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FORT SMITH -- Rapidly rising costs and falling populations put rural Arkansas in a worsening bind, U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said Monday in a forum on pending legislation to shape federal farm programs and rural assistance.

"Arkansas' economy is 25% agriculture, but, outside of the bigger towns, it's more like 85% or 90% of the economy," Boozman of Rogers said at a listening session at the Smith-Pendergraft Campus Center of the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.

Boozman is the highest ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. He met with at least 50 attendees and a panel of farmers, ranchers and rural administrators at the 10 a.m. session.

The agriculture committee is drafting the legislation known as the Farm Bill, which at this time is expected to cost $1.4 trillion over the next 10 years. Most of the money goes to food assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. That program alone is expected to cost $1.2 trillion total during those 10 years, according to budget estimates. Current legislation steering taxpayer money to those programs expires in September.

Congress reviews and reauthorizes farm and associated rural assistance legislation every five years.

Farmers, ranchers and poultry growers face steeply rising costs, higher interest rates on the loans they need to operate and a succession of natural disasters such as drought. Cattle feed cost $100 a ton a few years ago, but $400 a ton now, rancher Mark Williams of the Withers Angus Farm in Lavaca said after the meeting. Drought, meanwhile, severely hurt local yields of hay and forced ranchers to buy more feed, he said.

Federal taxpayer assistance to smaller towns across Arkansas and elsewhere is declining, Boozman said. Most federal assistance is based on population, and rural communities as a whole are losing population, he said. So their slice of federal assistance goes down. Assistance from the Farm Bill grows more important to them, he said, for items such as safe drinking water systems and access to internet broadband.

"The administrator of a water system has more people's lives in his hands in a day than a doctor will in his whole life," said John Choate, general manager of the Tri-County Regional Water Distribution District of Russellville, who joined the panel along with Boozman.

"But a system with 300 people on it does not have enough rate payers to pay for the highly trained person they need," Choate said.

They need federal assistance.

Choate's remarks came after Mountainburg Mayor Susan Wilson told the gathering the just-launched project to bring treated water to about 625 households in Crawford County never would have happened without federal, state and county assistance. Many of the residents travel to a water treatment facility at Lake Fort Smith, fill up water tanks and transport them back home.

"We have people who have internet connections who don't have potable water," she said.

Her city received a $5.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture along with a $1.7 million loan for the water project. The Crawford County Quorum Court and the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission each also awarded Mountainburg $2.5 million in American Rescue Plan money for the water project.

To read this story in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette click Here