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Rural Development

Connection Gaps in Rural American

“Over $200 million to establish broadband Internet service in underserved rural areas,” read a November 2017 news release from USDA.  Quoting the USDA official announcement, “Broadband infrastructure is vital to our economy and quality of life in rural America.  Yet, today nearly 40 percent of rural residents and businesses lack access to the same quality service available in urban centers.”

Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development Anne Hazlett was in West Virginia to share that news.  USDA’s Telecommunications Program has provided financial assistance in the form of loans and grants to more than 500 telecommunications providers throughout the country.  This funding was made possible by provisions in the 2014 US Farm Bill. As components of the Farm Bill come up for discussion in Congressional committees, the issue of broadband connectivity for rural areas is gaining champions on Capitol Hill. But, in a tight budget year, funding for vital programs like this is uncertain.
 
 
What’s at Stake with the Digital Divide in Rural Texas?

In the urban areas of the state, where the majority of Texans live, Internet connectivity is sometimes taken for granted.  But for the 3 million residents of rural areas, rapid download speeds, sending large files, or reliable online communication is not always the norm. The advocacy group Connected Texas has published an interactive map based on data that shows limited connectivity in our state - less than half the households in many counties are able to access service with download speeds greater than 3 Mpbs (broadband is defined as download speeds greater than 4 Mpbs). Coverage maps from Broadband now indicate that over 21% of Texans are not adequately served by broadband access, with the vast majority of those living in rural area.

Of major concern are the educational and economic implications. Children living in rural areas are at risk of limited educational experiences if their schools are unable to access lessons and activities online, which are quickly developing into the standard for teaching.  Those same children may not be able to research homework assignments at their libraries or in their homes. This inequity puts children in rural areas of our state at risk of entering college or the professional world at a technological disadvantage.

Additionally, the agriculture sector is becoming increasingly reliant on digital communications and internet-based applications. Imagine farmers seeking to gain knowledge about a new technique, tool or enterprise by downloading instructional videos or taking part in online learning, but unable to succeed because of unreliable internet access.  Access to online and up-to-date market data is also necessary for farmers, allowing them to thrive in a rapidly changing and highly competitive sector.  In addition to market research, online sales opportunities are increasingly lucrative for many farmers, in direct, intermediated, and global markets. Other businesses in rural areas are also subject to such risks.

 
TDA Can Help Make the Connections

Fortunately, funding in the form of grants and loans are available through USDA and other sources, and many of those funding streams are accessible by Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) or even directly by rural communities with department support.  TDA will prioritize this issue as part of its rural development agenda.  Current data is vital to decision making regarding dedication of resources, and so the proper research into the status of Internet access will be conducted prior to taking action.  We will work with the Director of the Texas office of USDA’s Rural Development agency to secure appropriate funding. We will also leverage relationships with broadband service providers and seek opportunities for rural cooperatives to have a voice and a role in connecting rural Texas.

 
Economic Viability of Family Farms Impacts Us All

The Farm Business Model: Stepping up to increasing challenges
 
Farmers in the U.S. are spending more to make less. USDA estimates that farmers receive on average less than 17¢ of every food dollar - the lowest amount since 2006. Many commodity prices have decreased up to 40%, and production costs are steadily increasing. Falling revenue and rising expenses make for a challenging business model. Add to that the reliance of our agricultural sector on international trade in an unpredictable global marketplace, a market that makes up 33% of all agricultural sales for Texas. And, if those hurtles are not enough, we have learned that early estimates of crop loss due to Hurricane Harvey are at $200 million, and rising as additional data is gathered.
 
These statistics help illustrate the challenges to economic viability faced by commodity growers, specialty crop growers, livestock producers, large and small, organic and conventional - just about every farm and ranch in Texas.
 
 
So, why is this important to all Texans?

You may not be a farmer, but our food comes from farms and we all eat. On a scale far greater than the household food budget, our state’s entire economy is dependent on a robust agricultural sector to balance trade and retain jobs.

The estimated economic impact of the food and fiber sector in Texas exceeds $106 billion annually. Farm receipts alone are about $25 billion, with agricultural exports of livestock, cotton, poultry, and other products to foreign countries representing about $6.5 billion of that. Among the most important trading partners for Texas commodities are free trade partners Mexico and Canada and Asian partners including Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong. Of particular note, the agricultural industry accounts for one out of every seven jobs in Texas.

 
Healthy farms are necessary for robust rural communities, but we can see now how the economic viability of agriculture really means prosperity for our entire state.
 
 
What can TDA do?

