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AGWired - New USDA Rural Definition Stirs Controversy

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By Sara Wyant

A proposed definition of the term "rural" submitted by the Department of Agriculture to Congress last month could have broad implications for small towns across America and not everyone is happy about it. The report, delivered two and one half years late after it was required by Congress to be delivered by June 18, 2010, was expected to assess how the various definitions in rural development programs are working and to make recommendations on ways to better target funds.

At issue is the definition's new population limit for "rural," now raised up to 50,000. Currently, each USDA RD program has its own population limit to correspond to its specific function. For example, USDA now has a 10,000 population limit for rural water/wastewater programs and 20,000 for community facility programs. USDA believes a new across-the-board limit "would remove confusion over what constitutes a rural area and would encourage more multi-jurisdictional collaboration," according to the official proposal.

Critics, including House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and ranking member Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., are concerned that the new definition will crowd out smaller communities. "We are disappointed in USDA's proposals to shift funding away from the most rural areas by inflating the definition across the board," Lucas and Peterson said in a joint statement. "This will result in smaller communities competing with larger and more urban areas for funding."

The new definition would force the department's Rural Development (USDA-RD) program to "spend money in a way that's perhaps not the best for the United States," said Duane Ischer, former Rural Development senior advisor, in an interview with Agri-Pulse. The federal government "needs to keep (the definition) as simple as possible and probably let the states define (rural) to the extent that they can within their own state," he said.

The report's authors say the change would streamline funding procedures and provide "a more transparent process for accessing financial and technical assistance from the Mission Area.

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