NSAC: New USDA Plan Abandons Rural Development Priorities in Favor of International Trade

National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition May 15, 2017

A barge loads agricultural products for export on the banks of the Ohio River in Cincinnati.

Accord­ing to a plan released last week by Agri­cul­ture Sec­re­tary Son­ny Per­due, in its first reor­ga­ni­za­tion in over two decades, the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture (USDA) stands to lose one of its core Mis­sion Areas: Rur­al Development.

The Department’s restruc­tur­ing is the result of a con­gres­sion­al direc­tive includ­ed in the 2014 Farm Bill, which instruct­ed USDA to cre­ate a new Under­sec­re­tary of Trade. In addi­tion to cre­at­ing the new under­sec­re­tary posi­tion, USDA has also elect­ed to demote the Rur­al Devel­op­ment Mis­sion Area to the sta­tus of office,” and shift the Nat­ur­al Resources Con­ser­va­tion Ser­vice (NRCS), Farm Ser­vices Agency (FSA), and Risk Man­age­ment Agency (RMA) from two unique Mis­sion Areas (each with their own under­sec­re­tary) to a sin­gle Farm Pro­duc­tion and Con­ser­va­tion” Mis­sion Area.

While the Admin­is­tra­tion has attempt­ed to spin the demo­tion of Rur­al Devel­op­ment (RD) as an ele­va­tion” — argu­ing that because the office would report direct­ly to the Sec­re­tary, rur­al devel­op­ment needs would receive greater atten­tion — it is in fact a trad­ing away of rur­al, domes­tic pri­or­i­ties in favor of boost­ing inter­na­tion­al trade.

All under­sec­re­taries, includ­ing the Under­sec­re­tary of Rur­al Devel­op­ment, already report direct­ly to the Sec­re­tary, so the asser­tion that this would be a new ben­e­fit of RD’s re-cat­e­go­riza­tion is mis­lead­ing. In its cur­rent posi­tion as a core USDA Mis­sion Area over­seen by an under­sec­re­tary, RD is part of the USDA sub­cab­i­net; the reas­sign­ment of RD to office” would remove it from the sub­cab­i­net and rescind the deci­sion-mak­ing pow­er that comes with being a USDA Mis­sion Area.

May 11, 2017 — USDA Sec­re­tary Son­ny Per­due announces and signs the order sig­ni­fy­ing the cre­ation of an under­sec­re­tary for trade and for­eign agri­cul­tur­al affairs. (Pho­to: USDA)

More­over, the Rur­al Devel­op­ment Mis­sion Area is made up of three agen­cies — Rur­al Busi­ness and Coop­er­a­tive Ser­vice, Rur­al Hous­ing Ser­vice, and Rur­al Util­i­ties Ser­vice — all of which would be elim­i­nat­ed by the pro­posed reor­ga­ni­za­tion. The RD Mis­sion Area and its agen­cies deliv­er numer­ous grant and loan pro­grams to rur­al Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties and make mul­ti­ple com­plex deci­sions on a dai­ly basis. To assume that a down­grad­ed office with a lim­it­ed num­ber of staff and no high-rank­ing lead­er­ship will be bet­ter posi­tioned to car­ry out the impor­tant tasks and deci­sion-mak­ing cur­rent­ly done by RD is ques­tion­able at best.

Although Con­gress direct­ed USDA to cre­ate a Trade Under­sec­re­tary, USDA was under no legal oblig­a­tion to elim­i­nate anoth­er Mis­sion Area and under­sec­re­tary posi­tion to accom­plish that direc­tive. They there­fore could have con­tin­ued to serve rur­al devel­op­ment needs at the same lev­el while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly step­ping up their focus on trade, but they chose not to do that.

The demo­tion of RD, tak­en togeth­er with the Administration’s recent attempt to wipe out rur­al busi­ness pro­grams, water and sew­er loans, and grants for rur­al com­mu­ni­ties through the appro­pri­a­tions process, sends a clear sig­nal that the Pres­i­dent does not under­stand the crit­i­cal nature of rur­al devel­op­ment to the Amer­i­can economy.

