Local efforts to address water quality add up

This blogpost is the third in our series looking at water quality in Iowa. Read our first two entries here and here.

To address water quality, Iowa needs more funding for on-the-ground practices and conservation. Most of the current funding comes from the federal government. At the state level, the public is putting more pressure to commit more resources into a stable long-term framework. Here, we dive into local and county efforts to fund and protect drinking water in Iowa.

The two most populated counties in Iowa have passed bond referendums to protect and promote natural resources and outdoor recreation. Linn County, home to the Cedar Rapids metro area, passed a $40 million bond in 2016 for trails, parks, and water quality and land protection. In 2012, Polk County, home to the Des Moines metro, passed a similar $50 million bond. Both ballot measures passed with more than 70 percent support from voters. These measures allow not only for renovations and improvements but for technical staff and water quality monitoring.

How can rural areas compete on addressing water quality when they do not have the tax base to leverage, like urban areas? Some options include local sales tax initiatives, public-private partnerships, and other special projects.

The regressive nature of sales tax is one criticism of raising the sales tax statewide to fund water quality projects. One bill introduced during the last legislative session aimed to strike a balance. The WISE bill introduced in 2017 coupled a sales tax increase with a proportional decrease in income taxes. The three-eighths of a cent sales tax increase would be phased in over three years to slow the pace of any negative impacts. The bill would also require 60 percent of funding to go toward practices outlined in the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. This design ensures that more sales tax revenue generated in urban areas would be invested in rural areas. There are already a few examples of metro areas funding projects in rural parts of the county using bond funding. (More details on the WISE bill can be found here.)

Public-private partnerships work for targeted projects with specific goals. One example is the many oxbow restorations completed by The Nature Conservancy alongside a number of different watershed groups in Iowa. The Nature Conservancy works with a watershed coordinator, technical staff, landowners, and sometimes municipal or county staff to site and develop an oxbow to slow and retain the flow of water in a stream.

Another example are the initiatives undertaken by Elliott, Remsen, and Sioux Center to protect drinking water for their towns with the Iowa Source Water Ag Collaborative. In each case, the town worked with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to identify the source of their water quality issues and took on targeted projects to address them.

I hope readers can learn through this series what kind of resources are available to address water quality in their area. A variety of resources are available and trained staff can help communities improve their drinking water, but only with a shared commitment to address the problem. I plan to continue writing and highlighting more stories of the people and places taking on this challenge. Stay tuned! Read more about Local efforts to address water quality add up

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Center for Rural Affairs November and December newsletter

This edition of our newsletter focuses on PROGRESS that strengthens rural communities, small businesses, and family farms and ranches. 

Our Byway of Art project demonstrates the history, arts, and culture of three rural towns. Residents of Decatur, Oakland, and Lyons embraced community-driven art and now have projects for future generations to enjoy.  Read more about Center for Rural Affairs November and December newsletter

Value-Added Producer Grant funds available

At Robinette Farms, funds from the Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) program help pay for processing, marketing, distribution, and sales of pasture-raised chickens, eggs, and microgreens.

This year, $18 million in funding is available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) VAPG program. Paper applications are due Jan. 31, 2018, and electronic applications through www.grants.gov are due Jan. 24.

Robinette Farms is a small farming operation near Lincoln, Nebraska, that received a working capital grant in 2015, and now sells meat and produce at local grocery stores. They were able to develop new products and access higher-value markets with the assistance from the VAPG program.

Administered by USDA Rural Development, the VAPG program provides grants to producers for working capital, feasibility studies, business plans, and marketing efforts used to establish value-added businesses. Value-added grants can also be used to develop new product lines from raw agricultural products or promote additional uses for established products.

Independent producers, agricultural producer groups, farmer or rancher cooperatives, and majority-controlled, producer-based business ventures are all eligible to apply for these grants.

The program prioritizes funding for applicants who are beginning, veteran, or socially-disadvantaged farmers and ranchers; operators of small- and medium-sized family farms and ranches; farmer and rancher cooperatives; and majority-controlled, producer-based business ventures whose projects “best contribute” to creating or increasing marketing opportunities for the aforementioned groups of farmers.

