When Bill Clinton signed into law the Northern Great Plains Rural Development Act in 1994, it was not the first time that a president had commissioned a study of the Great Plains-Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower before him had also established similar committees.
For Roosevelt and Eisenhower, the impetus was drought, and the "solutions" were similar: Science must provide methods to improve farming and ranching techniques, agricultural viability must be maintained and the federal government must be prepared to provide assistance to assure such viability. Those ideas have largely driven agricultural policy over the last 60 years.
But the Northern Great Plains Rural Development Commission, which completed its task earlier this year, was not motivated by drought or other natural calamities that so often plague Upper Midwest farmers. This time the focus was not just on farms and ranches, but also on the communities of the Plains states and how the region's economy, as a whole, will survive into the next century.
The commission was directed to "look at strategies the region could take to address the growing lack of opportunities in rural areas for young people, to diversify its economy overall and strengthen its traditional, natural resource-based industries, and to determine ways that interactive communications technologies could serve to break down the geographic distance from traditional markets that the region has faced."
In answer to that charge, the commission recently presented its final report to Congress, a blueprint that is supposed to serve as a "10-year plan that makes recommendations and establishes priorities to address the needs," according to the Act. The plan consists of 75 recommendations under the following categories: business development, international trade, value-added agriculture, telecommunications, health care, civic and social capacity, and transportation infrastructure.
While issues relating to the Great Plains are already well-known to those working in the area, the commission's executive director, Jerry Nagel, says the group's effort made many important contributions, especially regarding two issues: international trade and the need for states to work together.
"There's a global value-added market that this region has not been reaching," Nagel says, referring to the global consumer market rather than bulk agricultural goods. Bulk goods represent about a fifth of total agriculture trade worldwide, whereas 25 years ago they represented about half of all agricultural trade. The Northern Great Plains is still too focused on bulk trade, Nagel says, and is missing out on a growing and lucrative trade area.
Regarding regional cooperation, Nagel says the commission came to realize the extent that neighboring states and other localities rarely communicate with each other, let alone coordinate economic development efforts. "Borders are less transparent than they should be," Nagel says, adding that cooperation which recognizes the similarities and diversities among the states will help the entire region.
Nagel says the commission hopes to become established as a permanent organization to continue working on its 75 recommendations.
For more information on the commission and its recommendations, visit its Web site at http://ngplains.org/