Living, Loving, and Working for an Even Better Rural America

It was nearing the end of November and the first half of my senior year of college. The semester and two jobs had left me groggy. I scrolled through my email inbox deleting the spam until I came across a subject line reading, “Nice letter in the Mirror-Sun.”

A letter-to-the-editor I had written to the Lyons Mirror-Sun newspaper had appeared that week. It was about whether or not to tear down the old opera house in my hometown. The email was from Brian Depew, Assistant Executive Director and Director of Policy at the Center for Rural Affairs. I didn’t know who he was and had only recently learned about the Center and its mission.

Brian’s email encouraged my interest in rural issues. He told me to look at the internship opportunities at the Center. Unfortunately, the opera house was torn down. But I did check into those internship opportunities.
 
I spent that summer in Lyons learning about rural America and seeing my hometown in a new light. My walk down the brick Main Street was filled with anticipation every day during my internship. Never before had I worked in a place where every person was so fully invested. Skip forward nearly five years later, and this is why I still work at the Center. 

Not only does the Center have an admirable mission, they have admirable people working for them. They are the kind of people that advocate for a better community by working on federal policy late into the day only to rush out the door for a city council meeting. 

I can summarize the Center for Rural Affairs this way: We live in rural America. We love rural America. We work to make it even better. Read more about Living, Loving, and Working for an Even Better Rural America

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Congress Approves Energy Tax Credits and Saves 37,000 Jobs

With the last-minute fiscal cliff deal, most of the country breathed a sigh of relief. But those concerned about rural communities and renewable energy had an additional reason to celebrate the deal: the extension of the Investment Tax Credit and Production Tax Credit.

Both are vital tools for an industry that has proven beneficial to rural communities, especially in the Upper Midwest and Great Plains. The wind industry has helped provide new employment opportunities, sources of revenue, and additional sources of income to farmers and ranchers.

The extension saved an estimated 37,000 jobs out of the total 75,000 employed by the wind industry in the US, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. Construction of turbines and associated parts has led to new manufacturing booms in several states. Right now about 60 percent of component parts for turbines are made in the United States. Saving over a third of wind energy jobs maintains that additional economic opportunity for rural areas.

Other benefits for communities flow from the presence of projects and factories – new revenue sources from property taxes, which can amount to $189 million annually the county tax base. That new income for rural communities means more funding for the fire and police departments, public schools, infrastructure, and other public services. Land-lease payments for landowners in those communities average about $10,000 per turbine each year.

The extension changes the credits slightly and for the better. Developers no longer need to finish construction in 2013 to qualify. Instead they will qualify if construction begins this year.

The PTC continues to provide a return based on the energy produced by a project – about 2.2 cents for every kilowatt-hour the turbine produces during the first decade of operation. Some developers can instead choose to take the Investment Tax Credit, which returns some of the initial investment in projects immediately.

The extension is a boon to companies that were uncertain over the future of projects last year. 2012 was a good year for wind energy in the US. Expectations for new installations totaled 12,000 megawatts, but early in the year the actual total was around 50,000 megawatts. So far, wind energy has contributed about 35 percent of all newly installed generating capacity in the United States over the past five years. It has added more than coal and nuclear combined, coming in second only to natural gas. But uncertainty over the extension of the ITC and PTC made 2013 seem bleak.

The wind energy industry has shown great potential, and not just in energy output. It has shown an ability to create new domestic manufacturing jobs, provide additional income, and reinvest in small communities through new revenue sources. A short extension is better than none, but greater stability in the industry would help investors feel secure when they consider future projects and investments in rural America. Read more about Congress Approves Energy Tax Credits and Saves 37,000 Jobs

  • Clean Energy
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New Farmers Find Thriving Opportunities in Niche & Specialty Markets

Family farming has long been an important contributor to community and economic vitality in rural America. But the opportunities in conventional family farming are shrinking. Young Americans who want to start 21st century family farms are increasingly looking to opportunities in niche and specialty markets.

A new Union of Concerned Scientists report lends support to that approach. It found that Minnesota and Vermont organic dairy farms contributed more to employment, income, and gross state product per dollar value of production than conventional dairies. Organic farms were also more profitable than conventional farms. The net farm revenue per cow of organic farms exceeded that of conventional farms of a similar size in Minnesota. In Vermont, it exceeded that of both big and small conventional farms.

