WASHINGTON — A U.S. Senate committee held the first hearing in a series of reviews of the current Farm Bill on Tuesday as lawmakers prepare to draft a new measure affecting agriculture, rural and nutrition programs.

The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee hearings aim to understand the impact of the Farm Bill — which lawmakers last approved in 2018 — and possible improvements to be inserted into the next measure. The Farm Bill includes funding for an assortment of programs on agricultural products, conservation, rural development initiatives, and nutrition assistance.

The Farm Bill is updated every five years, and the current law expires on September 30, 2023. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the next Farm Bill will have a base budget of $648 billion.

Tuesday’s hearing was the first Senate hearing on the Capitol Hill farm bill in current Congress. On-the-ground hearings were held in East Lansing, Mich., and Jonesboro in April and June, respectively, at which President Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Ranking Member John Boozman, R-Ark., heard from local stakeholders about the challenges in each state.

Boozman — the committee’s top Republican — noted the timing of the next Farm Bill in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and rising consumer prices.

“Rural America has not been immune to any of these challenges,” the Rogers Republican told the other committee members. “In fact, in many ways the impact on rural America has been greater. Just ask any parent living in rural America what the challenge is of homeschooling their children during the pandemic without internet access.”

Boozman continued, “As we develop the next Farm Bill, I think we should have a clear focus on rural America. How do federal government programs and policies help or hurt life in the Rural America? Because if one part of America isn’t living up to its potential, then all of America is held back.”

Tuesday’s hearing focused on reviewing the Farm Bill’s rural development and energy efforts. The US Department of Agriculture offers grant and loan programs that focus on things like infrastructure improvements, high-speed internet, and business development. Agency Undersecretary Xochitl Torres Small noted in her written testimony before the committee that USDA’s rural development efforts also include incentives for the use of clean energy.

Addressing lawmakers, Torres Small said rural development consists of three fundamental issues: responding to clear local missions through partnerships; facilitate community access to support and funding; and addressing local challenges through infrastructure projects.

“Easier access to federal support is basically about modernizing rural development,” she said. “That means improving our own internal infrastructure so that we can help rural communities build their infrastructure.”

Torres Small said the federal government offers hundreds of opportunities to foster rural development, but officials must constantly identify areas for action and improve rural reach by supporting local programs. In her written testimony, she noted that stakeholders in small communities face additional burdens to obtain approval, adding that the agency must take steps to ensure that rural residents and local governments understand the better opportunities for access to capital.

“It’s a problem,” Boozman told Torres Small during the hearing.

Boozman also asked about the number of grant writer applications, noting that rural residents lack the resources to hire such workers, hampering their chances of approval. The senator also noted the changing demographics of Arkansas; according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of 53 counties declined between 2010 and 2020 amid a period of population growth for the state.

“They don’t have much to start with, and then you start losing those dollars back,” Boozman said. “They leave a lot on the table because they can’t afford to find that kind of fund for people like that, or they don’t have access to it, period.”

Torres Small told Boozman that there was a noticeable percentage of applications from grant seekers, linking the use of such individuals to competition for federal funds.

“Communities that have the ability to compete are authors of higher grants, which makes it even harder for people who can’t,” she said.

Boozman later stressed during the hearing the importance of improving access to resources for rural residents.

“I don’t think you have to spend thousands of dollars hiring a grant writer in a small community that’s literally hemorrhaging the population,” he said.