U.S. Department of Agriculture outlines commitment to rural development
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Sept. 23 that it is sinking $118 million, mainly from the Stimulus fund, into rural communities. A small school district in southwest Missouri, for instance, will get over a million dollars in loans and grants to set up a system to heat buildings with farm waste. A tractor factory in sparsely populated north-central Kansas will get a low interest loan for a new building.
USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan announced the program in Kansas City. She also sat down to talk about agriculture challenges with KCUR’s Frank Morris, who was reporting on behalf of Harvest Public Media.
In the interview, Merrigan noted that while the farm economy is doing much better this year than in 2009, it’s not just about farming and ranching.
“Even if your farm income goes up, if you don’t have good school, access to health care facilities, a library and a little bit of a Main Street, it’s not viable to live in rural America,” she said.
So the Obama administration is trying to expand the scope of the farm safety net, Merrigan said, but acknowledged this is a “complicated equation” because America is at a major generational shift. The average age of farmers is around 58, and some people are farming into their ‘80s because they don’t have children to turn their farm over to. And they don’t want their children to struggle — like they did.
“We really are in a crisis state and we need to turn this around,” she said.
Merrigan applauded efforts (including a USDA program) to reconnect consumers with how food is produced so they have better empathy for the farmer. She pointed to growth in gardening, farmer’s markets and consumer-supported agriculture systems as examples of consumer interest in the topic.
“Ag is back. People want to talk,” she said. “This is a great moment in time when we are really going to educate people and pave the way for the next generation.”