by Brittany Jablonsky, Director of Advocacy Communications

Last week the Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee hosted its second Senate Democratic Rural Summit. NFU President Roger Johnson, along with a number of the NFU staff and representatives of other agriculture and rural development organizations, attended the summit.

The event was hosted by Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, the chair of the committee, and Sen. Mark Pryor, Ark., the co-chair of the summit. Other senators providing comments included Sens. Chris Coons, Del., Heidi Heitkamp, N.D., Tim Johnson, S.D., Amy Klobuchar, Minn., Debbie Stabenow, Mich., and Jon Tester, Mont. The senators focused mainly on two themes, the 2013 Farm Bill debate and rural development issues.

After remarks from the hosts of the summit, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Stabenow spoke on the farm bill and the prospects of completing a new five-year bill this year. She pledged her commitment to doing everything in her power to get the bill to the president’s desk before its expiration on Sept. 30.

The first panel, comprised of Sens. Begich, Coons, Tester and Johnson and moderated by Sara Wyant of Agri-Pulse, focused on “building a sustainable rural economy.” The importance of broadband access throughout rural America was a common theme throughout the summit, and was certainly a focus of this panel. Panelists expanded upon earlier comments from Sen. Pryor stating that infrastructure “isn’t just roads” but includes all of the components, like telecommunications, that keep the rural economy functioning. Sen. Begich also said that in rural Alaska, broadband is a critical part of the state’s education system to bring in classes and expertise from elsewhere to underserved areas.  When asked to rank the state of the rural economy, the panel was optimistic, although the panelists remarked that there was a wide disparity between the agriculture sector, the energy sector, and American Indian country, with the indigenous population experiencing the worst economic conditions and needing particular attention.

The second panel, entitled “Infrastructure and Access to Critical Services,” included Sens. Begich, Heitkamp, Pryor and Klobuchar and moderator Jerry Hagstrom of the Hagstrom Report. Sen. Heitkamp stated her singular focus is on a five-year farm bill, and that she will consider Congress to have failed if September comes and they have only passed an extension or a piecemeal bill. She added that they will have failed for two reasons: a lack of policy certainty for producers, and no time to deal with other important rural issues because of the constant attention on passing a new farm bill.

The summit ended with a keynote address by former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, who discussed the challenges that farmers and agriculture face in the coming decades. A global population increase of 2.5 billion people by 2050 will require significant attention and resources. Glickman listed four major points that are proving to be particularly important: the need for robust investment in agricultural research; a focus on resource use, especially water; improvements in nutrition to help improve food security and reduce health care costs tied to chronic diseases; and improving trade opportunities and removing barriers.

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