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Callahan
Colleen Callahan, Illinois Director for USDA Rural Development

Commentary:

Creating a rural renaissance
USDA Rural Development is up to the challenge

If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.

And what we’ve got is an aging rural America. So you might say, “Well what’s wrong with that? We each get older every day. And getting older is better than the alternative!”

And that’s true. But in our rural communities throughout Illinois, the old are getting older and the young — well, they are moving away. And of the farmers who live there, almost 40 percent have off-farm jobs. Many work off the farm first and farm later.

So what does that mean to us in USDA Rural Development? It means as a lender with loans and grants, we have to do our part to support business and business creation in rural areas so there are jobs for that off-farm work. It means we have to support community improvement and development to encourage young people to stay in the area or attract them to come back.

With over 40 programs in housing, community facilities and business, USDA Rural Development can offer financial help in each of those areas. But first community leaders and organizations must “C the need.” Electric co-ops, local banks, agricultural organizations, community groups, elected officials and concerned residents must “C the need” by:

• Accepting the Challenge

• Evaluating the Circumstances

• Analyzing the Choices

• Assisting in the Change

Those are the “Cs” of which we are in need! But none of those “Cs” will happen without first initiating the most impactful “C”… Communication with and among each other.

Under Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development, Dallas Tonsager, recently said, “USDA Rural Development is central to the community-building effort. But the overall goal is to ensure that rural communities are creating wealth, are self-sustaining, are re-populating and are thriving economically.” That means rural communities will have to reinvent themselves in order for rural America to be renewed. We have to break the mold in Rural Development and initiate a regional approach, not just a town-by-town or county-by-county effort. And that change of mentality will require seven points of focus:

Regional Collaboration - Working with rural areas to encourage investment in improvement opportunities, increase access to new capital and credit, and create partnerships between communities and support organizations. For example, a wind turbine has 8,800 parts. Why not manufacture the parts in the community where turbines are located?

Regional Food Systems - Using local food systems to create wealth, ensuring that opportunities and any resulting revenue remain local.

Community Building - Encouraging communities to work together at the regional level to leverage available funding opportunities, providing resources to build self-sustaining communities, and creating well-rounded places to live.

Alternative Energy - Conducting studies, research and development, and investing in new alternative energies and “green” jobs. For example we could have more biomass facilities.

Broadband and Continuous Business Creation - Providing capital for new businesses, strengthening competition and market access, and bringing high-speed Internet service to communities to create jobs and improve economic, health care and educational opportunities.

Capital Markets - Finding new investment opportunities to stimulate growth, integrating Rural Development with other Federal, public and private organizations, and bolstering existing private credit sectors by guaranteeing quality loans with lasting community benefits.

Strategic Partners - Identifying strategic partners, to collaborate, to increase opportunities for rural communities.

We can’t afford to always do what we’ve always done, and get what we’ve always got.


Colleen Callahan is the Illinois Director for USDA Rural Development. She was the first female Agribusiness Director for WMBD Radio and TV in Peoria and President of the National Association of Farm Broadcasters.

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