Every day at USDA, we take to heart Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s mandate to Do Right and Feed Everyone. This cuts straight to the core of our work on behalf of “The People’s Department,” a nickname President Abraham Lincoln affectionately bestowed upon us more than 150 years ago.
To Do Right and Feed Everyone, we must tackle with renewed commitment the rehabilitation, renovation and modernization of our infrastructure. Long the envy of the world, it’s now in grave disrepair. This is why President Trump proposes to devote $50 billion — that’s 25 percent of new federal money currently on the table — to improving infrastructure in rural America. This unprecedented commitment is expected to stimulate at least $1.5 trillion in infrastructure investments over the next decade.
Following my November 2017 appointment as state director for Ohio Rural Development, I committed to visiting all 88 Ohio counties in 180 days. My travels confirm that while some infrastructure challenges such as transportation and energy are common to both urban and rural Ohioans, others, such as unfettered access to fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) internet service, are more prevalent in the rural landscape.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, 80 percent of the 24 million American households without high-speed internet are in rural areas. America can do better for its rural citizens and for rural production sites that need e-connectivity to supply the nation and the world with food, fiber, minerals, and manufactured products.
Included in the Fiscal Year 2018 budget President Trump recently signed into law is a robust $600 million rural broadband investment. These funds serve as a “down payment” on the President’s infrastructure proposal, which will be deliberated over the coming months. USDA will use these dedicated funds to administer a new program to meet the administration’s goal of bringing reliable and affordable broadband e-connectivity to rural America. USDA will work hard to ensure these broadband projects offer the most “bang for the buck,” and improve access for as many rural American homes, businesses, farms, schools, and healthcare centers as possible. That’s important nationwide, and especially important here in the Buckeye State.
Ohio boasts some 14 million acres in production agriculture. All of Ag’s associated corollaries — small businesses and cooperatives, rural housing, education, healthcare and community services — are overdue a modernization not seen since the Rural Electrification Act of 1936. And make no mistake: high-speed internet service is the electricity of the modern age. If Ohio, which during the last Census of Agriculture ranked 13th in the U.S. in market value of agricultural products sold, is to hold its own in the digital economy, we can’t afford to kick the infrastructure can down the road a minute longer.
In its annual Report Card, the American Society of Civil Engineers takes an unflinching look at Ohio’s infrastructure bedrock, assessing the health of crucial systems ranging from bridge and road safety to school buildings and transit. Among other items, the 2017 report identifies roughly $26.8 billion in drinking and wastewater infrastructure needs spanning the next two decades — a wheelhouse for USDA Rural Development.
Through its Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant Program, the agency helps get safe drinking water and new or upgraded wastewater treatment systems into areas where they’re most needed. For instance, in Gallia County, a recent $1 million direct loan combined with a proposed 90 percent guarantee on an $881,500 loan from Ohio Valley Bank will be used to pay for the construction of three water storage tanks for the Gallia County Rural Water Association (GCRWA). The new tanks will collect and store treated water initially drawn from the Ohio River Valley Aquifer and other surface and groundwater sources. GCRWA serves more than 20,000 members in Appalachian Gallia, Jackson, Lawrence, Meigs, and Vinton Counties. Access to safe, clean drinking water also can boost rural economic development by helping attract additional businesses to the region.
In addition to providing infrastructure financing, USDA is addressing statutory changes, providing regulatory relief and supporting cultural shifts to help improve the way the federal government serves its citizens. This approach is consistent with Secretary Perdue’s priorities: Infrastructure, Partnerships, and Innovation. All three are necessary to rebuild this great nation.
By collaborating with local and regional government organizations and exploring public-private partnerships that focus on infusing interim capital into public works, USDA is poised to help Ohio’s rural communities establish a beachhead from which they may rehabilitate and modernize their infrastructure. Ultimately, this means long-term, targeted investment in rural areas, causing a ripple effect in job creation and innovation, and allowing us all to Do Right and Feed Everyone.
David L. Hall is the state director for USDA Ohio Rural Development, a former Holmes County commissioner and represented Ohio’s 70th House District 2009-2017. To learn more about USDA Rural Development programs, visit www.rd.usda.gov/oh or call (614) 255-2400.