USDA celebrates Nat’l Homeownership Month

Since the USDA’s single-family housing programs began in 1949, USDA has helped nearly 3.4 million rural residents to buy homes of their own.

To highlight National Homeownership Month, Tony Hernandez, Rural Housing Service Administrator talked with Brownfield’s Dave Russell about the programs available through USDA Rural Development that can help rural residents with homeownership.

Audio: Tony Hernandez, USDA Rural Development (5:30 mp3)

New support for bio-based manufacturing

USDA Undersecretary Doug O’Brien says there is a lot of potential for bio-based manufacturing in rural America, especially now. At a Senate Ag subcommittee hearing on regional approaches to rural development, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown asked about it, especially in places like Ohio, Indiana and other areas of the Midwest where standard manufacturing jobs are going away, “What do we do there? How do we plug that in – what that does for rural America, obviously with bio-based manufacturing – what it can do to build a manufacturing base in small town Midwest?

O’Brien agrees that bio-based manufacturing of plastics, resins, asphalt and the like, should and will be supported by leveraging funds under new provisions of the Farm Bill, “We think our responsibility is to support those local businesses and now, more and more, those local, regional strategies that are created from the grassroots and support them through our financing.”

Leveraging funds to build up rural communities is part of the new farm bill and O’Brien says the regional approach will help.

AUDIO: Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Under Secretary Doug O’Brien (3:00 mp3)

Farm bill supports REGIONAL development

The new farm bill has a new focus on rural development – targeting REGIONAL areas for rural development incentives.  Nebraska Senator Mike Johanns is on a subcommittee panel that held a hearing Thursday in Washington, D.C.  He said, “By setting aside 10% of funds from rural community facilities, utilities and businesses and cooperative development categories – these fund are targeted specifically toward multi-jurisdictional projects.”

Johanns says the funds will provide incentives for communities to work together to improve infrastructure and address other economic issues. But, he says, it should be tempered by the government lightening the regulatory burden for rural communities.

AUDIO: Senate Ag Subcommittee hearing. Part 1 (51:00 min.)

AUDIO: Senate Ag Subcommittee hearing. Part 2 (40:00 mp3)

USDA fund to seek private funds for rural business

The USDA has begun a new $150 Million investment fund to grow small businesses in rural areas and create more jobs using public AND private funding.   Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack says the Rural Business Investment Company (RBIC) – involves pledges from eight Farm Credit institutions and will be managed by Advantage Capital Partners, “The bottom line here is about a new way to do business for government where we facilitate and bridge and leverage as opposed to solely relying on government financing to do it all.”

Vilsack says the fund will allow investments and job growth in rural businesses such as advanced energy production, food systems, bio-manufacturing and more by engaging private equity firms.

AUDIO: Radio Iowa’s Kay Henderson with Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack (3:00 mp3)

Value-add grants prioritized for veterans

U.S. military veterans are urged to apply for USDA value-added producer grants. Traci Bruckner, with the Center for Rural Affairs, says those folks have also been given top priority for the matching funds program, “There’s a priority for beginning farmers and ranchers as well as small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers but now the new Farm Bill made a change – and we were part of encouraging this change – where there’s also now a priority for (military) veteran farmers and ranchers.”

She tells Brownfield Ag News that past value-added grants have gone to producers for expanding grass fed beef markets, improving processing plants, and more, “In South Dakota, there was a farmer that did some high-value grains that are grown organically. In Nebraska, here, it helped a kid who grew pumpkins for a 4-H project and that kid decided he wanted to turn that into a business opportunity. So, he started processing the pumpkin and selling the pureed pumpkin for people for pies and such like that and he got a value-added grant to help him do that.”

The deadline for this round of value-added producer grants was extended to Tuesday, April 8th.

Interview with Traci Bruckner (7:00 mp3)

Farm Bill Rural Development policy

New policy and new dollars for USDA Rural Development programs are coming with the signing of the new Farm Bill earlier this month.

Doug O’Brien, USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Rural Development, says there will be 68-Million dollars for the next five years for the Value-Added Producer program that was at risk of being unfunded.  He tells Brownfield Ag News, “That is a very popular, very effective program in rural America.”