Your state Ag department has a voice in Washington, which will be heard as the 2018 Farm Bill is shaped. In the debates, we expect farm insurance that mitigates risk of natural disasters to be heavily scrutinized. International trade that many farmers rely on will also be revisited. And, in the face of a greatly reduced federal budget, the “budget reconciliation” process may gut other federal supports for agriculture and food. TDA should be an advocate for family farmers in Texas. This includes protecting valuable trade opportunities and strengthening risk mitigation such as crop insurance and disaster relief for farmers.

Something important to remember with our federal government support for Texas farmers: this is not a matter of the government giving us money - this is Texans getting a return on the taxes we pay.

Speaking of trade, TDA needs leaders with ability to effectively represent Texas and help stabilize global markets, such as Asia (Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong where Texas beef is sold) and our trading partners to the north and south. Hostilities in Asia or Turkey could spell disaster for the viability of Texas’ economy.

Of course, we do need to balance imports and exports. Texas exports many commodities, but we import significant amounts of other agriculture products, such as fruits and vegetables needed for a healthy diet. TDA can play an important part in encouraging fruit and vegetable production and promoting those products to Texas families. One way is through improved marketing programs like GO TEXAN.

 
TDA can also encourage local institutional markets such as school districts, hospitals, universities and restaurants to buy local, in addition to supporting other outlets like farmers’ markets in both rural and urban areas. Texas farmers can fill those gaps where our food dollars are seeping out so we can keep more of our money right here in our local communities and in Texas.
 
 
Bottom Line

Every Texan can benefit from a strong agriculture sector. Your state government should advocate on the national stage to mitigate farmers’ risk, use levelheaded tactics to strengthen beneficial trade relationships, and support opportunities for farmers to access markets here at home. The economic viability of Texas farms and ranches means economic prosperity for us all.

 
 
Organic Opportunity

The State of Organics
 
Organic farming in Texas represents a small portion of our state’s overall agricultural production. The demand outstrips the supply. Despite Texas having a very robust agricultural economy, farmers in Texas are missing a significant business opportunity, and consumers who prefer organic products must depend on imports from other states and other countries. 

As a large agricultural state, Texas ranks 17th in the number of organic farms statewide and a disappointing ninth in acreage (behind New York!) in organic production. Meanwhile, consumer demand continues to increase. Consumers clearly desire a choice when it comes to their food. Whether motivated by personal health, environmental impact, or other reasons, families in Texas should have opportunity to choose the locally grown organic option.

"Why is this important to Texans?"

Economics

Organic farm products accounts for $199 million in sales for Texas producers in 2014 with half coming from livestock and poultry products. And of the remaining $78 million in crop sales, 75% of that is in cotton and animal feeds such as corn, hay, and soybeans. While demand for these non-food crops remains strong, the produce market in Texas is virtually untapped. 

In their 2016 report, Who Are the Organic Farmers of Texas, the National Center for Appropriate Technology estimates $5.5 billion spent by consumers on produce at grocery stores although the total dollar value of organic fruits, vegetables, and nuts produced in Texas was less than $20 million. 

Demand for organic products continues to rise, with USDA reporting double-digit growth in domestic sales of organics every year since 2005. These figures help demonstrate the economic opportunity for Texas farmers and shine a light on the value of consumer dollars leaving the state.

 
The Consumer’s Choice

The reasons that consumers choose the option of organic foods vary. Some studies indicate that certain organically produced foods contain a higher nutrient content. Research also helps inform buyers concerned about pesticide residues on their food. Still other food buyers are motivated by the environmental impacts of their food choices. The organic label is a symbol to consumers representing how that food was grown. 

The rules governing the certification of organic foods may change over time, but protecting the credibility of the organic designation with strict regulations will ensure that consumers can continue making informed choices.

 
Environmental Benefits

Texas has over 130 million acres of farmland. As of 2014, only 3.67 million acres (a mere 3.5%) were considered organic. Organic producers rely on a short list of inputs to address soil fertility and pest pressure. However, the real focus of organic agriculture is on regenerative methods such as composting, cover-cropping, biodiversity, and crop rotation which address soil tilth, nutrient availability, and pest resistance without off-the-farm products. 

Organic agriculture captures carbon in the environment, contrasted with the production and use of petroleum-based fertilizers. Those fertilizers can also become a significant contaminant of US waterways, as runoff containing high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen disrupt the biological processes that are otherwise present in a healthy ecosystem. 

As stewards of a significant portion of our state’s lands, farmers have an opportunity to contribute in a positive manner to the health of our environment while being rewarded in the marketplace where demand continues to grow. 