Contact your local USDA Rural Development office or visit www.cfra.org for more information.

Feature photo: Crystal Powers, co-owner and co-operator of Darby Springs Farm near Ceresco, Nebraska, gives a tour of their microcreamery in August. She and her husband, William, received a $50,000 value-added grant in 2015 to create and expand their farmstead ice cream and milk carmel topping made from ingredients grown or produced on the farm. Their micro-creamery features a walk-through milking station and three separate rooms - one for milk, one for ice cream, and one for a store. Read more about Value-Added Producer Grant funds available

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27 Iowa farmers sign farm bill letter

Twenty-seven Iowa farmers, in support of conservation and crop insurance practices in the 2018 farm bill, signed and sent a letter to Iowa Congressional Representatives in October. Would you like to get involved in advocating for change in the farm bill? Reach out to Anna today at 515.215.1294, or annaj@cfra.org.

Oct. 9, 2017

Dear Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, and Reps. Steve King, Dave Loebsack, David Young, and Rod Blum,

As farmers in Iowa, we write to you with concerns about the future of conservation in our state. Conservation practices, such as planting cover crops, have been enormously beneficial for our operations. We write to share ideas with you about how to further encourage farmers to practice conservation practices in Iowa, and ask that you please take these suggestions into consideration during your deliberations about the farm bill.

First, we have seen conservation practices can actually work to reduce on-farm risk. Measures such as planting cover crops, engaging in no-till, and planting a diverse crop rotation can help build soil health, which, in turn, can both encourage resilience to drought and reduce soil erosion and nutrient runoff. But, although these practices can help manage on-farm risk, and could potentially reduce our crop insurance costs and claims in the long run, crop insurance policies provide disincentives to practice conservation.

We believe crop insurance should work hand in hand with conservation policy. Specifically, we believe that farmers who develop strong conservation plans and implement improvements should be eligible for higher levels of premium subsidy than those who do not. This also would benefit taxpayers by offering them assurance that the dollars spent on crop insurance premium subsidies are investments in making our land more resilient and productive for future generations. We ask that, in the upcoming farm bill, you create an incentive under the crop insurance program to offer farmers higher premium subsidies for practicing conservation.

Another change in the next farm bill that would encourage conservation is to remove barriers within crop insurance policies to planting cover crops. Currently, in order to continue to qualify for crop insurance while still planting cover crops, farmers must follow special rules and terminate their cover crops on a particular timeline. These extra regulations serve as a disincentive to plant cover crops. We ask that the upcoming farm bill require crop insurance companies to treat all conservation practices recognized by the Natural Resource Conservation Service as “good farming practices” under crop insurance regulations.

Finally, we ask that you protect existing conservation programs under the Natural Resource Conservation Service, particularly working lands conservation programs such as the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. These programs provide important support for farmers who are interested in incorporating conservation practices into their operations but need extra support in order to afford it.

As Iowa farmers, we believe these ideas are good for farmers, good for Iowa, good for our rural economies, and good for our soil and water. Please provide strong support for conservation in the upcoming farm bill work. Thank you for your consideration.


Nathan Anderson, Cherokee County

Kent Bennis, Clinton County

Charles Bieber, Allamakee County

Tim Blair, Van Buren County

Jerry Depew, Pocahontas County

Troy Deutmeyer, Delaware County

Kipp Fehr, Palo Alto County

Gary Fisher, Humboldt County

Bo Fox, Monona County

William Furlong, Johnson County

Larry Haren, Hamilton County

Brian Heide, Calhoun County

Keith Kuper, Hardin County

Levi Lyle, Washington County

Dennis Nebendahl, Allamakee County

Mark Peterson, Montgomery County

Clark Porter, Black Hawk County

Jeff Pudenz, Sac and Greene counties

Daniel Rosmann, Shelby County

Loran Seiser, Hamilton County

Zack Smith, Winnebago County

Jerry Sobotka, Pocahontas County

Kim Steele-Blair, Van Buren County

Max Trimpe, Johnson County

David L. Williams, Page County

Ray Wilson, Cass County

Bill and Dotty Zales, Plymouth County Read more about 27 Iowa farmers sign farm bill letter

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Jobs sweep into region with wind development

Wind energy continues to grow in the U.S., especially in the heart of the country. With some of the best renewable resources available, this region has significant potential to generate clean energy while also reaping the benefits of development.

