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.”

Rural job development funds in 17 states

Funding to bolster job opportunities in rural areas is being distributed in 17 states. The USDA’s Rural Development agency is providing more than $12 Million in rural economic development loan and grant programs for those projects.

Lillian Salerno, the USDA’s Rural Business Cooperative Service Administrator, outlines some of the projects.

In Missouri…

“The Justine Peterson Housing Reinvestment Corporation – which is a loan amount of $750-thousand and those funds will be used to establish a revolving loan fund to assist small businesses. And, then, the second one in Missouri is for the Missouri Research Corporation – which the loan amount is $1-Million – and funds will be used to establish a revolving loan fund to assist small businesses in Southeast Missouri.”

In Wisconsin…

“That grant goes to the was to the Polk-Burnett Electric Cooperative and that was to support funds to construct a fire station for a fire-fighting association that serves six townships.”

In South Dakota…

“To the West River Foundation for $750-thousand dollars in loans and those funds will be used to provide loans to public and non-profit organizations to re-lend for business and community development projects. These projects are anticipated to save – save or create – approximately 100 jobs.”

In Ohio…

“To the Neighborhood Development Services, Incorporated and these funds will be used to provide loans to public and non-profit organizations to re-lend for business and community development projects in Summit and Portage Counties.”

Salerno made the announcement on behalf of Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack Tuesday at the National Veterans Small Business Conference in St. Louis.

AUDIO: Interview with Lillian Salerno (6:00 mp3) 

Rural Development funds going to small businesses

Fifty-million dollars is being made available to more than 70 rural businesses last week by the USDA’s Rural Development agency, during National Small Business week. Acting Under Secretary of Rural Development, Doug O’Brien, says they work directly with small town community banks and farm credit institutions that want to provide those loans.

“But, they can’t do it because of the risk profile of that loan. What we’re able to do at USDA is provide a guarantee to that small town community bank of 70-or-80% so that they are able to take that risk, to work with that small business so that they can expand and create jobs.”

O’Brien says rural small businesses, many of which provide products and services to farmers, are the “engines” of local economies.

Businesses receiving loans and grants include hotels, restaurants and manufacturers. O’Brien says two out of three jobs created in the U.S. are from small businesses.

Loans are contingent upon conditions being met.  Among the projects to be funded include the refinancing of debt and construction of a 500-thousand bushel grain bin and working capital to purchase gas station convenience stores.

AUDIO: Doug O’Brien (8:00 mp3)

 USDA Rural Development recipients

StrikeForce expands to address rural poverty

U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack and South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn

U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack and South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn

The USDA is expanding its program to help local communities in poverty stricken rural areas with economic development and job creation. Speaking in Columbia, South Carolina, on Tuesday, Vilsack said, “When people think of poverty they often think in terms of inner city poverty and certainly there is a good deal of that but oftentimes people fail to realize that 90% of the persistently poor counties are actually located in rural areas.”

The “StrikeForce” Initiative is adding 10 more states to the existing six where it’s already in play. The program has all USDA divisions partnering with local groups – and Vilsack says it’s been a success. He points to the increase in Farm Service Agency direct loans for farmers.

“Even when at sometimes and at some places the overall direct loan applications were going down – applications in StrikeForce areas were going up, meaning more credit and more opportunities particularly for beginning farmers and socially disadvantaged farmers,” says Vilsack.

The StrikeForce program is being expanded to include South and North Carolina, South and North Dakota, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Texas, Utah and Virginia. It began in 2010 with Arkansas, Georgia, and Mississippi and expanded to include Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada in 2011.

USDA’s StrikeForce is in play in rural areas of persistent poverty – with more than a 20-percent poverty level. Some of its projects include increasing access to healthy foods.

AUDIO: Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack (5:00 mp3)

AUDIO: Tom Vilsack, Q & A (3:00 mp3)

~Audio and photo courtesy of our sister network SCRN – South Carolina Radio Network~