Rural Monitor: USDA Program Helps New Faces in the Region

The rural American Midwest is changing. Anna Boiko-Weyrauch for PRI’s The World reports that Latino and immigrant farmers are conquering cultural and language barriers in their efforts to become farmers. Latino farmers are not unfamiliar sights in locations like Texas, but in the Midwest it is not as common.

A USDA-funded pilot program began in Nebraska and Missouri for Latino and immigrant farmers in January. The program delivers Saturday workshops at a Missouri library to provide training on a range of topics concerning the business side of running a farm. These topics include business plans, networking, and applying for loans. The goal is for farmers to use the tools and to pass them along to other up-and-coming agriculture leaders. Classes are underway at a Nebraska library as well, taught by Center staff.

This program also seeks to level the playing field for Latino and immigrant farmers, who can face discrimination. Boiko-Weyrauch notes, “The USDA is now compensating women and Latino farmers across the country who can claim that they were unfairly denied loans at some point from the 1980s up until 2000.”

Cultivating a business environment that welcomes farmers and rural entrepreneurs of all stripes is essential to securing a prosperous rural America. As part of this effort, the Center did a groundbreaking report: Barriers to Latino and Hispanic Farmers and Ranchers in Nebraska in 2011. Read more about Rural Monitor: USDA Program Helps New Faces in the Region

Newsletter

Small Loans Now Available from the Farm Service Agency

The US Department of Agriculture is taking steps to address the credit needs of young, beginning, and small farmers and ranchers. The Farm Service Agency (FSA) will now be offering a streamlined loan program for producers with smaller credit needs than the existing FSA credit programs.

The new microloan fills an important niche for farmers who use smaller equipment on less land and often serve local food markets. The program features a simplified application process and will require less paperwork.

The microloans have a maximum loan amount of $35,000. They are intended to cover smaller purchases like seeds, animals, small equipment, and marketing supplies. To secure the loan, collateral is required. It has to be farm property worth at least 100 percent of the loan amount. Third party co-signers can be used if needed.

To be eligible, a farmer must have prior experience working on a farm. Applicants will be given flexibility in meeting FSA’s farm management requirement. Examples include small business experience, participating in an apprenticeship, or having prior involvement with an agricultural organization such as 4-H, FFA, farm incubator programs, and community-based farm training organizations.

FSA will not require an itemized cash-flow budget for microloan applicants. This requirement made it difficult for diversified fruit and vegetable growers and community-supported agriculture farmers to access FSA’s lending programs.

Farmers who are interested in applying for an FSA microloan should contact their local FSA office. Visit http://fsa.usda.gov and pick “State Offices” from the menu. Read more about Small Loans Now Available from the Farm Service Agency

Newsletter

Hot & Dry, Cold & Wet, or Both?

Critically hot and dry weather hit much of the country in 2012, including the Corn Belt. The East Coast endured floods from “superstorm” Sandy and received record snowfall in New England.

2012 marked the first year climate scientists described such events as part of a changing climate attributed to global warming. A warmer atmosphere both increases evaporation and holds more water. For parts of the world already susceptible to drought and heat, or to heavy storms, a warmer atmosphere can make those conditions occur more frequently and more severely.

I watched these dry conditions unfold in northeast Nebraska last year. The warm and dry 2011-12 winter, combined with an exceptionally warm and dry spring, resulted in no soil moisture at planting time. The hot and dry summer burned up most dryland corn. High night-time temperatures cut into seed-set and plant health for some crops and killed some feedlot cattle unable to cool off.

Irrigation barely kept up with corn and soybean water demand. Heavy pumping caused groundwater levels to drop, leaving some livestock wells and rural households without water. Lack of moisture through the fall and winter has not replenished surface soil moisture or those deep aquifers.

It’s obvious farmers and rural residents will have to deal with global warming and the climatic changes that will – and are – affecting them. The weather of 2012 represents not just “variability” that farmers and their technology have managed to endure over the past 50 years. It’s a shift to a “new normal” that demands changes in farming practices and farm policy.

Farm policy must encourage changes in practices – the way farmers conserve their soil and water, and the crops they plant. Subsidies that discourage diversity and innovation will make global warming impacts worse. Reduction of conservation incentives will make any weather extremes more likely to cause both immediate and long-term damage to soil and water quality. Failure to encourage carbon sequestration in the soil ignores agriculture’s greatest tool to reduce – or even reverse – atmospheric carbon levels.

