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Transition Team Project: Transforming Rural Development in the Obama Administration

November 6, 2008


The following is the first in a series of posts about potential policy recommendations for the Obama Administration to act upon during its first year. These policy recommendation ideas are born out of SAC members’ extensive on-the-ground experience with what is and is not working in American agriculture and federal farm policy. In December SAC members will discuss the potential policy recommendations and vote on a final set which will be included in a briefing book for the Obama Administration Transition Team.

Jim Worstell has helped farmer groups develop locally-owned, value-added enterprises in Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta and many other third world areas. He was a member of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development during the Clinton Administration and has been Director of SAC member group Delta Land & Community since 1995.

Tuesday’s election of Barack Obama provides an unprecedented opportunity to transform USDA/Rural Development. Never before have we been blessed with a President with a community organizing background.

A good dose of community organizing could transform USDA/Rural Development into an organization which actually accomplishes sustainable rural development in America.

The perfect way to start achieving that goal is revamping the hiring, training and evaluation of USDA/Rural Development staff.

After January 20, in every State, President Obama will appoint a new State Rural Development Director.

We (Delta Land and Community) hope President Obama makes explicit what is obvious to any community organizer: sustainable rural development is only achieved when rural communities are organized to achieve economic and environmentally sustainable futures.

We propose that the primary qualification for new hires (including State Directors) of USDA/Rural Development will be experience in organizing rural groups, especially for collaborative processing and marketing ventures.

The primary criterion for evaluation of USDA/Rural Development staff will be that they have helped facilitate/organize farmer groups for rural development and, especially, locally-owned, value-added enterprises.

The new President Barack Obama should issue an Executive Order which requires:
1. experience in facilitation/organizing to be a criteria for all new RD staff
2. all new staff to be trained in facilitation/organizing
3. all new staff to be evaluated based on their success in establishing successful farmer/rural groups.
4. hiring, training and evaluation as an integrated process.
5. that the training and evaluation incorporates outside NGOs experienced in organizing and facilitation.

The President’s background in community organizing will help him know that evaluation and training must be conducted by folks experienced in organizing and facilitation. Since most RD staff are loan officers, or at least have that mentality, outside input will be crucial to a successful training/evaluation process. Getting that into the internal evaluation process will be the trick.

Background:

1. The culture of the USDA-RD is remnant from the old Farmers Home Administration, whereby the majority of staff at the time were involved with loans and loan processing. Therefore, RD typically hires loan officers or people who come from that background. These people are trained in different skills sets than community developers or community organizers. One question is – could the culture of RD actually change, given the previous charge to employees?

2. One challenge – in order to do community development, one needs to work directly with people in a community, not just on a grant application, but also on other needs such as leadership development.

3. There are also questions as to whether the RD funds are applied properly -to the neediest – or are they going to those who have track records and can organize the best. We know that Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG) and Section 9006 grants (the Rural Energy for America Program) are going to people in those states that can organize and apply for these grants.

4. We would suggest that RD staff be evaluated on how well they work with a community; also they should know something about every program they have available – it seems that some programs are offered locally and others the knowledge of those programs are in the state office. Staff should be evaluated on how well they facilitate grants and work within the community. The knowledge of programs should be across all employees – from the field to the state office.

5. Other USDA Rural Development funds (e.g. Rural Business Opportunity Grants “RBOG” and Rural Business Enterprise Grant Program “RBEG”) could be used to increase the knowledge base of USDA/RD programs in rural areas while developing networks and capacity of clientele.

6. Residents of underserved states never see USDA-RD host any type of community training event specifically for their programs. Instead, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been the voice crying in the wilderness in organizing and educating rural residents to access USDA-RD programs–especially Section 9006 and VAPG. Some underserved states would not even be participants in the program without NGO organizing of rural groups. In Arkansas one NGO has organized all the groups which have received VAPG grants for the past six years and six out of the eight grants received by Arkansas since the program began in 2001.

The lack of success of underserved states stands in stark contrast to similarly rural states. For example, in 2008, Iowa received 9 grants, in 2006 17 grants, and in 2005, 14. In such states with strong rural organizing traditions, organized groups receive as many grants in one year as Arkansas and other underserved states have received since the program began.

There is a dire need for RD staff with skills in rural organizing to insure that all rural states reap the benefits of rural organizing now enjoyed only by a few fortunate states.


Categories: General Interest


7 Responses to “Transition Team Project: Transforming Rural Development in the Obama Administration”

  1. Denise says:

    Jim,

    These are excellent recommendations! Coming from an organizing background, you have really nailed the criteria for leadership in Rural Development. We need people who know how to organize people and to get work done – a major shift from what bureaucracies normally do.

    Denise O’Brien

  2. Jim, I agree with your need statement but not with your proposed solution. Rural Development is pretty much a bank and sees its role to get funding out the door. A minority of its clients are farmers. Communities, families and small businesses also are served with its grant and loan programs. Organizing capacity is sorely needed but I think NGO’s can do it better, ideally partnering with Rural Devt and other federal agencies whose cultures change to support and value this organizing. There needs to be funding for this work.

