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During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump said, "I will end this war on the American farmer!" With the U.S. farm economy experiencing a 50 percent decline in net revenue since 2014, Trump identified an issue area well-known to people living in rural states like Arkansas.

But it's worth asking, as they wage their counter campaign, what will be the Trump administration's chosen tactics?

The American public got their first hint last week when the USDA Secretary--Sonny Perdue--testified before the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture. The committee's questioning primarily focused on Perdue's proposed "realignment" of the USDA, which would--among other things--eliminate the under-secretary of rural development. In its place, Perdue would create an assistant secretary of rural development, giving the head of America's rural development agencies "direct access" to Perdue.

But if Secretary Perdue thinks that this simple "realignment" will significantly improve the rural economy, he will surely be disappointed.

What Secretary Perdue's plan fails to recognize is that development in rural markets requires more collaboration among the relevant contributors than in other development contexts. In addition to the USDA, there are 14 federal agencies involved in the rural economy, making cross-agency collaboration difficult. But without collaboration, meaningful rural development policy is impossible to effectuate, no matter to whom the head of the USDA's rural development agency reports.

As a rural development practitioner, I know how powerful collaboration can be. Last year, I worked as a food systems analyst for a rural development organization, where it was my job to improve credit access for small-scale farmers. It was fulfilling work, but I quickly found that it's difficult to grow the rural economy without knowing what financing projects farmers and communities need.

Then I was invited to attend a meeting organized by the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, where the purpose was to promote collaboration among farmers and the private and public sectors. The meeting proved immensely productive: In less than a day, we created a list of financing priorities for farm communities in Arkansas. This is the very type of activity that should be central to our rural development strategy, not a supplement.

It is time to build collaboration into the structure of our rural development policy in the United States. Rather than "realign" the USDA alone, I believe that Secretary Perdue would be better off embracing the complexity of rural development by working to "realign" the inter-agency systems that implement rural development policies.

More specifically, the best solution would be to create a working group charged with drafting a comprehensive plan that organizes federal rural development policies, laws, and directives while also outlining the decision-making process across the different agency bodies. If crafted well, a national strategy would dissolve the organizational roadblocks to rural development, making a thriving rural America once again possible.

But this begs the question, to whom can America look for inspiration?

Arkansas should create a blueprint for a national rural development strategy. After all, Arkansas is a small rural state, which makes the task of coordinating development activities less challenging than in the national context. Moreover, our geography is diverse but representative: The Ozarks look a lot like the Appalachians, while the crippling poverty in the Arkansas Delta reflects the reality of many other Mississippi River counties.

Arkansas is also home to some of the best rural development organizations in the United States, including the UA's Cooperative Extension Services, the Delta Regional Authority, Southern Bancorp Inc., the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, and many other private and nonprofit organizations.

Best of all, creating an Arkansas rural development strategy wouldn't require the passage of legislation or funding from state coffers. In fact, all it would take is convincing Gov. Asa Hutchinson that Arkansas can become a national leader on this front.

The benefits of an Arkansas rural development strategy are also immense. While Arkansas is the best place to develop a blueprint, we also have a tremendous need for a comprehensive plan.

Approximately 268,000 rural Arkansans live in poverty, 420,000 are food insecure, and 450,000 suffer from obesity. At the same time, earnings per job significantly declined in 21 of Arkansas' rural counties since 2014. And unless we better coordinate the policies designed to improve the rural economy, these trends will continue.

During the House Committee hearing, Secretary Perdue articulated his personal motto for the USDA: Do right and feed everyone. But Secretary Perdue's "realignment" alone will neither do right by, nor feed everyone, involved in the rural economy.

By leading the nation in developing a comprehensive rural development strategy, Arkansas could take pride in living up to Secretary Perdue's mission. Meanwhile, the lives of over 1 million rural Arkansans would improve dramatically.


Sean Alexander of Little Rock is a Marshall scholar currently studying in the United Kingdom for a master of science in food security and development.

Editorial on 05/25/2017

Print Headline: Time to go rural

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