Those benefits take several forms, including direct payments to landowners that provide a new source of income. Projects also generate new tax revenues that broaden county tax bases or assist in funding essential services like fire and police departments, as well as local schools. New jobs are another benefit, either in the form of construction jobs when a project is being developed or as operations positions for the lifetime of a project.

Employment opportunities created by new wind development have a big impact on rural communities. According to the National Renewable Energy Labs’ Jobs and Economic Development Impact modeling, a 100 megawatt (MW) project can employ up to 106 people for construction and construction-related services. These workers infuse new money into local economies when they stay in communities during the building phase.

To capture the benefits of wind development, we will need a workforce to help build projects. In states like Wyoming where wind energy development is still growing and resources are abundant, finding workers can present a barrier to building new projects in rural areas. Small population sizes make it difficult to find enough workers locally to construct wind farms.

The construction phase isn’t the only part of wind energy development that is creating workforce demands. Once projects are built, they will require occasional maintenance from technicians on-site. Wind turbine technician is one of the fastest growing professions, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, and much of that is due to the expected growth of the wind energy industry.

These long-term operation jobs offer another benefit to rural communities – the chance for young people to return. Many of these jobs are based in or near small towns where wind energy projects are built. The growth of wind energy has created opportunities to bring new, well-paying jobs to rural areas, paving a path for young people to pursue careers in an expanding industry.

As wind energy continues to grow, there will be more possibilities to localize benefits of wind development. Whether it is from jobs based in communities near wind farms or the use of local labor and construction services while a wind farm is under construction, wind energy will continue to be an economic driver in rural areas.

Photo: Laredo Ridge Wind Farm near Petersburg, Nebraska, will generate more than $6 million over the first 20 years of operation to local taxing bodies and has eight permanent employees, according to NRG. The system went online in January 2011. | Photo by Rhea Landholm Read more about Jobs sweep into region with wind development

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Latino businesses are the highlight of a walking tour

Latino entrepreneurs in Grand Island are proud of their businesses, and, in an effort to attract non-Latino customers, invited the public to a recent walking tour.

The Grand Island Latino Businesses Walking Tour was held Friday, Oct. 20, in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. The event was organized by the Center for Rural Affairs’ Rural Enterprise Assistance Project (REAP) and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension.

“We wanted to facilitate a connection for those who might be skeptical in visiting Latino businesses in the area,” said Griselda Rendon, Latino loan specialist with the Center for Rural Affairs’ REAP Latino Business Center. “They want those community members who have not been in their business to know they provide excellent customer service, offer a friendly atmosphere, and will be delighted to have them come back.”

Participating businesses were asked to provide an introduction of who they are, where they came from, how long they had been in the community, and what made them decide to start a small business.

“All of the business owners who participated were excited, nervous, and very grateful,” Rendon said. “They all had a little something for those who came through their doors that day; it was either a sample of the product or a discount for future purchase.”

Participating businesses included: Variedades Esperanza, Latino Check Cashing, Beverly Bakery, Princess Closet, Jonny’s Video and Boutique, El Camaron inside of the laundromat on Fourth Street, Novedades Evelyn, Bamboo Restaurant, Blossom Nail and Hair Salon, The Enchanted Bakery, Turbo Auto Sales, Green Island, Claudia’s Repujado, Lilibeth Cleaning, Ferrer & Sa Multiservices, and We Love Pupusas.

All of the businesses have worked with REAP in some way, either requesting one-on-one technical assistance or attending trainings or Coffee Tables (a networking event). The businesses have been open from a few months, to three years, to more than 10 years.

“For the attendees, it was an opportunity to visit those small businesses in town where they have not been, and to take a peek at what is in the store,” Rendon said. “The tour provided security for when they revisit those businesses, and was also an opportunity to see a little bit of a different culture and make a connection with the business owners.”

This is the second year of the Latino Business Walking Tour. Last year, attendees thought it was a great way to show what Latino businesses look like.

