The need to emphasize rural development issues such as high-speed Internet access, improved healthcare services, enhanced education and improved infrastructure is growing in importance to America’s farm and ranch families, according to American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman.

In comments at the Agriculture Department’s 85th Agricultural Outlook Forum, Stallman said AFBF is employing a two-pronged approach to improve the quality of life in rural America: Public policy advocacy, and serving as a ready resource on rural development issues for states and counties.

“Well into the late 20th Century, American agriculture operated under the attitude that farming was the backbone of rural America,” Stallman said. “That paradigm is drastically changing. Off-farm income is of growing importance to farm families. Averaged across all farms, USDA’S 2008 estimate says 92.5 percent of total farm family income comes from off-farm sources.”

Stallman said it is clear that today’s farm families need employment opportunities in their hometowns in addition to their farm income. And they need vibrant local businesses that provide goods and services to their farms. But, he said, the relationship between farmers and rural communities is still a two-way street.

“Make no mistake. Rural communities need farmers and agriculture,” Stallman said. “Agriculture and the land and tax base America’s farmers and ranchers provide are in a great many cases the financial base for county and rural governments. They are the way rural America pays for its schools, often paves the roads and keeps sheriffs on the payroll.”

Many issues dealing with rural development are high on the national agenda these days as they related to economic recovery. Stallman emphasized the need for high quality, affordable and accessible high-speed Internet service as vital for improving all aspects of life in rural America. He said broadband options in rural areas can often be cost prohibitive and that rural America lacks affordable, modern telecommunications infrastructure.

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, only 38 percent of the population in rural areas has broadband compared to urban areas where 57 percent have broadband.

“Farm Bureau is emphasizing to policy makers on Capitol Hill and elsewhere that communication services should be available at a reasonable cost to all people and that high speed Internet access should be increased through any source,” Stallman said.

According to Stallman, the $7 billion directed toward rural communications technology in the stimulus package that was passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama will go a long way in improving accessibility of much needed high-speed Internet service to underserved communities.

“Rural communities cannot participate in a recovering economy without access to broadband,” he said. “The lack of modern telecommunications services in rural areas hinders the education, safety and economic opportunities for rural Americans.

Stallman also discussed the need to recruit health care providers to practice in rural America. In addition, he emphasized the importance of improving rural highways and the inland waterway systems of locks and dams, both used to transport farm goods and critical for economic recovery.

“Farm Bureau supports changes to federal highway policy that will bring about increased investment in rural roadways and bridges while recognizing and accommodating the unique needs of farmers moving their goods,” Stallman said. “Rural America needs reliable, affordable two-way transportation. Roads and bridges are the lifeblood of rural communities.”