 
Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) and Organic Farming
 
 
Streamlined application process and fee structure

The process for organic certification in Texas can be time-consuming and costly. TDA estimates the time it takes from submitting an application to receiving certification at up to 120 days. Other private certifying agents operate in the state, but Texans should be able to rely on their agriculture agency to support efforts to transition to, or retain, organic certification.

  • Revise the state certification application process to establish efficiencies such as online submissions and digital record-keeping options.
  • Review the certification fee structure to ensure fairness to farmers while complying with state revenue-capture rules.
  • Continue and expand the partnership with USDA to provide cost-share opportunities that reduce the financial burden of fees associated with certification.
 
Marketing and Promotions

The USDA organic logo that certified products and farmers may display is a valuable marketing tool. In fact, it’s no accident that the national organic program is organized under the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. A large part of TDA’s purpose is promoting agriculture products to Texas families and to out-of-state or even foreign buyers. As TDA encourages the transition to organic growing, TDA will also leverage its marketing program to promote organic products on behalf of farmers who choose that option.

•    Establish a marketing effort that promotes Texas-grown organic products to wholesale, institutional, and individual consumers throughout the state.

•    Determine the opportunities and challenges for reaching the domestic and foreign export markets for organic products, and develop strategies and enterprise plans to help Texas farmers to access those markets.

 
Build the Base of Knowledge in Texas

Transitioning to organic agriculture can involve significant risk. There is a steep learning curve when making the switch, and the three-year transition period required by the federal rule can delay the realization of marketplace rewards for the farmer. 

Texas places ninth in the total number of acres dedicated to organic agriculture, but 15th in the dollar value of Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grants received on the past 25+ years.  That’s less than one third the amount that the state of New York received, and well below half of California’s total. With a concerted effort among educational and research institutions, public agencies, farmers, and other businesses, Texas can attract research funding to ease the learning curve.

  • Provide assistance and support, such as in-kind matching funds, or administrative help, to organizations seeking research funds for projects relevant to Texas producers.
  • Gather information from other states that have successfully grown their organic programs and determine an overall evidence-based strategy for Texas.
 
Bottom Line

The term “organic” was formerly not even a consideration, since all agriculture could have qualified as such. Over time, American farming began to incorporate, and ultimately rely on, synthetic inputs. As consumer preference is evolving to include greater interest in organics, and as production information becomes more available, TDA has a responsibility to ensure that Texas producers are positioned to participate fully in that marketplace.

 
Farm Labor

The National Farm Labor Crisis

The agricultural industry is experiencing a severe shortage of labor as a result of official immigration policies as well as unofficial opinions that still carry weight. Despite rising wages, positions on American farms are still left unfilled - a situation related less to the welfare state, as some purport, and more to the fact that the unemployment rate of 4.1% leaves few seeking employment and most with options other than farm labor.

The stories of crops rotting in the fields is not a myth - the lack of farmworkers has some farmers wondering if they should just exit the business and is discouraging for the next generation of potential farmers. To put in perspective the reliance on undocumented immigration, a recent study by the American Farm Bureau Federation shows that between 50% and 70% of U.S. farmworkers are unauthorized.

Attempts at immigration reform have gained little traction in Congress. For example, the recently introduced Agricultural Guestworker (AG) Act, which would have expanded legal opportunities for temporary farmworkers to enter the country, disappointed some for failing to address farm work rights and fair treatment, and angered others for expanding immigration. All are affected by impacts to our agriculture system, but many farmers who feel the immediate impact of labor shortages are hesitant to speak out for fear of reprisal - either from anti-immigration activists or from government enforcement agents.

The legal solution currently on the books that regulates guest workers is the H2-A program. It has been criticized for being cumbersome and failing to accommodate farmers’ needs for seasonal or highly skilled workers. The AG Act mentioned above was seen as a step in the right direction by some.  Others are calling for legislation that allows for long-term legal status for those current members of the workforce while also allowing flexibility for both workers and employers to pursue seasonal or year-round work. 

 
The Texas Farmworker Situation

2000 data indicated there were 3 million migrant and seasonal farm workers in the United States, including roughly 360,000 in Texas. Many farmers attempt to use the H2-A Guestworker program. Texas farmers requested 3,143 positions in fiscal year 2015. However, the Labor Department certified only 417 applications that year. Undocumented workers account for 8.5 percent of the Texas workforce, and one in three farmworkers in Texas is an undocumented immigrant, according to the Pew Research Center. 