“The walking tour is like an icebreaker; a very natural way of making an introduction and a connection with local businesses,” Rendon said. “We were asked to bring it back every year.”

To request one-on-one assistance, or to inquire about our loan products, contact your local business specialist. Read more about Latino businesses are the highlight of a walking tour

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Farm bill renewal is in sight

Congress will write a new farm bill in 2018. Initiatives that support conservation, beginning farmers, local and regional markets, and rural businesses are up for debate.

We believe the new farm bill should:

Protect and improve farm conservation programs – Stewardship of our land and water for future generations is a core tenet of our work at the Center for Rural Affairs. Programs that support working lands conservation help to steward our natural resources, while keeping land in production to support local economies. We’ll work to retain gains made in conservation programs in the last two farm bills, while also streamlining programs so they work better together.

Reform commodity programs – Under current policy, the very largest farms can collect crop insurance subsidies without limit. That blocks beginning farmers and ensures that, as the largest farms grow, they collect even more subsidies. We support a $50,000 cap on crop insurance premiums. One government report showed this cap would reduce subsidies to the largest 2.5 percent of farms, helping to level the playing field.

Protect investment in beginning farmers and entrepreneurial development – Entrepreneurial development is a proven strategy to create opportunity in rural America. Programs that support beginning farmers, local and regional markets, rural businesses, and small towns are all set to expire with the current farm bill. Extending, improving, and building on these programs are key strategies for driving change in small towns across the nation. Read more about Farm bill renewal is in sight

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Demystifying DACA and the DREAM Act

This fall, President Trump announced his intentions to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a stay from deportation for children under the age of 16 who were brought to the U.S. by their parents.

In response, Jordan Feyerherm, project organizer for the Center for Rural Affairs, recently discussed the impact of DACA with John White on the Rural Matters podcast.

“Typical DACA students came to the U.S. when they were, on average, around 6 years old; they went to school, made friends, and grew up just like other American children,” Feyerherm said. “The only difference was they didn't technically have citizenship in this country, which is why the DACA program was introduced; to let them continue working and living in this country.”

In order to stay in the U.S., DACA recipients must have a high school diploma and pursue higher education or enlist in the military. These individuals are now around 25 years old, are in school or have graduated recently, and are starting a family.

What are the differences between DACA and the DREAM Act?

The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act was introduced around the same time as DACA, and was enacted through executive order. It offers a permanent pathway to citizenship for people who came into this country as minors.

Congress is now considering the DREAM Act. If passed, DREAMers are allowed to stay in the country and work for two years. They would then get conditional status to be in the country, leading them to permanent residency or obtaining a green card, ultimately allowing them to become citizens.

“Even if the DREAM Act is passed, the process to become a citizen will be a long one,” Feyerherm said.

DACA, on the other hand, has no permanent pathway to citizenship; it’s a two-year period when individuals are exempt from deportation. Every DACA recipient receives a two-year work permit, which must be renewed every two years. Many requirements exist to renew, and applicants pay a $495 fee.

“The two-year period can be renewed, but it’s a very temporary situation which has led to a lot of uncertainty,” Feyerherm said.“DACA, on the other hand, simply gives these individuals the right to work, and has no pathway to citizenship.”

Some states have passed laws similar to the DREAM Act that allow DACA recipients to attend universities with in-state tuition. Nebraska is one state that allows this, and offers DACA recipients an opportunity to receive a driver's licence.

“States are providing these individuals with ways to operate in day-to-day life by having identification, and being able to drive and get to work,” Feyerherm said.

Who are the typical DACA recipients, and how do they impact rural America?

The majority of DACA recipients are professionals in their communities. In 2015, DACA recipients were making $17 per hour, on average. After DACA was passed, recipients saw their hourly wages increase by 42 percent; 6 percent started their own business; 21 percent purchased a car; 12 percent purchased a home; and 90 percent received a driver's license or state ID.

“By giving these people more access to the things that we, as citizens, take for granted, they’re able to greatly improve their lives, and therefore the community they live in,” Feyerherm said.

Since the 1990s, many small towns have experienced a population shift; a drain of population from small towns to bigger cities. Some small towns have reversed that trend by welcoming immigrants.