Organic milk production is defying the trend toward bigger and fewer farms. The number of cows per organic farm actually decreased in recent years to an average of 63 in Vermont and 80 in Minnesota. This is roughly half the size of conventional dairies. The drop in size followed tightening of USDA organic standards requiring access to pasture throughout the grazing season.

Specialty markets like organic offer the opportunity to produce higher value products by substituting skilled labor and management for capital. They provide a strategy to squeeze more earnings out of each cow, each acre, and each dollar. That’s a good fit for beginning farmers, who generally have more management and skills than cows, acres, or dollars.

It’s also a good fit for small farms. The Union of Concerned Scientists report profiles farms that have used organic markets to sustain their small operations, including the 160 acre, 90 cow Full Circle Farm of Seymour, Wisconsin. The farm is operated by long-time Center for Rural Affairs supporters Rick and Valerie Adamski. They are now helping the next generation get started on their farm through a partnership with 27-year-old beginning farmer Andy Jaworski. He and the Adamskis have split inputs, labor, and revenue through a milk-share agreement.

Organic farming isn’t the solution for every family farm or rural community. But small entrepreneurship – local community members seeking new ways to create 21st century opportunities – is a big part of the solution for all of rural America. Our communities no longer have Main Streets teaming with retail businesses serving small farms on every section selling commodities.

To thrive, we must search out the new opportunities. We must support our new entrepreneurs who find those opportunities, even if they do things a little differently. And we must participate in and shape change so we can hang onto things that matter – strong communities, good neighbors, and genuine economic opportunity for rural people. Read more about New Farmers Find Thriving Opportunities in Niche & Specialty Markets

  • Farm Policy
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A Savory REAP Business Just Down the Street

When I first started at the Center for Rural Affairs, I made sure to bring my lunch from home. I figured there wouldn’t be a lot of options in Lyons, the Center’s hometown. So it was a pleasant surprise to find Soup-N-More, a natural foods grocery, just down the street.

As the name suggests, it all began with soup. A few years ago Rebecka Fleischman wanted to do something with her thanksgiving leftovers. So she started dehydrating her own vegetables, throwing in some spices and giving away these ready-made soup mixes to family and friends.

Word soon spread and Rebecka developed a small customer base. She remembers traveling to their first food show and selling out within hours. “That’s when I realized we had a business,” she said.

Rebecka and husband Allen started by converting the living room into a commercial kitchen. But they quickly outgrew the space. And that’s when they turned to REAP for help. 

The Center’s Rural Enterprise Assistance Project (REAP) is a small business development program unlike any other. REAP is Nebraska’s largest supporter of microenterprise, assisting entrepreneurs often when no other lending capital is available. REAP provides new and existing businesses with: technical assistance, financing, networking, and business training. 

REAP worked with Soup-N-More to secure a USDA micro business loan to purchase a storefront building. It was important to act quickly while the building was still available, so REAP loan specialists expedited the process. In under two weeks the Fleischman’s had the key. 

Today their commercial kitchen and natural food store supports four employees, seven local farmers, and over a dozen local vendors. Over the internet, they sell their products all over the country and to several foreign countries. With REAP’s help, Soup-N-More is now a thriving business and a rural success story – and lucky for me, it’s right here in Lyons! 

You can find out what kind of resources REAP offers here or by contacting a REAP representative. Read more about A Savory REAP Business Just Down the Street

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Community Development Resource Guide

The Community Development Resource Guide is an easy reference document. It contains key references to assist communities. You will be led to grants, foundations, even low-interest loans through the guide.

The guide can be used many ways. We recommend you use it in conjunction with strong strategic planning to help determine exactly what resources your community needs. Read more about Community Development Resource Guide

Opportunity on the Line: Transmission Remains Obstacle to Clean Energy

The electric power transmission network was not designed to penetrate lightly populated regions of the Upper Midwest and Great Plains, a region brimming with wind energy potential.  Instead, our grid was designed to connect large, individual generating units with discreet population centers. It is abundantly clear that those states with the greatest wind resources – and therefore the greatest development potential – are leaving a lot on the table when it comes to economic development and energy independence within their respective states.  Read more about Opportunity on the Line: Transmission Remains Obstacle to Clean Energy

Intern Louie Brings the Power

We extend a big welcome to Louie Nelsen, our new energy policy intern. Louie, fresh from the Nebraska Senate campaign, is a Wayne State College graduate and a Norfolk, Nebraska native.