Our new report, Banking on Carbon, describes policy options and farming practices that can affect farm resilience and atmospheric carbon levels. It’s due out next month. Read more about Hot & Dry, Cold & Wet, or Both?

Newsletter

Better Focus Needed on Drought Mitigation Solutions

Last summer’s drought brought significant challenges to farmers, ranchers, and rural people across the country – challenges that have led to disputes over water.

In Nebraska, the Lower Elkhorn Natural Resource District witnessed water shortages and significant irrigation and domestic well conflicts during the 2012 irrigation season. The Center’s hometown of Lyons is in the Lower Elkhorn district.

In response, the district’s Board of Directors recently voted to stop all new irrigation development. They will implement an irrigation allocation system for cropland in the most problematic areas of the district.

We applaud their efforts. These challenges are not likely to be short term, making it critically important to take steps that protect our water resource.

This year is chalking up to be just as challenging according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Large parts of the middle of the country are still in exceptional to extreme drought conditions. Nebraska has the largest percentage in the exceptional drought category.

It is critical we begin to focus on better drought mitigation solutions, not only here in Nebraska, but across the country. Thinking we can irrigate our way out of persistent drought is not the solution.

Predictions indicate by the end of this century – within our children’s lifetime – the Nebraska town we call home will experience an average temperature increase of 5 to 7 degrees. Research suggests that if this warming trend continues, we will see faster paced cycles of evaporation and rain leading to more droughts and floods.

This is our call to action. We must step forward to protect and steward our resources for generations to come. Read more about Better Focus Needed on Drought Mitigation Solutions

Newsletter

Can-Do Attitude and Hard Work Revives Business

Fernando Lopez owns El Tapatio Mexican Restaurant and GDL Motors in Columbus, Nebraska. In February, he was named the Center for Rural Affairs’ “Entrepreneur of the Year.”

Fernando began working at El Tapatio in 1995 with his wife Teresa. When El Tapatio’s owner died in 1997, the Lopez’s moved to Fremont, Nebraska. El Tapatio changed management a couple of times before Lopez was offered full ownership in late 1999. When the couple arrived to see what they were getting into, they found the restaurant in shambles.

“They let it go, but I thought, with good management, it could be better,” Lopez said. “I saw a great city here with an enormous growth possibility.” In 2000 Fernando took over as manager of El Tapatio. He worked the remainder of that year to negotiate a loan with the help of his landlord and mentor, the late John French, to get full ownership of the business Sept. 1, 2000.

With a menu makeover, fresh staff, and some renovations, El Tapatio came back to life. Recently, the restaurant received its 7th recognition as the Best Mexican Restaurant in Columbus. In 2012, Fernando also opened GDL Motors in Columbus, a small used car lot. You can find good vehicles at excellent prices there.

Fernando is an asset for his community. He served for many years as president of the East Central District Health Department and has been one of the organizers of the Columbus Hispanic Festival. Recently, his hard work was recognized by an award from the Latino American Commission.

He’s a great supporter of REAP, our small business development program. As a Hispanic leader, he often refers clients to the Hispanic Business Center. Fernando commented to a lender in Columbus, “I can go to a financial institution to get a loan, but what I like about REAP is that I get involved in the project. They help me think about things I never considered in the past – creating a business plan, working through financial projections, having short-term and long-term goals. That has a lot of value to me and my businesses.”

Find out more about REAP here. Read more about Can-Do Attitude and Hard Work Revives Business

Newsletter

Pioneers Still Relevant for Today’s Rural America

All who work to build a bright future in rural America can draw inspiration from the pioneers, who carved farms, businesses, and communities on the prairies more than a century ago.

The relevance of their story to rural leaders today was stated eloquently by Paul Hosford of Albion, Nebraska. His story is excerpted and slightly edited below to fit this space. The full essay appeared in the Feb 1, 2010, Omaha World Herald.

The pioneers were, of course, people just like us, good and bad, skilled and unskilled, successful and unsuccessful. But in looking back at those who succeeded, certain qualities become apparent that not only created successful communities, but also can help revitalize them today.

Not to romanticize, but the successful pioneers were courageous. They persevered. They made sacrifices to realize their dreams. The pioneers were builders, innovators and entrepreneurs. They built farmsteads and dry-goods stores, mills, roads and bridges. They used the latest technology everywhere they could.

The pioneers cared about community. They created organizations that brought people together to quilt and to husk, to sing and to pray. The pioneers weren’t afraid of diversity – people from vastly different places, with vastly different customs and languages, worked together to settle the Plains.

