Rep. Smith Discusses Highlights Pandemic Impact On Agricultural Issues At Virtual Summit

August 21, 2020 - 5:12pm

Congressman Adrian Smith highlighted agricultural issues this week at a virtual summit. Topics included rural broadband access, USDA programs, and trade policy.


Smith said access to high-speed broadband internet has become an especially pressing issue after the coronavirus closed schools and offices nationwide.  In Nebraska, just 63 percent of residents have access to broadband. To Smith, a lack of access in rural areas is clear. But addressing them comes with a score of infrastructure and cost concerns.

"Having connectivity is one thing, but if mom and dad are both working on the internet from home, and three or four kids are going to school on the internet, from home," Smith lamented. "That's gonna test a lot of capacity there."

Friesen, who's worked with the state's Broadband Task force on expanding coverage statewide, thinks Nebraska needs partnerships between local public power districts and private companies to build rural broadband in a cost effective way. 

"At some point there, it's going to take a subsidy of some sort for companies to step up and do that," he said. "Some of the data that they're looking at now shows that cost can be cut considerably by [incorporating fiber internet] into their power lines."

If companies spend big to set up access in new areas, those costs will trickle down to consumers’ internet bills, presenting its own access challenges to lower income families.

Another challenge to cost, Friesen said, could be a lack of provider options for rural residents. 
"Rural pays more right now than urban but we don't we don't have competition," Friesen explained. "We're going to have one provider, where in urban areas, you may have two, three or four choices on where you might get your broadband."

What companies will pursue expanding into rural areas remains to be seen. $40 million of Nebraska’s CARES Act money is going to rural broadband expansion. Smith and Friesen say several providers have applied for funding, and the next step is nailing down a list of contracts.
 

Trade Issues A Mixed Bag
 

On Friday, Smith hosted Chief Agricultural Negotiator Greg Doud of the U.S. Trade Official's Office. According to Doud, American agricultural exports are a mixed bag these days, but some key trading to China is on an upswing.

COVID-19 disruptions drove U-S ag exports down 3 percent this year. Those disruptions largely have to do with economic turmoil in countries that would have been receiving those exports, or disruptions in U.S. food supply chains. In the spring, several meatpacking facilities were forced to closed nationwide including three in Nebraska — after large outbreaks emerged. 

Some markets are faring worse than others: according to the USDA's latest Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry outlook, beef exports to key markets like Mexico (-61%, South Korea (-39%), and Japan (-21%) have significantly dropped, while pork sales to China surged 28%.
But there is some encouraging news, Doud says: the U-S is also seeing strong corn, pork, and soybean sales to China.

“On average for last five weeks, 48% of our ag sales to the world are going to China. That is extraordinary," he said.

"Because if you look at what we did in 2017, the baseline year of our phase one agreement, that number was actually only 18%.”

It’s too early to tell if the U.S. will send record shipments of corn and soybeans to China this year. After widespread drought and a recent wind storm that destroyed thousands of acres of corn in Iowa, experts have started to scale back their yield predictions for both. 

But if any record crop is there to sell, Doud says his 33 meetings with officials in Beijing since negotiations began on the first phase trade deal could pay off historically. Smith welcomed that possibility, and indicated support for continued negotiations with Chinese on expanding access to American markets.

"W
hen we can see developments, positive developments like this, I get pretty excited," he said.

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