply once and get a clear yes or a no.

We know simplifying and consolidating programs can be an effective approach because of the effort in the 2014 Farm Bill to combine conservation programs to make them easier to understand and apply for as well as administer. The Congress worked together to take nearly two dozen conservation programs and boiled them down to four to six, depending on how you count, without a hiccup. Now conservation programs are more straightforward and easier to implement.

I think we can do the same in the next farm bill for rural development. In fact, last time around the Senate Agriculture Committee wanted to move in this direction, but the House wouldn't go along. Let's give consolidation and simplification another try. It makes sense for rural America, for the taxpayers and for the program administrators as well.

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems

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