Infrastructure investments critical to ag

As I travel the backroads and byways of Missouri this fall, I’m reminded of just how vital physical infrastructure is to agriculture. On every trip into the rural countryside, I have encountered farm equipment making its way to fields during the busy harvest season. Often, these roads are barely big enough for two normal-size vehicles to pass each other much less accommodate the oversized combines, tractors, spread­ers and sprayers it takes to get crops in and out of the ground these days.

The routes through farm country often involve a combination of paved highways, gravel roads and even dirt lanes, many of which have outdated bridges and crumbling surfaces. In some cases, farmers must go miles out of their way because of roads that need repair or bridges that can’t han­dle the weight of their equipment.

In fact, back in April, the federal government gave Missouri a C- on its Infrastructure Report Card. The report says our state has 2,190 bridges and more than 7,576 miles of highway in poor condition. The state-by-state data was released to help strengthen support for the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that passed in the U.S. Senate in August and is now in the House for consideration.

If it clears the House vote and is signed into law, the bill would fund long-overdue improvements to infrastructure that’s important to rural America. Nearly 10%—$110 billion—of total funding will go toward repairing roads and bridges, along with $66 billion in passenger and freight rail upgrades and $17 billion for ports and waterways.

Missouri could receive about $9 billion of total allocations in the bill, according to analysis by CNBC.

Because of its potential to posi­tively impact farmers, the bill carries overwhelming support from many agricultural groups. In a public state­ment, the National Corn Growers Association highlighted the bene­fits of improving ports and inland waterways, pointing out that 60% of corn exports rely on these routes to reach their destination. The National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, of which MFA is a member, is also supportive of the bill, stating that the investment would boost “the compet­itiveness of American agriculture.”

NCFC also praised the bill’s historic investment of $65 billion for expanding broadband internet access. The funding could go a long way toward closing the digital divide in rural America that has been all too apparent over the past couple of years. According to the Infrastructure Report Card, 18% of Missourians currently live in areas without access to internet with minimally acceptable speeds. Even where infrastructure is available, broadband may be too expensive for rural households.

Internet access is just as important to today’s farmers as roads, bridges, rivers and rail. Precision agriculture practices and smart data collection are becoming more and more integral to profitable and efficient agricultural production. Take, for example, MFA’s new logistics software, AgSync, that helps electronically coordinate custom application services from the store to the field. Such technology is dependent on fast, reli­able connectivity.

Along those lines, the pending infrastructure bill also includes $47 billion in funding to protect against cybersecurity threats, a pressing issue within the agricultural community. Two ransomware attacks in Septem­ber targeted agricultural cooperatives in the Midwest, and the FBI and Cy­bersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency warn that these may not be the last incidents directed toward the food and agriculture sector.

The White House says the infra­structure plan won’t require a tax increase, claiming it will be financed by “closing the tax gap, redirecting unspent emergency relief funds, targeted corporate user fees and the macroeconomic impact of infrastruc­ture investment.” Raising corporate taxes would also be required to pay for a large chunk of this extensive public works package.

Knowing the positive impact infra­structure investments could have on agriculture and rural communities, I was heartened to see the bill pass with a strong bipartisan vote in the Senate. However, it’s hitting serious roadblocks in the House. A vote among U.S. representatives has been twice delayed due to lack of support. At press time, another House vote was scheduled for Oct. 31.

The problem is that the success of the infrastructure bill is tied to the much more ambitious—and con­troversial—$3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act. That colossal proposal includes “human infrastructure” investments in health, housing, edu­cation and climate change legislation. Negotiations are ongoing to find a trimmed-down compromise that allows both bills to move forward.

The infrastructure bill is being called a “once-in-a-generation” chance to improve navigation and communication that are necessary to agriculture’s future in MFA territory and beyond. I encourage farmers to reach out to their U.S. representatives and express support for infrastruc­ture. Encourage our elected officials to put politics aside and help protect the future of farming while creating opportunities for rural America.

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