CQ Roll Call

Working on farm bill, senators frustrated by what counts as rural

By Ellyn Ferguson, CQ

Senate Agriculture members from both parties on Tuesday offered a glimpse into what could be a thorny issue as lawmakers begin work on the 2023 farm bill: the federal definition of rural. 
The definition varies by program, resulting in some facilities that serve an essentially rural purpose still being excluded from aid while some areas are so large that they don't qualify. Definitions of rural may be based on population, population density or geographic size.

Xochitl Torres Small, a former House member from New Mexico and now the Agriculture Department's undersecretary for Rural Development, told the Senate panel that the definitions are sometimes written in statute and are up to Congress to change. But the Senate Agriculture hearing Tuesday offered few clues as to whether lawmakers would find new definitions with enough support to become law. 
Ranking member John Boozman, R-Ark., said after the hearing that he and Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., may meet with their House counterparts once it's clear which party will take the majority in that chamber. Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., is likely to become chairman of the House Agriculture Committee if Republicans become the majority, as they are on course to do.

“Now that we are officially into farm bill hearings, I’m sure that will happen sooner rather than later,” Boozman said. "That is something that certainly needs to be done.” 
The Senate panel should begin by finding out "what we agree on and set aside the other while we begin working on that," he said.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Thompson said he would like to see the House committee move a farm bill by July 2023. He said he would like it to be bipartisan. The current farm bill (PL 115-334) expires next Sept. 30.

“I’ve always said that the best bills — the ones that pass and last and are not repealed — are the ones done in a bipartisan manner. That’s my goal,” he said.

Thompson said the House committee should pick up the pace on farm bill hearings and also conduct oversight sessions to answer the question of “who is putting their thumb on the scale out of the Biden White House on Secretary [Tom] Vilsack, on [EPA] Administrator [Michael] Regan, on the administrator of FDA."

"Some of those policies are just not good for American families because it is putting hardships on all those families that provide us food, fiber and energy resources," Thompson said.

At the Senate panel hearing, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., told Torres Small that the Mississippi State Fairgrounds doesn't qualify for loans or grants for rural community facilities despite its economic importance for rural communities and businesses. The fairgrounds is ineligible because it is located in populous Hinds County, which also includes the state capital of Jackson.

“The Mississippi fairgrounds is a hub for rural Mississippians involved in agriculture and livestock,” Hyde-Smith said, adding that it is often a venue for farm bureau conventions and rodeos and serves as a shelter for horses and livestock evacuated during hurricane season.

Hyde-Smith said the facilities have deteriorated and asked if Torres Small’s agency would be open to expanding the community facilities program to include facilities that are not located in rural areas but provide essential services to rural communities.

Torres Small said the community facilities program is one of the department's most flexible but that some places are still ineligible. The agency will "execute statutes faithfully," she said, adding that investment in rural communities is meant to boost the tax base where people are remaining in such communities.

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., raised concerns about a hospital in Bessemer that had received funding from rural development programs in the past but was no longer eligible because areas around it had grown in population.

Torres Small said her agency is reviewing the hospital's situation and acknowledged that a community may be rural even if it has moved above the 20,000 population maximum for the facilities program. Determining what constitutes rural character can be tricky, she said. 
Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., said the West faces different challenges under rural definitions. Luján said Western counties can be as large as some states, and ranches as large as some counties. But their size can make them ineligible for funding, he said, noting that Torres Small represented a large rural district in the House.

“The definitions just don’t capture us, and it is leaving out many rural parts of America, all over America. That’s an area where I have frustrations,” he said. 
Torres Small said she would like to discuss the complexities of the rural programs with lawmakers.