The pioneers didn’t just farm and raise livestock – they were at the same time carpenters, teachers, politicians and planners. The pioneers were visionaries. They could see in their hearts what the future could be and understood that through hard work and focus, they could achieve their visions. The pioneers were optimists – they didn’t let the challenges of rural life dissuade them.

Imagine if more people in rural areas could once again be as inspired by a vision of what the future holds, as reluctant to let challenges stop them, as open to new ideas, as willing to do what has to be done as their predecessors were.

We’d still have farms and ranches, but we’d also have more green spaces, cleaner air and safer water. We’d still have co-ops and sale barns, but we’d also have a wide range of businesses utilizing technology to do business globally.

We’d include more women in our decision-making processes and seek to recruit and retain entire families instead of just businesses. We’d recognize the vital importance of bringing people together and thus do more to incorporate the arts and humanities into the development process.

The pioneers proved that people with vision and determination can reshape life on the Great Plains, something we desperately need to do again today. What they failed to teach us was that reshaping is a never-ending process.

By reclaiming the best of our pioneer heritage, by applying past lessons to the future, we can, like the original pioneers, make rural areas prosper. Read more about Pioneers Still Relevant for Today’s Rural America

Newsletter

Landowners and Developers Improve Energy Projects

A proposed clean energy transmission project, the Rock Island Clean Line Project, will transport up to 3,500 megawatts of renewable energy. The route goes from Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Minnesota, extending 500 miles across Iowa and western Illinois.

Some landowners and farm groups in Illinois have shown concern over the Rock Island Clean Line project. They worry it might interfere with center pivot irrigation or will remove valuable land from production. Or that Clean Line will use eminent domain to acquire whatever land it wishes to use for the project.

These concerns are understandable, as the land in question is often the livelihood of the owners. Clean Line is taking steps to address some of these concerns, including forming an agricultural impact mitigation plan with the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

This plan is meant to limit possible infringement on agricultural operations. And it speaks to Clean Line’s willingness to consider the concerns of local farmers and landowners. Some noted that Clean Line has purchased nearly 3,000 acres in easements – a right to use a portion of property without owning it – in Illinois, far too much land to take out of production. Since Clean Line will attempt to follow existing infrastructure routes and use monopoles in construction, only about 12 acres will be removed from production of the entire 3,000 acres.

Clean Line’s application for public utility status in Illinois has met with opposition as well. Opponent’s concerns primarily fall on the use of eminent domain, a process that can frustrate landowners. It appears to be a David vs. Goliath scenario of a small landowner fighting against a private company. Eminent domain can’t be used at-will. It requires that a project is needed and in the public interest for use to be warranted, as well as a review process.

These concerns are not unfounded. People should care about these processes. They should want to have their voices heard. Landowners who openly speak to utilities may be surprised that their suggestions and concerns receive greater consideration than they expected.

Developers like Clean Line have shown great interest in constructing an efficient project that delivers a product. It is in their interest to do so by working with groups, rather than against them, to achieve that goal. Voicing concerns and working with developers to address them only improves projects. Unwavering opposition only brings such conversations to a screeching halt. 

Find more information on the proposed Rock Island Clean Line here. Read more about Landowners and Developers Improve Energy Projects

  • Clean Energy
Newsletter

Opportunity on the Line

Tapping America’s vast wind resources requires a commitment to building high capacity transmission infrastructure. An improved electrical grid will create rural jobs in both transmission and wind industries, bring more wind energy online and help secure a clean energy future in regions rich in wind potential.

Unfortunately, the existing transmission network was not designed to penetrate lightly populated regions of the Midwest and Great Plains, a region brimming with wind energy potential. Instead, the grid was designed to connect large, individual generating units with specific population centers. Consequently, states with the greatest wind development potential are leaving too much on the table when it comes to economic development and energy independence.

Transmission lines of 400 kV or larger are needed in greater numbers if these states hope to integrate more wind power into their energy portfolio. But a recent Center for Rural Affairs report (http://files.cfra.org/pdf/OpportunityontheLine.pdf) found that current transmission infrastructure in the ten states with the highest potential for wind development have only six percent of such high capacity transmission lines - 2,348 of 37,736 miles nationally.

Moreover, of the 3,710 miles of lines with carrying capacity greater than 600 kV across the country, only nine miles are located in states that lead the nation in wind potential, accounting for less than 0.3 percent of the total. More efficient use of infrastructure now in place is a crucial first step, and commitment to an improved, expanded grid must come next. Read more about Opportunity on the Line

  • Clean Energy
Weekly column

Wanted: Aspiring & Beginning Women Farmers

Center for Rural Affairs and Women, Food, and Agriculture Network seek passionate, driven, committed women farmers for activities to cultivate thriving farm businesses. Aspiring and beginning women farmers in Nebraska have an opportunity to become successful farmers and business owners.

