As the debate over a new farm bill ratchets up it is worth noting that the legislation will affect not only agriculture and nutrition but rural development. Achieving a healthy crop and bottom line may be the driving focus of a farmer but those achievements are done within his community and all it entails -- infrastructure, hospitals, schools, commerce. Too often those community’s populations are shrinking while infrastructure crumbles and business opportunities are lacking.

And rural America is not getting even close to its fair share of federal funds to halt the decay, says Charles Fluharty, vice-president of the Rural Policy Research Institute. Fluharty said exactly that at a Feb. 15 Senate Agriculture Committee hearing, the first of a planned series of hearings on the farm bill. Fluharty urged legislators – who called the hearing to consider “policies that make investments in jobs and opportunities for farmers and rural businesses through new markets, entrepreneurship, regional strategies and energy innovation” according to the committee’s website – to allow two key numbers to be “seared into your consciousness: $28 billion and 1 percent.

“The $28 billion are additional rural community and economic development resources that would have been available in 2010, if non-metro counties received the same per capita federal funding resources as metro counties. … With Rural Development Budget Authority being further reduced, where is rural America to turn in the future?”

For more on RUPRI, see here.

It won’t be to U.S. philanthropic foundations. “Here, in the same year – 2010 -- of the $46 billion given by foundations, only 1 percent went to rural programming. This geographic inequity has grown no better over time, while rural community capacity shrinks and rural safety net needs grow exponentially.”

Shortly after his testimony Fluharty spoke with Farm Press about RUPRI, how rural communities can band together to better themselves, the need to combine various government efforts farm country, and why philanthropic tax breaks should be scrutinized. Among his comments:

On the genesis of the University of Missouri-based RUPRI…

“We were formed in 1990 by a bipartisan group of senators on the agriculture committee. Originally, it was Dale Bumpers from Arkansas, Bob Kerrey from Nebraska and Kit Bond from Missouri.

“Heading into discussions about the 1992 (farm bill)  -- and there was already a lot of good work and rigorous analysis being done by FAPRI on commodity programs – these senators saw there was an increasing relationship between agriculture and economic development. More and more farm families were working off the farm.

“So, they wanted to create something external to government that wouldn’t be controlled by any institution – not the USDA, not the agriculture committees, not advocacy groups – and would do analysis on the broader issues in rural America. Specifically, they wanted to look at domestic policy issues other than agriculture affect rural regions.

“At that time, I’d been an executive with the Indiana Beef Cattle Association and was about to go to work for the Indiana Farm Bureau. Instead, I came in to RUPRI.

“Over the last 20 years, we’ve been funded by Congress through ag appropriations to do external, non-partisan, objective analysis of the rural impacts of public policy. That includes everything from Medicare and Medicaid to transportation to entrepreneurship to health and human services.

“Because there isn’t really enough rigorous rural policy research in any one institution – we’re a small piece of a larger puzzle – we’ve built teams of researchers, practitioners and analysts across the country and world. That way when there’s a set of issues in public choice in Congress, the administration, in a governor’s office down to the county or regional level, we can put the best research together around that with those who can explain what these policies will mean in the dirt. We try to provide the view of what the rural differential impact of a specific public policy will be.

“We’re now in our third decade and we don’t search for a lot of headlines. We’re just trying to help public servants understand what the impacts their decisions have on rural America.”

Looking at some of your testimony before the agriculture committees since 2000, you’re repeating a lot of the same things. Is it frustrating for you to not see your concerns tackled by Congress?

“You’ve hit a soft spot for me because this is the fourth farm bill where we’re basically saying the same things. But we’re actually getting there…

“We’re blessed and take our autonomous, non-partisan status very seriously. There simply aren’t enough rural votes any more in either party. I’ve worked just as closely with Democratic as I have with Republican administrations.

“It’s a great advantage, I believe, for rural places and people that there’s a policy shop that both sides go to and trust to provide the straight story.

“The other beauty is the folks that care about the rural future still mostly treat it in a non-partisan way. But there are issues where there are divides – we’ve been in a very partisan political environment for the last 10 or 15 years. Generally, though, most rural elected officials realize they need to reach across the aisle to get things done.

“However, it is somewhat frustrating to know where we’re heading and what we need to do and yet see the policy development process in the ag committees, frankly, get there slower than it might.”