By Raju Chebium
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - The Salinas Valley's congressman has an ambitious item on his to-do list for the 113th Congress: helping rural America become richer and less isolated so more of its residents stay instead of fleeing to cities.
Rep. Sam Farr is teaming up with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, to work on what the Carmel Democrat calls a strategy to help small towns and villages "discover their soul."
"You've got vast parts of America that are in real despair. . . . They don't have to be," Farr said in an interview.
The effort "will focus on things to keep rural America vital so that people don't just abandon it," Farr said. "As Vilsack says, rural America has been in depression, not just in recession, for a decade. We've just forgotten to pay attention to it."
Farr said he's looking for ways Congress can build on the work being done by the White House Rural Council, which President Barack Obama created through a June 2011 executive order.
"Sec. Vilsack commends Congressman Farr for his leadership and focus on rural issues. The secretary looks forward to working with him and other members of Congress to build additional opportunity and continue economic momentum in rural America," Agriculture Department spokeswoman Courtney Rowe said in an email Friday.
Two early ideas Farr has seized upon are expanding broadband Internet access in rural areas and promoting rural tourism to attract visitors from cities interested in learning more about America's agrarian heritage.
Farr is well positioned to work on rural issues because they fall under his legislative purview. He's the ranking Democrat on the agriculture appropriations subcommittee, which sets funding levels for federal farm and rural development programs.
Poorer regions of Monterey County and economically depressed regions outside California would benefit the most from increased federal rural spending. Monterey County, with its booming farming and wine industries, is a lot more prosperous than, say, Appalachia in the eastern U.S.
Farr said he has met with Vilsack this year to discuss their rural strategy. Spending more money is not necessarily the answer, he said, suggesting he will push to shift available federal resources toward rural economic development.
Vilsack has been an advocate for rural America and is worried that rural concerns are getting left behind.
In December, Vilsack said the concerns of 51 million farmers, ranchers and other rural inhabitants are becoming less relevant in Congress as more and more lawmakers come from increasingly crowded urban areas.
Charles Fluharty, a research professor at the University of Missouri and president of the congressionally funded Rural Policy Research Institute, praised Farr for taking up the rural cause.
For 50 years the federal government has created one small program after another to help rural America but failed to embark on a broad, sustained effort, he said. Obama is trying to change that with the White House Rural Council, and Farr is becoming part of that effort, he said.
With productive farmland, pristine wilderness areas, modern digital connectivity and brisk rural tourism, California serves as a model that struggling rural states aim to follow.
A congressman from that state can have a big impact on federal farm and rural policy, Fluharty said.
"What's important for a congressman like Sam Farr is to make the case to the urban residents of California that rural investments . . . are essential to their sustainability," he said Friday. "Large global cities want that countryside populated with smart, educated people making wise decisions about the resources they need to sustain an urban livelihood."
Some of Farr's other priorities for the current Congress include:
-Increasing the foreign-born labor pool for the U.S. agriculture industry;
-Minimizing cuts to the U.S. Peace Corps' budget in an era of funding cutbacks. Farr was a Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia;
-Breaking ground this summer on a new clinic for veterans and active-duty personnel at the site of the former Fort Ord.
Farr plans to introduce a "guest worker" bill -- a big priority for his agricultural district -- under which growers in Monterey County would be able to draw upon a pool of laborers brought into the U.S. legally.
Under the bill, employers must pay and treat foreign and domestic workers the same, and the foreigners would be able to join labor unions, Farr said.
He said he wants his bill to become part of a larger immigration reform proposal that Congress considers.
Obama is pushing Congress to approve sweeping reforms to the system, which is widely criticized as unwieldy and inefficient. Four Democrats and four Republicans in the Senate unveiled a reform plan on Monday that has a host of provisions, including one recommending a separate path to eventual citizenship for illegal farm workers living in the U.S.
The bitterly divided Congress may be able pass immigration reform, but it's unlikely to come up with bold new ideas because of the partisan rancor and the funding constraints, Farr said.
If Congress is unable to agree on an alternative plan, $84 billion is set to automatically be cut from most federal programs and services, affecting everything from education to housing to national parks. In all, Congress has agreed to cut $1.2 trillion in federal spending over 10 years.
"There is a dark cloud hanging over Washington -- a dark cloud of despair -- despair because of the debt, despair because of the threat of raising taxes or the despair over making huge cuts across the board to services in government and the military," Farr said. "This is not an atmosphere (for) the power of positive thinking and enlightenment."
Gannett Washington Bureau