The U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry on Tuesday, November 15 held the first hearing in a series that will focus on each title of the Farm Bill, which is set to expire in 2023. The hearing titled “Farm Bill 2023: Rural Development and Energy Programs” focused on the wide range of programs and services provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
“Rural communities trust USDA Rural Development to help them with critical community infrastructure projects—from broadband, water and clean electricity to small business lending,” Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) said in her opening remarks. “Our rural economies depend on these small businesses, and USDA Rural Development plays a key role in improving access to capital and other support,” she said, adding that “every American deserves a great quality of life, no matter where they live.”
Chairwoman Stabenow also acknowledged and entered into the record this NCBA CLUSA letter on key cooperative priorities in the Rural Development and Energy titles.
Ranking Member John Boozman (R-AR) said, “As an agency, Rural Development (RD) 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. As we review the mission area’s programs, we must redouble our efforts to make them more accessible.” Boozman also discussed the impacts of inflation, supply chain issues and extreme weather events on rural America.
“As we review [Rural Development]’s programs, we must redouble our efforts to make them more accessible.” – Sen. John Boozman
The first witness panel featured USDA Under Secretary for Rural Development Xochitl Torres Small. In her written statement, Under Secretary Torres Small discussed the importance of rural prosperity for the entire nation, stating, “Everyone benefits when rural communities thrive.” She discussed the importance of USDA Rural Development services including Rural Cooperative Development Grants through the Rural Business-Cooperative Service, the Rural Energy Savings Program, and the Community Facilities Program. Under Secretary Torres Small emphasized her eagerness to work with Congress in ensuring USDA RD is modern, flexible and has the necessary tools to support rural prosperity.
After opening statements, senators had the opportunity to ask questions of Under Secretary Torres Small. Among the recurring themes were capacity building, flexibility, and streamlining applications within USDA RD programs.
“Everyone benefits when rural communities thrive.” – USDA Under Secretary for Rural Development Xochitl Torres Small
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) asked about the role of cooperatives and opportunities to expand cooperative research and capacity building. Under Secretary Torres Small responded that, “cooperatives are an incredible model that is long-lasting” across sectors. She highlighted the need for building capacity for cooperative development to aid individuals in creating co-ops and the role of nonprofits funded through the RCDG program in providing that technical assistance to emerging cooperatives.
Sens. Klobuchar (D-MN), Bennet (D-CO) and Hoeven (R-ND) made remarks on the role of rural electric co-ops. Other senators on the committee asked questions regarding broadband programs, affordable housing, renewable energy development, and the definition of rural.
Throughout the first panel, interagency cooperation was noted as a priority to ensure that the thirteen federal agencies administering over 400 programs available to rural communities are reaching the intended recipients. NCBA CLUSA has advocated for the Interagency Working Group on Cooperative Development, which puts USDA at the helm of communications across federal agencies on the ways in which cooperatives can help solve local community economic development challenges and build a more inclusive and resilient economy. The Interagency Working Group on Cooperative Development’s website is available here.
NCBA CLUSA has advocated for the Interagency Working Group on Cooperative Development, which puts USDA at the helm of communications across federal agencies on the ways in which cooperatives can help solve local community economic development challenges and build a more inclusive and resilient economy.
The second panel featured experts across sectors including representatives from a community economic development organization, water association, rural electric cooperative and bio-based product development company. Of note, Mike Casper, president and CEO of Jo-Carroll Energy, an electric cooperative in Illinois, stated “Diversity of electric generation is essential to our commitment to a lower carbon future. As cooperatives look to the future, we are exploring all options, technologies and ideas to work to meet the evolving energy needs of the local communities we serve.”
Cooperatives across sectors were mentioned and represented during the hearing. Overall, the feedback provided from both witnesses and members of the committee highlighted the need for flexibility and resources for capacity building within USDA RD programs.