Exciting opportunities are available:

  • Farm Dreams workshop open to aspiring women farmers (exploring a farm career but not yet farming). Create a vision for your farm business, inventory your resources, and evaluate your next steps. Learn from experts and experienced women farmers to prepare for a successful career launch.
  • Intensive business planning course open to beginning women farmers (with up to 10 years farm experience). Create and perfect a business plan, with support from expert teachers. Farm growth and business advancement are yours to seize.
  • Mentorships with an experienced woman farmer are available for exceptional women aspiring and beginning farmers. Strong commitment to learning and passion for farming are essential. Protégés will carry on a proud tradition of women working the land.

For details to advance your farm career, visit our Women Farmers page or contact Kathie Starkweather, kathies@cfra.org or 402.617.7946. Read more about Wanted: Aspiring & Beginning Women Farmers

  • Farm PolicyBeginning Farmer & Rancher
Newsletter

Don't Slash Investment in Small Town Nebraska

At the Center for Rural Affairs we’ve learned, from experience, that entrepreneurial development serves small town Nebraska better than other economic development strategies. Traditional industrial recruitment simply does not have the economic heft that entrepreneurs create in rural communities. Entrepreneurship adds jobs, raises incomes, creates wealth, and improves the quality of life of local citizens in myriad ways.

Economic development policy in Nebraska should more fully recognize the importance of entrepreneurship as a rural development strategy. To its credit, the state has invested in loans, training and business planning assistance to foster entrepreneurship and the innovation, creativity and economic opportunities that it creates.

And for years we’ve fought to defend and grow that program and the support it provides microenterprise - small businesses with 10 or fewer employees. However, a bill introduced this year in the Unicameral, LB 475, would allow economic development officials to slash investment in microenterprise by two-thirds, without any additional Legislative approval, from $1 million to $300,000 annually.

The loans, training and business planning made possible by this investment in prior years, and the private and federal money leveraged with it, will shrink and Nebraska small businesses, jobs and tax revenues will be lost if LB 475 is adopted. Read more about Don't Slash Investment in Small Town Nebraska

  • Small Towns
Weekly column

Small Loans, Big Help for Beginning Farmers

Small farmers, especially minority, socially disadvantaged and beginning farmers and ranchers often have trouble qualifying for small loans from banks or other lenders. But now, thanks to a new USDA loan program, beginning farmers and ranchers are eligible to apply for micro-loans of up to $35,000, designed to help bolster family-run farms and ranches and help disadvantaged individuals and military veterans seeking to start a farm or ranch.

These smaller loans are intended to cover smaller purchases, such as seeds, animals, small equipment, or other investments that beginning farmers and ranchers require to finance their operations. The loans will also help farmers and ranchers seeking to grow niche or organic crops to sell directly to ethnic and farmers markets, or contribute to community-supported agriculture programs.

Applicants must secure micro-loans with collateral in the form of farm or ranch property worth at least 100 percent of the loan or provide a third-party pledge of security or co-signer when necessary. The application process is simplified and requires less paperwork than traditional farm loans.

We applaud USDA for this initiative and what it could mean to beginning farmers and ranchers as well as local food systems throughout rural America. Farmers and ranchers interested in applying should contact their local Farm Service Agency office. Likewise, the Center for Rural Affairs has established a hotline where farmers and ranchers can obtain the latest information on this and other USDA programs – just call 402-687-2100 and ask for Traci Bruckner or Virginia Meyer. Read more about Small Loans, Big Help for Beginning Farmers

  • Farm PolicyBeginning Farmer & Rancher
Weekly column

Connecting Communities

Rural communities often struggle to find new and readily available economic opportunities. In the past decade, however, a new source of employment and revenue has seen fantastic growth. It seems the answer was blowin’ in the wind. Renewable energy, especially wind energy, has proved to be a very successful venture. Investment in wind energy helps rural areas immensely. It provides employment, and various types of revenue can flow into a community from a project.

Construction of wind farms require locally available materials and component parts that are manufactured in the US. And the tax revenue from wind farms goes back into counties--meaning more money for schools, and other community services.

