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Rural development would get boost in next farm bill

BEMIDJI, Minn. -- After the July 4th break for Congress, work on the next five-year federal farm bill accelerates in high gear to beat a Sept. 30 deadline.

That's when the current farm bill, crafted in 2002, expires.

Once considered the federal government's safety net for farmers, providing subsidies when prices fall for commodities from rice to corn, today's farm bill means much more.

Along with commodity supports, the farm bill's 10 titles include nutrition programs such as food stamps, conservation programs, forestry, energy research, trade and rural development.

"We have 42 programs," says Steve Wenzel, state director for Minnesota of U.S. Agriculture Department Rural Development, Title VI under the farm bill. "We do everything from A to Z, from soup to nuts."

Wenzel was in Bemidji last Thursday to promote National Homeownership Month by acknowledging a Bemidji couple's use of USDA Rural Development's housing loan programs to achieve their first home.

USDA Rural Development also funds rural water and wastewater systems, tribal college facilities, rural critical access hospitals, rural broadband Internet connectivity and, as Wenzel points out, even two Montessori schools in Minnesota.

Rural development efforts under the new farm bill are expected to bode well for Minnesota, Wenzel says, especially because of a Minnesota presence on both House and Senate agriculture panels.

"I can't overemphasize enough the importance of the fact that Congressman Peterson, who serves as chair of the House Agriculture Committee, that his leadership has been so helpful to rural Minnesota," Wenzel said, referring to U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, DFL-7th District.

And he notes that both U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., sit on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Calling Coleman a "valued member" of the Senate panel, Wenzel said the Republican as chief author of the Rural Renaissance Act "has led the effort for more dollars which is sorely needed in the area of public works for wastewater treatment and new wells.

"The $50 billion in that particular bill, while sounding like a lot of money in addition to what we're already spending, is not what is needed nationally," Wenzel added.

An Environmental Protection Agency report shows that to upgrade all the systems in America on wastewater treatment, new wells and clean water, some $900 billion is needed, he said. Minnesota's need is between $2 billion and $3 billion.

USDA Rural Developments spends $35 million annually on such systems, Wenzel said, with the new farm bill out of the House slated to provide an additional $45 million of $500 million nationally to help handle a backlog of systems ready to go but lacking funds.

Drafts of the farm bill "seem to be very strong" on rural development, Wenzel said. "There seems to be unanimity on the part of the president, the secretary (of Agriculture), Congressman Peterson ... on keeping rural development strong and increased, as well as keeping the programs and adding to them."

Critical care access hospitals with $2 billion, renewable energy programs at $2.1 billion and the $500 million for backlogged wastewater treatment and new wells are the three largest priorities for USDA Rural Development, he said.

Walker can't yet tap into critical care access hospital funding, as it hasn't the designation. Bills by Coleman and U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, DFL-8th District, would waive a newly enacted mileage requirement that such rural facilities are more than 35 miles away -- up from 30 -- from a major hospital. Walker is 31.9 miles away from St. Joseph's Hospital in Park Rapids.

Critical access hospital designation "is based on the number of hospitals in your county in the 35-mile radius, 25 beds or less, and also it has some prohibitions on the kinds of surgeries that you can perform, the number of days you can stay in the hospital," said Sharon Josephson, Peterson's district staff assistant in Detroit Lakes who also attended the Bemidji housing event last week.

Minnesota has 79 critical care hospitals, said Wenzel, with more than 1,700 nationally. "We already fund upgrades of critical access hospitals, and we would get additional monies. (The administration) is absolutely very concerned that every critical care hospital has the opportunity to upgrade, if they need it."

In the last three years, USDA Rural Development has provided $16 million to upgrade Wadena's hospital, building a new hospital at St. James with a $22 million investment, a $5 million upgrade to a Sleepy Eye hospital, a similar upgrade in Wheaton and an $11 million improvement in Cloquet.

"I'm excited about this farm bill," Wenzel said.

"The issue of health care reform, all of those kinds of issues that appear on the national level, unless you have access to health care, it really doesn't make a whole lot of difference," Josephson said. "In most of our smaller communities, they do not have without critical access hospitals access to health care of any kind."

The House Agriculture Committee is on a fast track to get a farm bill to the House floor by the end of July, she said. Subcommittees handling all the separate titles have draft bills, and baseline budget target has been established. With that, the Agriculture Committee will soon be marking up, or attaching funding to policy, soon.

The overall farm bill, with all supports and nutrition programs, averages $94 billion to $105 billion a year since 2002, Wenzel said. Meanwhile, rural development has grown from $9 billion in 2001 to $18 billion this year and growing.

"The fact that we're 18 percent, average, of the farm bill is huge," he said. "We won't and we shouldn't catch up to the farmers ..."

It's something the general public may not understand, says Josephson, that "the farm bill, or agriculture budget, has a very small portion going to the production of agriculture. A very small portion of that goes into subsidies. The lion's share goes into the nutrition program, which includes the WIC program (for mothers and infants) and food stamps."

Another healthy share, she said, goes to conservation programs and another healthy share to USDA Rural Development and forestry "that benefits every member of the community, whether living in downtown Minneapolis or living out here."

Funding water projects and housing is an emerging priority under the farm bill, Josephson said, "but the share that the farmer's getting to produce the food for the American consumer every year is reduced and reduced and reduced. That's difficult to explain to a person living in St. Paul, much less Detroit."

While a strong supporter of rural development through his Rural Renaissance Act, Coleman said funding for those projects must not come at the expense of keeping commodity supports.

"Let's not put in conflict commodities versus everything else," Coleman said Thursday in a telephone interview. "Rural development is absolutely critical, and I'm a big champion of critical access hospitals. ... Rural development is an essential key to economic growth in our rural communities."

Minnesota is in a unique place with a focus now on energy and renewables, he said. "We have some great opportunities in those areas."

But, Coleman said, "it would be a mistake to say that anything that we do in enhancing rural development is somehow going to result in something coming out of commodities and affect them. I want to see enhanced conservation, but not at the cost of Title I, the commodity title."

Coleman said his panel's mark-up of the farm bill won't start until the week of July 17. "The time's running out on this bill, it expires at the end of September. And we will be in recess in August, so we have to work quickly and aggressively on this to get this done."

An option remains to extend the current farm bill, but both chambers are proceeding with new bills, he said.

"The big question's going to be where's the money," Coleman said. "In the sections that have been drafted, much of it will come in significantly over budget. Where is the money?"