“Because of DACA, stability has been provided, and these people now have the ability to put down significant roots in small towns by starting businesses, working, and expanding the local economy,” Feyerherm said.

During a 10-year period, immigrants, including DACA recipients, have had an impressive impact on states like Nebraska. The Midwest state has had an average increase in residents’ earnings by $378 billion, and 100 jobs have been created.

“The mayor of Schuyler has said that if it wasn’t for Latinos, Schuyler would be a ghost town,” Feyerherm said. “That’s a community that’s now about 50 percent Hispanic.”

Other areas in Nebraska are experiencing similar growth.

“There was a resolution introduced earlier this year that called for the state legislature to oppose any federal action that would negatively impact DACA recipients,” Feyerherm said. “The mayor of Crete testified in support. Crete has seen a positive impact from DACA recipients on communities.”

What will become of DACA and the DREAM Act?

Along with aforementioned challenges, DACA recipients are faced with a new set of issues due to the President’s plan to phase out the program.

New applications are not being accepted into the program. Many immigration attorneys will recommend that people should not apply for DACA status. People who currently have DACA status had until Oct. 5 to renew, which would have given them another two years.

Feyerherm hopes to see the DREAM Act passed, though it may take time. A new act, called the SUCCEED Act, has been introduced by Republican lawmakers. This act would provide a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients, however it’s much stricter. SUCCEED would require 15 years to gain citizenship, as well as extreme vetting, which would reduce the amount of DACA recipients who would be able to apply.

Common misconceptions about DACA

Feyerherm dispels some myths about DACA recipients and immigrants in general.

Myth: DACA incentivises legal immigration.
Truth: DACA only applies to people who entered the U.S. under the age of 16, more than a decade ago. It was never intended to be available to people who entered the country without documentation after 2007.

Myth: DACA recipients don’t pay taxes.
Truth: Every time people make purchases, they pay sales tax. Employers withhold income tax.

Myth: Undocumented immigrants can access Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, as well as Social Security and other types of welfare benefits.
Truth: They pay into those systems, but can’t receive any of the benefits.

Myth: People with DACA status can attend college or university for free.
Truth: In many cases, this is the opposite. Some DACA recipients are charged international student rates, which are the most expensive college tuition rates. Others will receive out-of-state rates, and there are a few universities that will give in-state rates. Recipients are not eligible for financial aid; they’re not eligible for any type of federal grants or loans to help them go to college. The only type of scholarships they can pursue are privately funded.

Listen to the podcast

You can listen to the episode here: http://ruralmatters.libsyn.com/

Also, it can be downloaded and you can subscribe to Rural Matters via:

Pictured: Hastings, Nebraska, is just one community where Center for Rural Affairs staff members promote inclusion by hosting leadership trainings that focus on growth, diversity, and demographics. | Photo by Rhea Landholm Read more about Demystifying DACA and the DREAM Act

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Federal funding supports water quality efforts in Iowa

This blogpost is the second in our series looking at water quality in Iowa. Read our first entry looking into the upcoming 2018 legislative session here.

Iowa residents who care about water quality place a lot of pressure on their state legislators to make a difference for the long-term. In 2017, Iowa’s state budget delivered just $10.6 million dollars toward the Iowa Water Quality Initiative, an increase of $975,000 in a tight budget year.

However, a number of the largest efforts currently underway in the state are federally funded or started on a national level.

The largest investment in conservation comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) where Iowa has received more than $4 billion since 1995, including more than $336 million in 2015. Under CRP, farmers and landowners receive conservation payments to convert cropland to grassland over a specific length of time. Despite this large investment, water quality in Iowa has continued to decline.

The Nutrient Reduction Strategy started as a state level plan to address the growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Coordinated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient task force convened in 1997 to examine root causes of the dead zone and engage 12 states within the Mississippi River basin for solutions. More than 20 years later, the dead zone continues to wax and wane, reaching its largest size to date in 2017, spanning more than 87,000 square miles, and is roughly the size of New Jersey.