In addition, O’Brien says the Bio-Refinery guaranteed loan program is also fully funded in the Farm Bill, “Businesses who want to take biomass and turn it into fuel and now with new policy in the farm bill these businesses that also want to take biomass, things that are grown on farms in the United States and turn them into other types of products – plastic, resins, et cetera. There’s some significant dollars to support those guaranteed loans to build that business.”

O’Brien says the Farm Bill gives the agency the new ability to prioritize programs that are part of a regional development strategy and he says there are important new changes to the Broadband and Waste Water system programs.

Interview by Tom Steever of Doug O’Brien

Rural America needs farm bill says O’Brien

Rural development and growth are the goals of the USDA’s Rural Development Agency – and the Acting Under Secretary of that agency says he’s thankful to be a part of it.

“I grew up in a farm in eastern Iowa (Dubuque County) and I take with me, here in Washington, D.C., that value system, that spirit of community, that attitude of just getting done what needs to get done,” says Doug O’Brien.  He tells Brownfield Ag News there’s such potential in Rural America – with production agriculture, local and regional food systems, renewable energy – that people need to be able to ‘capture those opportunities.’

“One of the pieces of the puzzle is having some stable, predictable federal policy and that’s what a Farm Bill is designed to do – and that’s why Secretary Vilsack has made clear just how important it is to get this bill done.”

O’Brien says the House and Senate farm bills now in conference committee contain critical reforms and resources for rural communities. He adds that Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack says an extension of the current farm bill, for however long, is NOT a viable option.

Interview with Doug O’Brien (8:00 mp3)

USDA agencies watching FB proceedings

The lack of a Farm Bill is not only impacting farmers, it is also impacting the work being done by agencies throughout the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Doug O’Brien, Acting Under-Secretary for Rural Development says passing a Farm Bill is absolutely critical to the work they do in his agency. O’Brien tells Brownfield that without a Farm Bill, USDA Rural Development will have to rely on annual appropriations as a primary source of funding.

“Typically for many of our programs used by farmers and small businesses, that funding has come from the Farm Bill, so that’s one important piece,” said O’Brien. “Another important piece is there are a lot of important reforms that are in the different versions of the Farm Bill that kind of have our hands tied as we try to determine what the policy is going to be, just like farmers and many others who rely on policy, so it’s such an important piece of legislation we just need to get it done.”

Audio: Doug O’Brien, USDA Acting Under Secretary, RD (7:40 mp3)

Rural Development working on backlog

The 500 employees at the USDA Rural Development loan processing office in St. Louis are tackling mounds of paperwork that piled up during the shutdown and furlough, so home loans and purchases that were delayed should be carried out in the coming weeks. All but 30 employees there were furloughed.

Patrice Kunesh, USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Rural Development, was there on Monday. She tells Brownfield Ag News, “During the three-week shutdown, of course, we were not processing any of our grant applications or loan applications for businesses, for housing, for water systems. We have a tremendous backlog.”

Although there was a lot of disruption with services, she says they are working hard to get caught back up, “We have an avalanche of mail that’s come through over the last three weeks and the employees out here have been diligently opening up every single letter.”

During the shutdown, home and business loans and foreclosures could not go through affecting home purchases and more. But, Kunesh tells Brownfield that Rural Development should be caught back up in the next few weeks if not sooner.

Interview with Patrice Kunesh (9:00 mp3)

More energy projects funded by REAP

A new round of projects in 22 states will receive energy funding from the USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program (REAP). The Ag Department announced Wednesday a new group of farmers and rural small businesses that will receive financial assistance to help reduce their energy costs and consumption.

USDA’s Rural Business Administrator Lillian Salerno says several projects will be funded in Indiana, “One of them is to install a biomass burner. The recipient is Adam Hill and that’s a grant amount. We also have an Indiana – three of the projects are for efficient energy for grain dryers. Those are for ag producers.”

Fourteen projects are being funded in Iowa – and – a half dozen in Wisconsin, “Five of those projects are solar energy systems. The other one is installing a wind turbine and solar system.”

The USDA says the REAP assistance helps support President Obama’s Climate Action Plan as outlined in June, to “reduce carbon pollution and better prepare the United States for the impacts of climate change.”