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Opinion | Rural prosperity: Key to Alabama’s future

Tractor spraying soybean field at spring

By John McMillan
Agriculture and Industries Commissioner

“Rural Prosperity,” the title of a just-released report by the Trump Administration, comes at a most opportune time when more and more Americans and Alabamians are enjoying a rapidly growing economy. However, a segment of our nation and state are being left out of the rising economic tide, and that is many of our rural communities.

President Trump and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue deserve tremendous credit for launching the study and issuing this critical report that focuses with laser-like precision on how to build a lasting foundation of prosperity in areas long overlooked.

Top priority in their report is broadband connectivity, or high-speed Internet, a service many who live in cities and large towns now take for granted. If farming communities, schools, rural hospitals and businesses are to survive in the 21st Century, there must be an investment in building the high-speed Internet network that connects rural communities to the rest of the world. In Alabama, broadband deployment will help not only agriculture but also will open up opportunities for education, health care and economic development.

There is no way around it; this must be done. When you consider at the cost of deploying broadband in rural areas, it’s a relatively affordable solution. For less than $100 million, all of Alabama can enjoy high speed Internet. No longer would rural businesses, schools and hospitals have to depend on dial-up Internet with its painfully slow transmissions.

A second recommendation in the report is rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure, our highways, bridges, railways, levees and canals. Alabama certainly can benefit from this, as nearly 40% of our bridges and rural highways are deficient. When farmers can’t deliver their goods to market, or are delayed in doing so, we all suffer. The Trump Administration has been working with Congress on a $2 trillion infrastructure plan that will help address many of rural America’s needs in the next decade. Alabama will benefit greatly if we have the matching funds to take advantage of such an infrastructure plan now being negotiated between Congress and the White House.

You can see from the report that this is one instance when the federal government “gets it.” Their report reflects an understanding of how technology in agriculture, namely “Precision Agriculture,” can bring prosperity to rural communities. Proposed isn’t the usual Washington list of new taxes and regulations but an action plan of how the government can enable farmers and small businesses to take advantage of new digital technology.

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No industry in America is under as much pressure as agriculture. Between now and the year 2050, the American farmer must double the output of food and fiber in order to keep up with world demand. This is due to a rapid increase in world population, estimated to reach nine billion by mid-century. Also by that time, two billion people will be lifted from poverty to middle income status, thanks to rapid economic growth in China, Southeast Asia and India.

Another recommendation in the new report on Rural Prosperity is reform of our nation’s guest worker regulations. State agriculture commissioners across the nation have long advocated this, and the White House and Congress appear to have mustered the political will it will take to solve this immense problem that forces farmers into costly and burdensome guest worker programs or face labor shortages.

The title of a proposal often is a sign of whether it’s going to be one of great merit or simply another example of government by press release. “Rural Prosperity” speaks volumes about the keen understanding of President Trump and Secretary Perdue as to what the goal should be, and that is better economic times for Rural America. It’s the rising tide that lifts all boats, as another American President aptly described the effects of growth in the income of working families.

Now, at last, we have a solid plan that can lift the well-being of many Alabama families.

John McMillan is Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries. He may be reached at [email protected].


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