The pro-business climate in Texas has led to inconsistent enforcement in an effort not to disrupt industry, but the tone is rapidly changing.  Without immigration reform that addresses the labor shortage and ensures fair wages and safe working conditions for workers, the entire agricultural industry is at risk.

 
What can TDA do?

The Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) cannot establish immigration policy; nor is the agency responsible for regulating or enforcing it.  But, TDA can influence the decisions made at the federal level. It’s clear that our farmers need to address the labor shortage, and increased but regulated expansion of guest worker programs is a viable option. In consideration of economics and fairness, TDA can collect input from a wide range of Texas interests and can work towards an agreeable compromise resolution. With an inclusive and consistent position, TDA will be able to equip those who represent Texas in Congress with a firm stance from which to negotiate a reform and can advocate with other decision makers for a sensible and responsible approach.

 
Bottom Line

Everyone benefits from a strong agriculture sector in Texas. Your state government will advocate on the national stage to mitigate the risk that farmers face from the labor shortage.  A solution to the immigration issue as it directly impacts our food supply is vital. The economic viability of Texas farms means economic prosperity for us all. The other option of relying on foreign countries to provide our food because our farmers have gone out of business is much less appealing and could present food insecurity issues.

 
Growing our Next Generation of Farmers

Who are the Farmers?
 
With a $100 billion overall impact and accounting for one out of every six jobs in Texas, agriculture is a significant factor of our state’s economy. Another statistic presents a somewhat alarming reality. The average age of farmers in Texas has been steadily rising over the years, reaching 60.1 years old as of the most recent USDA Agriculture Census. 

So, where will the next generation of farmers come from? Barriers for entry into agriculture for new and beginning farmers are many, the cost of land and equipment being among the most daunting. Loans to purchase farmland are available, but assuming considerable amounts of debt at the outset of a new enterprise is risky. 

Other challenges besides the costs of land and equipment exist for start-up farms, such as the time to establish infrastructure, the learning curve for less experienced farmers, finding reliable labor, and, of course, weather conditions in a changing climate. Since we all eat, and all food comes from farms, the need for new farmers becomes obvious.

"Why does this matter to Texas?"

All Food Comes from Farms

Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper stickers bearing the American Farmland Trust slogan, “No Farms, No Food.”  The truth of this statement lies in the fact that all food comes from farms - even the most highly processed foods have an origin on a farm or ranch. Without local and regional food production, Texans will be dependent on imported food from other states and other countries. As current farmers age out and exit farming, new farmers to take their places is vital for maintaining a safe, secure, and healthy food supply. 

 
Sustaining the Farm Economy

As stated above, agriculture represents a significant portion of the Texas economy and provides many jobs. In fact, farm-related employment in non-metro areas accounts for 26% of jobs - higher than the overall average. 

In order for new farmers to keep this economic engine humming, farms must function as viable businesses. This means limiting risk at start-up, finding efficiencies and controlling costs during production, and accessing reliable markets at harvest. In an industry where costs continue to rise while prices can vary widely - sometimes falling below production costs, newer farmers may be more willing to make changes and adapt to changing trends in production and marketing. 

 
The Culture of Agriculture in Rural Areas

Texas has a rich history associated with farming and ranching. Although only about 11% of the state’s total population live in rural areas, many Texans maintain close associations with rural life. The cultural traditions of Texans continue to be cultivated on farms and ranches throughout the state. Our favorite foods that help keep those traditions alive are provided by farmers, perhaps with the same cultural background as those in urban areas.

"What can TDA do?"

Advocating at the Federal Level

The Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) can serve as a voice for Texas farmers in Washington and will advocate for policies that support new and beginning farmers. Negotiations on the federal Farm Bill is just around the corner, and TDA will step up and speak up in favor of start-up farmers.

  •  Preserve and build on the new farmer programs established in the previous Farm Bill, such as the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development grant program.
  • Advocate for a safety net for farmers, such as crop insurance and disaster relief.
  • Support continued funding for the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Loans.
 
Financing for Farms

In addition to federal farm loans and grants, the TDA offers project-specific funding through the Young Farmer Grant Program, with grants ranging from $5,000 up to $20,000. Just like TDA can be a voice for Texas farmers in Washington, the agency will also speak up in support of farmers at the state level. In particular, property tax rules should be amended to reduce the liability for new farmers.

 
Bottom Line

The future of our food supply, our economy, and our culture is dependent on future farmers and ranchers. We have a responsibility to help new and beginning producers grow into their chosen fields. 

 

Economy & Jobs [ Rural Development | Economic Viability | Organic Opportunity | Farm Labor | New FarmersOverview ]

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