By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer
FORT GIBSON — Creating economic opportunities and improving the quality of life in rural America are the overarching goals of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural development division.
Deputy Undersecretary for Rural Development Doug O’Brien brought that message to town Tuesday during a conservation workshop. In conjunction with an announcement about the agency’s “record investment” in rural water and wastewater treatment projects across the country, O’Brien discussed two other programs designed to advance the division’s mission.
The first program includes financial assistance to farmers and small business owners who invest in renewable energy projects and others that promote energy efficiency. O’Brien said the renewable energy projects for which funding is available include biofuel production, wind and solar energy, or “whatever fits the particular business or farmer.”
The second is a grant program “that helps farmers add value to their commodities” and crops. The goal of the value-added producer grant program is to assist eligible producers develop business and marketing plans that increase economic opportunities.
“We’ve seen across the country in the local-regional food system a lot more interest among people who want to grow it,” O’Brien said, noting the increased interest is shared by existing farmers and those who are new to agriculture. “And we know there is a lot of interest among consumers, it’s that middle piece that is missing.”
The missing piece is what O’Brien described as “the right market channel” for the goods produced. He said large-scale producers face risks associated with price swings and the weather, but if they can produce a crop “there is a place for it to go.” With the local-regional food system, a producer “can realize a better margin on a per-unit basis,” but he or she must “find the right market channel.”
“If we can build those markets ... then that is a new market for something that is made in a rural place,” O’Brien said. “We just want to help families — to help private business owners — diversify the economy of the communities by helping them create these new markets.”
O’Brien said he believes opportunities exist in rural America with regard to local-regional food systems and renewable energy. There are, however, some challenges that must be overcome in order to capitalize on those opportunities.
One of those challenges is reversing the flow of people from rural to urban areas. O’Brien said the nation experienced a population decline of 44,000 people between 2010 and 2012 in rural counties. He said proportionally that has been occurring for some time when looking at proportional numbers, but this is the first time that has happened “in terms of real numbers.”
O’Brien said another concern is the growing number of impoverished Americans who live in rural areas across the country. He estimated about 27 percent of all children in rural counties live in households with incomes at or below the poverty level.
“There are some places in rural America that lack the capacity to really take advantage of the opportunities that are there — the economic capacity of the deal flow,” O’Brien said. “That is the challenge, and that is our job to meet that challenge.”
To meet that challenge, O’Brien said there is a greater focus on quality of life issues as well as creating job opportunities through various agricultural programs. Those programs, in addition to creating job opportunities, include increased broadband access and support for entrepreneurial ventures.
“Just making sure young people understand there are opportunities for small businesses — rural places can be a great place for entrepreneurs,” O’Brien said. “There are some great opportunities, but there are some challenges. Our job is to support and partner with folks in rural places.”
In addition to the agency’s local-regional food and renewable energy initiatives, O’Brien said USDA Rural Development was celebrating Earth Day by announcing its “record investment” in rural water quality projects planned in 40 states, including Oklahoma. The agency will award nearly $387 million to help fund 116 rural water and wastewater treatment projects.
O’Brien said having reliable, clean and safe water is essential to the economic success of every rural community. Funding includes $150 million in grants made possible through the 2014 Farm Bill and $237 million in loans and grants from the USDA’s water and environmental programs.
Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or firstname.lastname@example.org.