May 2, 2014
On May 1, 2014, the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Jobs, Rural Economic Growth and Energy Innovation held a hearing entitled The Importance of Regional Strategies in Rural Economic Development. Chaired by Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), the hearing addressed Farm Bill changes encouraging U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development to prioritize regional approaches to rural community and economic development and showcased best practices and case studies of successful rural development efforts from Nebraska and the Dakotas.
Senator Heitkamp opened the hearing by mentioning the challenges to Rural America, such as low population and outmigration, and spoke about the need to develop infrastructure and diversify the economy in rural communities – sentiments echoed by various Senate Subcommittee members and witnesses throughout the two hour hearing. Senator Heitkamp also recognized Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) for championing regional development in the Farm Bill.
The 2014 Farm Bill (in Section 6025) authorizes USDA to give priority to applications for Rural Development Program funding that “supports strategic community and economic development plans on a multijurisdictional basis.” Further, the provision authorizes USDA to set aside up to 10 percent of funding for these types of regionally-minded projects in categories such as Rural Community Facilities, Rural Utilities, and Rural Business and Cooperative Development.
This first-of-its-kind preference was lauded by the hearing’s first witness, Deputy Under Secretary for USDA Rural Development Doug O’Brien, who spoke about the Administration’s support for rural regional economic development approaches, even prior to the Farm Bill changes.
In his testimony, O’Brien talked about how the new authority will help USDA coordinate its various programs and allow for the incorporation of “best practices to fully develop programs to respond to rural needs on a regional basis.”
Among the existing initiatives and partnerships cited by O’Brien were the Rural Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge, Stronger Economies Together Initiative, Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership, StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity, and Promise Zones. O’Brien talked about how each of these efforts – which involved collaboration among agencies or among agencies and private or public organizations – have helped leverage resources more effectively and led to capacity building, infrastructure and technology development, and increased economic activity and job growth.
During questioning, O’Brien mentioned that USDA has begun the process for a rulemaking on Section 6025 and that implementation would not occur until Fiscal Year (FY) 2015. Additionally, O’Brien mentioned that small towns would have a voice and kept in mind during the implementation of the provision, to prevent them from being overshadowed by the largest towns.
In addition to Deputy Under Secretary O’Brien, four other witnesses provided testimony on rural development – specifically, on challenges to and strategies for successful rural community and business development.
Dawn Keeley, Executive Director of the Red River Regional Council in Grafton, North Dakota mentioned how public and private sector partnerships have been vital. She shared two examples of successful rural regional development planning from North Dakota and noted the Red River Regional Council is in the process of developing its five-year regional Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy.
Gary Person, City Manager and Economic Development Director from the City of Sidney, Nebraska, shared the history of Sidney’s economic growth and decline and renewal. From growing local entrepreneurs to investments in infrastructure, Sidney “tripled its local economy and local valuation base over the past 20 years.” Person shared recommendations for ways to grow rural economies and communities and to further develop regional rural development strategies, such as pooling of funding resources and “rural trade zones” to function like federal trade zones.
Mark Tilsen, Chief Executive Officer of Native American Natural Foods, from Kyle, South Dakota, described his experience in creating his company and the Tanka line of buffalo and cranberry based high protein, low carb snacks, sold in more than 375 Indian Reservations and by over 6,000 retailers across the country. Critical to the success of his company was the support from investors such as Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) and federal agencies and foundations. Tilsen spoke of the challenges, including workforce development and training, plus housing and infrastructure are needed to support tribal communities. While the Oglala Sioux tribe completed a regional development plan and sustainability plan involving over 23 organizations, funding is needed to support the plan.
Finally, Charles Fluharty, President and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri, shared three policy recommendations, including the creation of a more regional, integrated, and leveraged approach for USDA RD, to advance a more innovative rural development framework. Fluharty shared the example of “Shaping Our Appalachian Region” to underscore the importance of continuing to work regionally and collaboratively.