Although replete with natural resources and space, there are obstacles to taking full advantage of the potential that wind energy represents. The primary obstacle is one of connection. Production from wind farms can sometimes be too great for nearby communities, and the infrastructure to move that energy elsewhere is either inadequate or missing altogether. Improved transmission infrastructure is essential to alleviating this restriction.

A higher capacity grid means the wind farms have a place to send what would have been excess energy to places that need it. With more outlets to send energy, turbines can be allowed to reach their full potential, ultimately increasing the incentive to build more generators to tap wind potential. Transmission projects are sprouting up across the Midwest, and getting involved with these projects will help rural people insure they get connected to economic opportunity. Read more about Connecting Communities

  • Clean Energy
Weekly column

Rural Montana Hurt by Tax Holiday

Resource development, specifically the oil and gas exploration happening now in Eastern Montana, often causes a rapid influx of new people moving into rural communities. Large numbers of new residents can strain existing infrastructure - housing, education, law enforcement and public safety such as fire and emergency medical response. Current oil and gas exploration has also pushed our road and water infrastructure to the breaking point.

In order to deal with the strains that come with developing Montana’s oil and gas resources, rural communities need to share in the revenue created. However, Montana’s existing oil and gas tax holiday prevents funding from getting to rural communities that need it. The result is crumbling roads and bridges due to heavy use; an insufficient police, fire and rescue force; overcrowded classrooms, and inadequate, unavailable or unaffordable housing across much of Eastern Montana.

Since oil and gas companies are creating much of the strain, it makes sense that they should contribute more to fixing the problems. In the last 5 years, $73 million that could have gone to address these challenges in Eastern Montana’s rural cities and small towns went instead to record profits for oil companies.

Capturing this revenue is crucial to enabling communities to meet the needs of their residents, and ensure prosperity for everyone living in Eastern Montana. Read more about Rural Montana Hurt by Tax Holiday

  • Small TownsCommunity Development
Weekly column

Wind Power Needs Infrastructure

Renewable energy showed fantastic growth in 2012, accounting for 55% of new electricity generating capacity built last year. The energy produced is keeping pace with the price of fossil fuels, and shows potential to become even cheaper in the future. The Great Plains has a bright future in renewable energy sources like wind, especially in rural areas where the wind blows and space is abundant. 

Energy development here provides a strong return to local communities. Wind farms feed local economies and generate local tax revenue, which means more money for valuable local services like schools, fire and rescue, and police; while also stimulating local business that provides materials for construction and services to workers constructing and maintaining wind turbines.

One critical roadblock remains, however… the lack of transmission infrastructure. Like wind, transmission construction also provides jobs and revenue to many rural communities. But areas that have great wind potential often lack a way to get power from where the wind blows to where it’s needed most. Without available transmission, projects will not have a clear path for getting their energy to market.

If you’re interested in transmission, one state project to check out is the Minnesota-Iowa line. This line would run from the Lakefield Junction state near Trimont, MN to Winnebago, MN and then south to Iowa; expanding renewable energy and small-town economic opportunities along the way. For more information about this and other projects, visit the Center for Rural Affairs’ clean energy transmission database at (http://www.cfra.org/clean-energy-transmission-map/line/minnesota-iowa). Read more about Wind Power Needs Infrastructure

Weekly column

Expanding Health Care Coverage is a Smart Investment

Hard-working Montana families need the security of quality health care. A bill in the legislature, HB 458, could help 69,000 Montanans gain that security. These people are your neighbors - farmers and ranchers, small business owners, retirees, and entrepreneurs that don’t get health insurance from their employers.

HB 458 would expand Montana’s Medicaid program, and create an estimated 12,000 to 16,000 jobs over the next 8 years. Over $2 billion would return to Montana’s economy in that same time period as a result of increased economic activity in the health sector.

If you have an emergency, you want help nearby. The financial security of our rural hospitals and clinics depends on expanding health insurance to more Montanans. Over 25% of rural Montanans are uninsured, and the pressure of providing unpaid care means more rural hospitals and clinics are in danger of closing.

Right now, Montana already pays hospitals for 30% of their unpaid patient care. In other words, we're already paying for the uninsured, so they might as well have the security and better health that comes with insurance.

To top it off, 100% of the cost is covered thru 2016 to expand Medicaid. This amount will gradually decrease permanently to 90%. Between the additional revenue from a stronger health sector and the savings Montana will see due to less unpaid care, HB 458 could actually save the state money.

Expanding health care coverage through HB 458 makes good sense and is a smart investment in Montana’s future. Read more about Expanding Health Care Coverage is a Smart Investment

  • Rural Health
Weekly column

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