RALEIGH, N.C. — Small farmers and rural residents say Washington has for too long neglected the special needs of these regions, and some are now calling on lawmakers to establish a National Office of Rural Prosperity.
Craig Watts is a farmer, and part time farm advocate with RAFI-USA, and a consultant for the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project. He said over the past several decades, policy decisions have consolidated the agriculture sector and left America’s small-scale family farms with lower returns, fewer choices and huge debts to pay for essential supplies such as seeds and fertilizer.
“We’re in an industrial-type system now that is not sustainable,” Watts said. “We have to get some policy changes, because the policies right now are what is driving this system, and it’s putting the small farmers out of business.”
But Watts said farmers comprise less than 10% of the rural workforce. He said a National Office of Rural Prosperity could also work to address the unique structural challenges of rural housing, education, health care, small-business development and job creation.
Matt Hildreth, executive director of the group RuralOrganzing.org, said current federal funding for rural programs is scattered across different agencies. He said that means money often doesn’t end up in the places where it could have the most impact.
“Right now, when you look at the federal government, rural programs are through USDA, they’re through HUD, they’re through all these different agencies. And there’s really no unified, central force that’s focused on keeping rural dollars rural,” Hildreth said.
Federal programs for economic development in small towns and rural communities only received $3.5 billion this year. Hildreth said that’s just pennies compared with the $50 billion for industrial farms.
According to a recent poll from RuralOrganizing.org of more than 7,000 rural voters in battleground states, only 1 in 10 rural voters thinks USDA programs benefit small farms and small towns.