Thinking regionally and strengthening connections with urban centers are essential to strengthening economic activity in rural communities, Victor Vasquez, U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development told participants at the Midwest Rural Assembly today.
Vasquez talked about the need to think regionally on economic development, and to institutionalize that thinking in policy discussions. In particular, it's important for rural communities to strengthen connections with larger cities. "When it comes to food or fuel, you can’t walk into a store without finding something that has a relationship to rural America," said Vasquez. "The next few years are going to be tough due to the budget situation. We’ll hear more about what we can do to improve and how we can work together."
Vasquez outlined the key areas of focus for the USDA's Rural Development program in the next several years:
1. Local and regional markets for farmers through the Know your Farmer, Know your Food program. "We’ve seen nothing but success."
2. Expanding broadband access. It will make rural communities more competitive economically. "It’s not just about technology. It’s going to change the nature of education for children who live in poor, rural communities. It will change how they perceive education and the world."
3. Renewable energy. The Department is working closely with the Department of Energy and other partners to reduce and eliminate U.S. dependence on foreign oil. "Ultimately, this is how we view our natural resources and the environment and do things in a better way." He anticipated an enhanced level of collaboration with DOE that could result in more announcements supporting energy efficiency in the months to come.
4. Better land management. USDA oversees tens of thousands of acres of public land. The agency is studying how it can work better with the communities around that land, along with state and local governments, to increase economic development and better manage the land.
After outlining these key priorities, he returned to the need to think regionally, like the Midwest Rural Assembly is already doing. When asked how those outside the USDA can help support the efforts of the agency, Vasquez urged participants to continue to educate people about the importance of agriculture and rural communities to the economy and the country. "We need to convince people that agriculture and people in rural communities are a huge part of this economic engine" and continue moving forward.