Rural Infrastructure Improvements Necessary

As Congress considers President Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure investment plan, advocates for agriculture and rural communities are making sure lawmakers understand spending is needed not only for roads and bridges but also for broadband internet and a host of other items on the nation’s maintenance backlog.

Advocates say that other nations are pulling ahead and putting the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage, especially as it relates to agriculture.

Robert Crain, Senior Vice President and General Manager of AGCO’s North and South American operations, says the U.S. is not, right now, a world leader when it comes to infrastructure investment.

“The good news is that infrastructure is an issue that can unite most Americans from across the political spectrum during these divisive times,” he says.

Crain estimates that a third of the nation’s rural roads and bridges are poor or substandard, which makes it harder for farmers to get their goods to market.

And needs stretch well beyond roads and bridges.

Combines today rely on advanced communications and data technology to help American farmers remain efficient.

“Next to the defense industry, the agricultural equipment industry has as much technology in it as any other industry in the economy,” he says.

Getting the highest use out of today’s farm equipment requires digital infrastructure like broadband internet. But the farm fields, far from American cities, still remain on the edge of the digital divide.

Dennis Slater, president of the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, which represents 950 members and 200 product lines, says the urban and rural divide has slowed political movement on infrastructure investment.

“As soon as people talk about that topic they think it’s an urban issue and they think about congestion and safety on urban roads and bridges,” he says. “That’s important, but so is America’s Heartland.”

AEM commissioned a poll to help explain the national importance of infrastructure investment to leaders in Washington and elsewhere.

The poll, released right before the 2016 presidential election, found half of registered voters say the nation’s infrastructure has gotten worse over the last 5 years, and a majority say roads and bridges are in “extreme” need of repair.

And the issue had traction across the political spectrum with 68 percent of Republicans and 76 percent of Democrats saying the federal government should do more.

To drive the political sentiment home, AEM produced the U.S. Infrastructure Advantage Plan earlier this year. It lays out five areas the nation should prioritize: Networks and systems, maximizing the use of smart technology, ensuring urban-rural connectivity, expediting project delivery and providing adequate and reliable resources.

“In the end, I think everybody recognizes the fact that you need a good transportation system and rural broadband,” Slater says. “You start working on the sophisticated agriculture machines that are out there today and they really rely on connectivity to do their jobs.”

AEM isn’t alone in its assessment. The Farm Credit Council has formed the Rebuild Rural Coalition to highlight a plethora of needs.

Its effort focuses on eight areas including agricultural research, broadband, energy, financing, healthcare, housing, transportation and water.

In a Sept. 13 letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, the coalition pointed to deteriorating agricultural research facilities as one area where the U.S. is behind. A 2015 study found deferred maintenance cost for 91 institutions totaled $8.4 billion, according to the letter.

Meanwhile, Brazil, India and China in 2011 spent $2.15 for every $1 the U.S. invested in public agriculture research and development, according to the letter.

“Without increased investment in agricultural research facilities, our country will fall behind in leading the world through innovation and lose our global competitive edge,” the group told Perdue.

Farm Credit Council is the trade association for 74 farm credit institutions across the nation.

“The need for rebuilding rural infrastructure is tremendous,” says Mark Hayes, director of media relations. “A lot of the past infrastructure proposals and packages really haven’t focused on rural America. They’ve been in the much more densely populated cities, more urban and suburban areas.”

Hayes says lawmakers seem to understand the difference between rural and urban infrastructure investment and that has been encouraging. Especially when it comes to bridging the digital divide.

“Whether you are looking to attract businesses, or looking to ensure that farmers can operate sophisticated equipment, or looking to retain the younger generation in rural communities, you need to have access to these services,” he says.

Hayes also pointed to clean water, wastewater treatment, schools and hospitals as priorities.

Getting it all done will take more than just the federal government. Businesses and leaders in rural communities must help.

“It is going to require a public-private partnership,” Hayes says. “The infrastructure needs of our country are simply too big for Congress to simply pass funding for all of it.”