Farmers, ranchers, foresters, and producers know that the overall economy is booming again, and for that we are thankful and optimistic. But it is clear when you drive through the byways, small towns, and farmlands of our nation that rural America has not kept pace.
Urban and suburban populations continue to climb across the country, while the population in rural areas has remained stagnant. Integrating technological innovation into American farms will enhance the quality of our agricultural output, increase sustainable use of precious natural resources and improve the efficiency of the American farmer.
A task force created by President Trump has developed many recommendations for addressing this issue, but it has found one overarching challenge that we must overcome to ensure future rural prosperity. We must deploy high-speed internet access to rural America. E-connectivity is a tool that enables increased productivity for farms, factories, forests, and small businesses, and is fundamental for economic development and an improved quality of life. It allows medical, educational, and business services to travel virtually to remote areas and can enrich rural life immeasurably.
Others have previously identified this need, but the problem still remains.
We knew of no better way of assessing the situation than to speak to the people of the heartland directly, which we did by holding town hall meetings, listening sessions, and roundtables in farming communities across the country. As we surveyed the feedback we received, it became clear that people believed that folks in Washington, D.C., had stopped listening to rural America over the years. Rural Americans were tired of slogans, lip service and benign or blatant disregard of their ideals and recommendations.
President Trump left no doubt that he cared for rural America when on April 25, 2017 — my first day as Secretary of Agriculture — he signed an executive order establishing the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity. It has been a task force I have been proud to chair, and we took seriously our charge: to investigate circumstances in rural areas of the country, to formulate concrete solutions to situations limiting prosperity and to report back to the President.
Anyone who knows how the President operates will understand that this was an executive order, not an executive suggestion. We have publicly presented our final report to President Trump.
It is fitting that the President accepted our findings at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual meeting in Nashville. Formed of 22 cabinet departments and federal agencies, the task force enthusiastically embraced the challenges before it: to understand the issues that keep rural America from thriving, to develop a set of solutions to address those issues, and to tear down the walls within levels of government which inhibit that growth.
By the time the report was prepared for the President, we had identified over 100 actions the federal government should consider undertaking to ensure growth in America’s heartland. We organized these solutions around five key indicators: connectivity, quality of life, rural workforce, technological innovation, and economic development. Taken together, these proposals create a road map to reinvigorate rural America’s economy and its most precious resources — its people.
Each recommendation intersects with and complements the others, but the task force found one overarching need: improved high-speed internet access.
To increase access to broadband in rural areas, we must incentivize private capital investment, including the use of public-private partnerships. We must also invest in making high-speed Internet infrastructure more attractive by streamlining arduous review, approval, and permitting processes.
We have a duty to harness technological innovation to improve the quality, nutritional value, and safety of American crops. An improved strategy for research and development of new agricultural technologies will be key, as will be a unified US approach toward convincing our trading partners of the value of safe biotech products.
And it is imperative that we increase access to capital in rural America, repair crumbling infrastructure and reduce regulatory burdens to foster greater economic development. We should create opportunities that are attractive to the private sector by bundling projects to increase scale, allowing new obligations in federal and state loan programs, and promoting regional and state collaboration on projects. These actions will help us meet our goal of empowering rural America.
We realistically envision a rural America with world-class resources, tools, and supports to build robust, sustainable communities for generations to come. These are not simple tasks, and they will require the coordination and partnership of federal, state, and local governments, the private sector, individuals, and families across our great land.
If we are to be successful, we will need the continuing input and support of the people in rural communities who work hard every day to feed, clothe, and fuel America and the world. The task force has worked diligently to pinpoint the needs of rural America — going forward, the White House and I will be wholly committed to ensuring that these needs are met. I invite you to read our final report and join us in this noble cause.