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Cochran, Hutchins want continuation of USDA programs in farm bill

WASHINGTON — In a Senate hearing on energy and economic growth for rural America, U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) urged continuation of economic development programs in the Department of Agriculture that will help provide jobs and improve the standard of living in rural America.

Cochran serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee that heard testimony from a number of witnesses, including Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Bennie Hutchins of Brookhaven, the energy program coordinator for Ag Energy Resources, LLC. The hearing was the latest in a series the committee has held in preparation for producing the 2012 Farm Bill.

Cochran sought assurances that the Obama administration would work with Congress to set rural development priorities and support USDA programs that serve rural populations, including the Delta Regional Authority, Delta Health Alliance and rural water associations.

“I would like to see a new Farm Bill that reauthorizes those community assistance programs that offer federal assistance to address quality of life issues in rural areas. USDA offices in my state are responsible for helping administer programs not only for agriculture producers, but for small and rural towns that need better opportunities for education, health care, infrastructure development and economic growth. It’s a big challenge and we’ll be looking to the Department of Agriculture to help identify priorities,” Cochran said.

The hearing also reviewed USDA programs aimed at agriculture-based energy production programs. Hutchins, a retired USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service employee, testified about the benefits of the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP). Created in the 2002 Farm Bill, REAP assists farmers, ranchers and rural small businesses in developing renewable energy systems and in implementing energy-saving changes to their operations.

Hutchins’ testimony looked at the benefits of the program to the poultry and aquaculture industries in Mississippi, as well as its expansion to help small businesses in rural towns.

Hutchins said, “Farm energy programs, such as those authorized in the Energy Title of the Farm Bill, help farmers put renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies into place. Renewable energy technologies can be a critical tool in turning liabilities, like animal waste use and disposal, into high-value assets.”

The Senate Agriculture Committee’s next hearing, “Strengthening Conservation Through the 2012 Farm Bill” is scheduled for Feb. 28.

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