Last month, US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced plans to significantly restructure the US Department of Agriculture - the first reorganization of the agency in 20 years. Highlights of the plan include:
- The creation of a new Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs.
- The elimination of the position of Under Secretary for Rural Development. The staff and agencies that were under this division will now report directly to Secretary Perdue. This change also eliminates the agencies under Rural Development which administer many important grant and loan programs for farmers and rural communities, including the Rural Business Cooperative Service, Rural Housing Service and Rural Utilities Service.
- The reshaping of the role and focus for the Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agriculture Services to a new position called the Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation. This position will now focus on domestic issues and oversee all the agencies that provide services to American farmers including the Farm Service Agency (FSA), the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Risk Management Agency.
After the announcement, Secretary Perdue argued that the structural change at USDA "will elevate the rural development agencies to the secretary of agriculture to ensure that rural America always has a direct seat at the table." In addition, Perdue said that aligning the agencies that serve US farmers will "provide a simplified, one-stop shop for our primary customers."
USDA Restructuring Significantly Impacts Farmers, Rural Development
While the creation of the new Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural affairs was the result of a congressional directive included in the 2014 Farm Bill instructing the USDA to create this new position, Perdue was under no legal obligation to eliminate any other mission areas or Under Secretaries. In a letter to the House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders, a group of fifteen sustainable agriculture groups noted that the removal of the Under Secretary of Rural Development was a "demotion" of that mission area that would "remove Congressional accountability" for rural development for the USDA and "will have a direct impact on our nation's ability to care for the underserved and compete in a global market."
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) agrees and holds that the reorganization "is in fact a trading away of rural, domestic priorities in favor of boosting international trade." As all Under Secretaries, including Rural Development, already report to Secretary Perdue directly, the suggestion that removing the Under Secretary for Rural Development and placing its staff and mission under the direct supervision of Perdue would give it more attention or importance is misleading, argues NSAC's policy experts. They go on to say that this demotion taken together with the Trump administration's recent attempts to cut funding for the USDA by 20 percent and eliminate funding for rural development programs all together through his "skinny budget" shows "a clear signal that the President does not understand the critical nature of rural development to the American economy."
In their letter to Congress, sustainable farm groups underscored their concern that this reorganization and the cuts to the USDA's budget come at a time when many farmers are struggling through a major economic crisis. Despite the fact that the GDP has recovered since 2007, they worry that many rural communities have not shared in the economic recovery experienced by the rest of the country.
"Today's news is a gut punch for anyone in rural America who wants to see small businesses succeed on their Main Streets, new opportunities in their communities and better jobs for them and their neighbors," said Illinois Congresswoman Cheri Bustos in response to the USDA announcement.
Rural Development Programs Help Boost Rural Communities and Economies
According to March 2016 testimony to the House Committee on Agriculture by the former Under Secretary for Rural Development, Lisa Mensah, during the last administration the USDA's Rural Development agency helped approximately 112,000 rural small businesses grow, creating or saving an estimated 450,000 jobs; invested in more than 6,6000 community projects like hospitals, schools and libraries; supported more than 3,300 multi-family housing developments; and helped more than 1.1 million rural families buy, repair or refinance a home.
In addition, under the Obama administration, Rural Development invested $13.3 billion in new or improved infrastructure in rural areas, helping nearly 18 million rural residents gain access to clean drinking water and better waste water disposal.