What rural America has to gain from the infrastructure bill


CHOUTEAU, okay. – It would be easy here on those deserted Oklahoma roads to assume it’s still as quiet, but peaceful as the countryside is, Charlie Coblentz knows how noisy his farm life can get.

The 42-year-old third-generation dairy farmer has made Chouteau, Oklahoma home his entire life. His family farm thousands of acres of land here and own hundreds of head of cattle.

“Food production is one of the noblest things you can do in the world is produce food for others,” Coblentz said, looking at his farm.

But like the hills that define the landscape, 2021 has had its share of ups and downs. The crop prices for the soybeans he grows are incredibly high, which is great for profit margins. But the price of everything Coblentz needs to run his farm, from fertilizer to animal feed, has also gone up.

“The prices have gone crazy. Everything is twice as high as last year around this time,” he said.

That’s part of the reason Coblentz and other farmers across the country are watching Washington closely right now. Parts of the infrastructure bill being debated in Congress could make a big difference to rural communities, from improving many of the roads farmers use to get crops to consumers, to expanding broadband – something which Coblentz now needs just to run the software on its tractors and trucks.

“There is the Internet within two miles of me here, it’s almost here,” he noted.

Here, surrounded by land, the biggest concern of many farmers when it comes to the infrastructure bill is water.

The nearby port of Catoosa transports 400 tonnes of cargo per hour. Farmers depend heavily on it to export everything they produce. The problem is, that part of the Arkansas River that the port uses has been in desperate need of dredging for decades.

“They’ve been talking about it for years now and it’s not being addressed,” Coblentz said.

With incredibly high silt levels on the river, barges need to be lighter in order to float. This means more ships, less cargo carried and less money for Charlie Coblentz.

“If we are not efficient, we go bankrupt. We can barely make a living as it is. We have to take care of whatever is provided to us,” he said.

The infrastructure bill provides for $ 17 billion for the improvement of waterways, some of which could flow directly into the port of Catoosa for maintenance needs.

Rodd Moesel works for the Oklahoma Farm Bureau. He hopes the $ 550 billion allocated to improving roads could have a direct impact on small towns in the state.

“When they’re not working, it’s a huge problem getting our crops to market and making America work,” he noted.

Given the current stalemate on the infrastructure bill, Charlie Coblentz isn’t really hoping it gets passed. But like the cows he spends his life caring for, he just wants things to move in the right direction.

“I have to be as efficient as possible to make a living, and I have no confidence in Washington DC to be efficient with our tax dollars,” Coblentz said.

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