Weekly Columns

Urban areas make up only three percent of the entire land area of the country but are home to 80 percent of the U.S. population. The remaining 20 percent live in small rural communities that are scattered throughout 97 percent of America’s land mass. That percentage may further decrease in the coming years. 

Census data backs up the trend. In Arkansas, over half of our 75 counties lost population in the last census. On a national level, 53 percent of counties across the country saw inhabitants leave. 

Rural America’s difficulties in recent years are well documented. Trade wars, record-high inflation, breakdowns in supply chains and extreme weather events have combined to take a damaging toll on these communities.

Then the pandemic hit, bringing with it additional unprecedented challenges. Parents tried to keep up with their child’s schoolwork from home without internet access. Rural hospital administrators, who were already struggling to keep their doors open, had to continue to serve their communities during a health crisis of proportions unseen in our lifetime. Every rural resident struggled to find necessities at the few options they had for groceries within a 20-mile radius. 

Even before the pandemic, Americans had been leaving rural communities in large numbers for employment opportunities and the modern services and conveniences bigger metropolitan areas offer.

This exodus is not healthy for our country. If one part of America is not living up to its potential, then all of America is held back. 

When urban populations have so much influence and proximity to authority, how do we ensure that Americans living outside these areas aren’t left behind? 

The Farm Bill is an excellent place to start. While discussions on this vital legislation often focus on the agriculture safety net and nutrition components, its rural development programs allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to provide loans and grants that can help build communities from the ground up. 

These USDA initiatives will help modernize rural America’s infrastructure. Long gone are the days where infrastructure discussion was focused solely on three “r’s” --roads, rails and runways. In order to bring rural America into the 21st century, we must increase broadband internet access and make improvements to water systems in rural communities. 

The Farm Bill will help deploy high-speed broadband to millions of households that are truly unserved. The opportunity cost of leaving rural Americans behind in the digital divide without access to telehealth, online learning, e-commerce, precision agriculture and more, is simply too great to ignore. 

Similarly, many rural communities, due to lack of population density and lack of economies of scale, do not have resources to build, maintain and operate safe and reliable drinking and wastewater services. A community’s chances of attracting new private investment are slim without this critical infrastructure, and the Farm Bill can help ensure small towns can complete these water projects. 

Clearly, this legislation is about more than just growing food. It is about growing rural America. The infrastructure programs it funds will allow new businesses, with well-paying jobs, to sprout around our family farms, ranches and forests that provide our food, fuel and fiber. This reality is why I am committed to help rural America flourish by passing the next Farm Bill in the coming months.