Flooding that swamped eastern Iowa in 2008 resulted in a federal disaster declaration that, in turn, led to significant funding in flood mitigation projects across the state. The Iowa Legislature allocated $1.3 million to establish the Iowa Flood Center in spring 2009, and, less than a year later, drew $500,000 in research funding from the National Science Foundation. Housed at the University of Iowa, the Iowa Flood Center provides sophisticated technical analysis and modeling on flooding throughout the state through the Iowa Flood Information System. This system builds on a network of stream gauge monitoring by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and U.S. Geological Survey to provide a higher resolution of data for Iowa.

Iowa was included in the relief package passed by Congress in 2010 after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the eastern seaboard. Iowa received $97 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for the Water Quality Initiative currently administered through state agencies in conjunction with the Iowa Flood Center. The money funds projects in nine targeted watersheds with the goal of retaining water on the landscape rather than in streams and rivers, reducing flows during heavy rain events. Such projects also improve water quality.

Another source of federal funding for water quality comes from EPA 319. This special fund within the EPA is for state and local efforts to restore and protect impaired waters with significant nonpoint source pollution. Funding is prioritized to bodies of water proven to be impaired and emphasizes a watershed approach. Without water quality data monitoring, Iowa cannot apply for this funding. Restorations underway for Easter Lake in Polk County and Clear Creek in east central Iowa are examples of projects funded by EPA 319.

The upcoming 2018 farm bill could present additional sources of federal funding for conservation and water quality projects.

A recently introduced bill from a bipartisan group of senators looks to expand 2014 farm bill “sodsaver” provisions from six midwestern states to nationwide. The sodsaver provision reduces crop insurance premiums by 50 percent on land where native sod has been plowed for planting crops.

Funding levels for Conservation Title programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentive Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program will be set in the next farm bill, along with requirements for the Conservation Reserve Program. All of these programs promote perennials on the landscape and working conservation lands which advance water quality.

Addressing water quality in Iowa will take a number of creative financing options, and federal programs already play a significant part. Underlying many of these efforts is an effective, tested framework to shape water quality at the watershed level, one watershed at a time.

Tune in for our next entry in this series looking at county and local sources of funding for water quality in Iowa. Read more about Federal funding supports water quality efforts in Iowa

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From the desk of the Executive Director: Food security takes root in Native communities

Six years ago, three members of our staff started meeting with representatives of the Santee Sioux Nation in Northeast Nebraska. The conversation centered on building food security for tribal members. 

In-depth conversation and careful planning helped everyone who came to the table build trust with one another. Through dialogue, it became clear there was an opportunity to collaborate with local community members.

We started our first year with a simple approach: help people in communities with low incomes, a high diabetes rate, and limited access to fresh foods grow enough to supplement their food budgets, have some extra to sell, and improve nutrition of family and neighbors. Perhaps some could build that into businesses. We held gardening classes, gave demonstrations of how to use fresh foods at home, advised family gardeners, and started a farmers market.

The project later expanded to the Omaha Nation two hours southeast of Santee. The work continues on both reservations today, attracting support and participation from neighboring communities, as well.

As part of the project, community members have now established more than 300 backyard and container gardens, and have launched farmers markets in the communities of Santee, Walthill, and Macy. This progress has led to even more community involvement and local ownership. 

The 10-year vision of the project team is to reach full food security in every household on each reservation. In the next two years, the goal is to expand access to fresh, nutritious food through gardening, and to increase community capacity to grow, prepare, preserve, and use fresh produce. Community members now tell us the project is helping foster community and cultural connections through gardening. Those connections include youth programs using food for cultural education and diversion from drug abuse.

This work requires a long-term investment. Success at the community level has helped motivate renewed and increased investment from core funders. Recent awards from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Newman’s Own Foundation, and the Peter Kiewit Foundation ensure the project will continue for the next three years. 

Like all of our work at the Center, this effort is grounded in a sense of justice combined with a belief that the future can be brighter. The challenges we tackle often require patience, and the path to success can be long, winding, and sometimes steep. The prospect of achieving our goals can often seem impossible until we have arrived. 

We are committed to continuing the pursuit of justice for these – and all – rural communities. Read more about From the desk of the Executive Director: Food security takes root in Native communities

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