The Nation­al Sus­tain­able Agri­cul­ture Coali­tion (NSAC) is com­mit­ted to work­ing with our 118 mem­ber orga­ni­za­tions, Sen­a­tors and Rep­re­sen­ta­tives from across the coun­try, and our allies in the rur­al and agri­cul­tur­al com­mu­ni­ties to reverse this mis­guid­ed deci­sion demot­ing the rur­al mis­sion of USDA.

Con­ser­va­tion concerns

The reor­ga­ni­za­tion also involves shift­ing NRCS, FSA, and RMA under a sin­gle Mis­sion Area, Farm Pro­duc­tion and Con­ser­va­tion. The suc­cess or fail­ure of this shift will depend on the details. With­out a full pro­pos­al detail­ing this part of the reor­ga­ni­za­tion, it is dif­fi­cult to say whether or not it will result in more effec­tive out­comes for farm­ers and the environment.

It is quite pos­si­ble, how­ev­er, that this shift is the begin­ning of a longer-term effort to meet Pres­i­dent Trump’s March 13 exec­u­tive order, which directs the Office of Man­age­ment and Bud­get (OMB) to pro­pose a plan to elim­i­nate unnec­es­sary agen­cies” and merge agency func­tions. The president’s bud­get pre­view, which pro­posed pri­va­tiz­ing con­ser­va­tion tech­ni­cal assis­tance (the back­bone of NRCS’ con­ser­va­tion work with farm­ers), adds cre­dence to these concerns.

NSAC has long called for bet­ter coor­di­na­tion between USDA agen­cies, and has rou­tine­ly pro­vid­ed detailed rec­om­men­da­tions on ways to imple­ment data shar­ing, col­lab­o­ra­tion, and eval­u­a­tion. We agree that enhanced col­lab­o­ra­tion between NRCS, FSA, and RMA would be help­ful, but also under­score that each of these three agen­cies pro­vides crit­i­cal and unique ser­vices and pro­grams. Giv­en the con­nect­ed but unique nature of each agency NSAC urges USDA to ensure that any changes made through the reor­ga­ni­za­tion strength­en, not weak­en or elim­i­nate, their work. NSAC will oppose any long-term effort to elim­i­nate NRCS func­tions and field offices as part of a broad­er reor­ga­ni­za­tion effort.

Trump bud­get and House and Sen­ate hear­ings to follow

The May 11 announce­ment by Sec­re­tary Per­due pro­vid­ed no new infor­ma­tion on the administration’s upcom­ing bud­get request for fis­cal year (FY) 2018, which OMB plans to release the week of May 22. NSAC expects that request will include fur­ther details about the Administration’s plans to elim­i­nate rur­al devel­op­ment pro­grams and pri­va­tize con­ser­va­tion plan­ning, among oth­er proposals.

The new sec­re­tary of agri­cul­ture will have two key oppor­tu­ni­ties to defend the pro­posed reor­ga­ni­za­tion in the com­ing weeks: next week before the House Agri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee and the fol­low­ing week before the House Agri­cul­ture Appro­pri­a­tions Sub­com­mit­tee. A Sen­ate Agri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee hear­ing is also in the works and will like­ly be announced soon.

It is our hope that both the autho­riz­ing and appro­pri­a­tions com­mit­tees defend the need for USDA to be involved in pro­mot­ing rur­al jobs and com­mu­ni­ty devel­op­ment. The Com­mit­tees can best make this stand by refus­ing to appro­pri­ate funds to allow the elim­i­na­tion of RD as a core Mis­sion Area. Trad­ing away rur­al Amer­i­ca is wrong. Con­gress has the pow­er to stop it; we hope they make the right choice.

(To read the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture’s Report to Con­gress on the Pro­posed 2017 Reor­ga­ni­za­tion of the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture to Estab­lish an Under Sec­re­tary for Trade and For­eign Agri­cul­tur­al Affairs,” click here. To view the orig­i­nal press release on NSAC’s web­site, click here.)

The Nation­al Sus­tain­able Agri­cul­ture Coali­tion is a grass­roots alliance that advo­cates for fed­er­al pol­i­cy reform sup­port­ing the long-term social, eco­nom­ic, and envi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­i­ty of agri­cul­ture, nat­ur­al resources and rur­al communities.
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