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Published April 12, 2012, 12:05 AM

John Crabtree, Lyons, Neb., letter: Jobs, small towns should be farm bill priority

This time, the farm bill needs to invest in creating genuine opportunity for ordinary Americans and a future for our communities. This time, it needs to cut subsidies for the rich and powerful.

By: John Crabtree,

By John Crabtree

LYONS, Neb. — Federal investment in creating rural jobs and strengthening America’s small towns has been plummeting. The farm bill developed last year further cut investment in the future of rural America. But it increased subsidies for some of the nation’s largest farms and wealthiest landowners.

Fortunately, that bill died when budget talks collapsed. Congress has begun work on a new version of the farm bill. This time, they must do better. This time, the farm bill needs to invest in creating genuine opportunity for ordinary Americans and a future for our communities.

This time, it needs to cut subsidies for the rich and powerful.

A 2007 Center for Rural Affairs study shows how far farm and rural policy has veered off course. The U.S. Department of Agriculture spent 1.5 times as much to subsidize the 20 largest farms in North Dakota as it invested in rural development programs to create economic opportunity for the 82,000 people and 100 towns in the 20 rural North Dakota counties with the worst population loss.

Moreover, rural development funds have been slashed by a third over the past nine years. The cuts have reduced support for small town community facilities, community development and water and sewer systems.

Funding was killed for the one USDA program focused on the small businesses that provide the most new jobs in many of the nation’s most rural counties. The Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program provides funding for organizations such as the Lake Agassiz Regional Development Corp. to make loans and offer business training to small, rural businesses.

Funding has also been cut by two-thirds for the Value Added Producer Grants that help farmers and ranchers improve their incomes by selling higher value crops and food products.

Just ask the folks in Bowdon, N.D., about the importance of this federal investment in rural development.

When Bowdon’s grocery store and meat locker both closed about four years ago, the residents of this small community in central North Dakota faced the stern challenges of having to take their money out of the community to shop for food.

For many locals, especially those without reliable transportation or with low incomes, the closure of the local grocery store could mean going hungry at times or making unhealthy food choices based on what is available.

But Bowdon didn’t give up. The people there formed the Bowdon Community Cooperative, gathered local equity, bought the grocery store and reopened it last year. They are closing in on selling their final equity shares to reopen the butcher shop as well.

In February, they were awarded a Value Added Producer Grant providing $49,500 for working capital. But the grant will provide much more than that. It will help local farmers and ranchers add value to their cattle, it will create new jobs in Bowdon, and it is already spurring rural investment in the local economy.

The federal investments in small, rural businesses such as Bowdon Meat Processing are drawing a high return and should be prioritized. As the economy slowly recovers and deficits grow, it is more important than ever that Congress make wise choices and set priorities that reflect the common good.

But Congress is doing the opposite. It is underinvesting in our future while over-subsidizing the rich and powerful.

Under current and proposed federal farm policy, if one corporation farmed my entire home state of Iowa, the federal government would pay 60 percent of its crop insurance premiums on every acre, every year, even in times of record profits.

The higher crop prices rise, the higher subsidies for crop insurance premiums rise.

They have ballooned to 1.5 times their cost just two years ago — higher than all other farm programs.

And with no effective cap on how much one large operation can reap, these premiums are simply subsidies that mega-farms use to drive smaller operations outs of business.

Neither party has provided consistent leadership on this core issue for rural towns and family farm agriculture. We must choose either lavish subsidies for mega-farms or investment in the future of rural America. The best choice is obvious, especially if you’ve visited Bowdon.

Crabtree is the media director of the Center for Rural Affairs.