    I am also a communty organizer with 30 years of field experience and currently serve as director of Maine Rural Partners, our state rural development council. The state rural development councils (there were 35 in 2004) are a critical piece of the organizing infrastructure, were an unfunded portion of the 2002 farm bill and were orphaned by Rural Development (our cognizang agency) because we are independent and cannot be controlled by RD. But organizers need to take their instructions from the bottom up, not the top down. Do we want rural organizing to be subject to political control of a federal agency? I don’t think so. But we do need a long term solid commitment so that capacity can be built.

    The state RD councils need to be funded and a LOT more money needs to be available for organizing work to move rural America toward sustainable prosperity. I believe this could be better accomplished by getting funding to RD councils and other NGO’s than adding fedeal employees who are hard to dislodge if mediocre at their jobs. Current field offices are stretched as many new programs have been added to administer without more staff. So existing positions could not just be retooled in any event w/o finding a new way to administer existing programs.

    I very much appreciate this timely discussion and look forwad to reading other viewpoints.

  3. Dave Kittley says:

    What a crock!

    My family has farmed in Texas for almost 120 years. And before that in Alabama, we were burned out of Alabama after the Civil War during reconstruction.

    What does a community organizer know about production. NOTHING!

    More central planning. We do not need another beauracry.

    I can see a real model developing, like it did in Zimbabwe under Mugabe. They confiscated the farms from the old families who developed them, and turned them over to their political supporters(war veterans). Now they cannot feed themselves and their economy is totally destroyed.

    It happened before in the Ukraine. They starved the producers into subjection also.

    The wonder of central planning is a true disaster.

    Do we really want to go there?

  4. Curtis Conrad says:

    The Obama Administration’s plan to totally eliminate the FSA farmer-elected county committee system replacing them with directly appointed socially disadvantaged farmers will help bring a much need social change to Rural America.

  5. I agree with the premise of training Rural Development employees. I have been in the business of working with rural communities for the last 21 years as a rural economic development professional. Five of those years was as the director of the office of community development in USDA/Rural Development Iowa. My biggest frustration was that Rural Development was used as building needed infrastructure, i.e. housing, community facilities and business loans, but they would never put resources behind technical assistance, even though the communities that we worked with would ask for the assistance.

    My wife and I have built a business on training and technical assistance to the rural areas using deliberation and dialogue within a planning framework. I have also worked with some of the entities that work with Rural Development in administering some of their rental housing programs.

    All this being said, Rural Development is a good agency that needs to have a understanding that planning and technical assistance to communities and groups is groundwork well laid. Not all improvement can be measured in bricks and morter projects. Leadership development is lacking in rural areas because of the population decline and the graying of rural areas. New avenues need to be developed to address the global economy and its effects on the rural areas.

    Rural Development Councils are a great vehicle that are in place and need to be fully funded. The Nebraska Rural Development Commission should be the model. It was created and funded initially by then Governor now Sen. Ben Nelson. It was inclusive and very effective in gaining a single vision of the development of business and community in Nebraska, both rural and urban. However, the councils are different in every state and operate under different philosophies and leadership. This can be a problem in that there is not clear consensus on policies and directions.

    We can no longer afford not to have some type of technical assistance available to our communities. It is essential for commmunity sustainability and entreprenureship development.

    Frank Spillers

  6. Jim Worstell says:

    These comments are great. Just to clarify, we are not advocating adding federal employees or creating a new bureaucracy. We just want to help USDA/RD folks do a better job of serving their states. RD staff in some states really get out and help groups get new projects rolling. This should be the case in the places that need rural development the most.

    USDA/RD should not act like bank loan officers. That’s not their mission and the good state RD offices don’t act that way.

    The idea of funding the Rural Development Councils is great and should be pursued. But it will require new legislation and appropriations. President Obama can change the criteria for training, evaluation and hiring in USDA/RD immediately without any new legislation.

    Mr. Kittley is right that many community organizers don’t know beans about production agriculture. Fortunately, there are many non-governmental organizations that know both organizing/facilitation and production agriculture. These are the sorts of organizations which could provide training and evaluation to help USDA/RD move forward.

    Neither Zimbabwe or Ukraine are fortunate enough to have programs such as the USDA’s Value-Added Producer Grant program which helps farmers create and own marketing and processing businesses. Just focusing on production is not enough to make farms sustainable. Farmers must join together to own the marketing and processing system.

    I’ve witnessed first-hand the problems of both Zimbabwe and Ukraine as I helped farmers develop new processing and marketing businesses. Stagnant bureaucracies mostly stand in the way of such ventures in those countries.

    The new Administration has a chance to shake up the stagnant bureaucracies in some of our states. Let’s work together to facilitate sustainable rural development in every state.

  7. Kerry says:

    As an adult dying to become a farmer, I did not experience my State’s rural dev. entity helping me whatsoever. No reply from an initial contact. I recommend giving grants to people that have their farm plan, and let them plant.

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