He’ll spend his time doing research for our clean energy transmission database, penning outreach material related to clean energy, and organizing around transmission issues on a regional level.

We’re excited to have him on board. You can reach him at lucasn@cfra.org. Read more about Intern Louie Brings the Power

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Iowa Town Reaps Benefits by Investing in Local Problem

The town of Correctionville decided to right one major wrong in their com¬munity: the lack of a grocery store. Tim Gallagher of the Sioux City Journal reports the town has been without a grocery store since a fire destroyed the only one over three years ago.
 
A new community-supported, 6,000 square foot grocery store called The Mercantile opened on January 30. The store is the result of a business plan from members of the Correctionville Economic Development Corporation. Gallagher explained, “The idea involved soliciting donations and grants before building a store. The organization would then find a manager who would own the goods on the shelves and run the operation.”

Such a business venture could take $500,000 to get off the ground, according to one community member. Correctionville is a town with 824 resi¬dents, so the risk would be large. With a 10-year lease, the manager of The Mercantile will pay the economic development group back. At the end of the lease the McCreas will own the operation.  Read more about Iowa Town Reaps Benefits by Investing in Local Problem

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USDA Establishes Microloan Program Aimed at Small Operators

The US Department of Agriculture has established a microloan program targeted at helping small farm operators. Microloans of up to $35,000 will be available. The Associated Press reports that Agriculture Department Secretary Tom Vilsack said the program is “designed to help bolster family-run farms and help disadvantaged farmers and military veterans seeking to start a farm who might otherwise have trouble qualifying for small loans from banks or other USDA loan programs.”
 
This program is an exciting development. Value-added farmers producing niche, specialty, or organic crops are a quickly expanding segment of agriculture. Vilsack told the AP that direct-to-consumer sales are growing, with a 60 percent uptick in farmers markets over the last three years.
 
Capital from these loans can be used for a wide variety of expenses, from seed to delivery vehicles. Vilsack said farmers would have up to seven years to pay off the loan, and the interest would be roughly 4.9 percent. 

 

*Correction: Dan Gieseke, a Farm Loan Chief for the Missouri Farm Service Agency, passed along the information that the current (February 15, 2013) interest rate of the USDA Microloan Program is 1.125%.  Read more about USDA Establishes Microloan Program Aimed at Small Operators

  • Farm PolicyFarm and Food
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Farm Bill Extension Slashes Investment in Rural America’s Future

Remember the 2012 Farm Bill? Well who would have guessed they would vote and pass a farm bill extension while most of us were bringing in the New Year!

The farm bill extension attached to the fiscal cliff legislation slashes investment in the future of rural communities and family farming and ranching.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and House Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) had negotiated a far better farm bill extension. It included funding for many smaller, targeted programs that invest in proven strategies to create rural jobs, revitalize rural communities, and initiatives to foster a new generation of family farmers and ranchers.

But the final fiscal cliff deal negotiated by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Vice President Joe Biden stripped that funding. McConnell used the funds instead to restore a 3 percent cut in the direct farm payments – the payments made each year, irrespective of farm prices.

Funding was stripped from these: 

  • The Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program, which funds loans and business planning assistance to rural businesses with up to 10 employees. 
  • The Value Added Producer Grants program which funds establishment of value added marketing and processing enterprises. 
  • The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which makes grants for programs that train beginning farmers and links them with retiring farmers. 
  • The Conservation Reserve Program Transition Incentives Program, which rewards land owners for renting land coming back into production to beginning farmers and ranchers. 
  • The Farmers Market Promotion Program, which makes grants for direct farmer-to-consumer marketing.
  • Organic farming research and extension programs and organic certification costs share.

That means each of these programs will be without funding over the next nine months. The eleventh hour deal also prevents farmers and ranchers from enrolling in the Conservation Stewardship Program in 2013. This is an issue created by the short-term Continuing Resolution passed in September 2012, and one that Senator Stabenow and Representative Lucas agreed to fix. 

So while this nine-month extension continues to dole out unlimited commodity and crop insurance premium subsidies to mega farmers (despite high market prices); conservation of our land and water are put on hold; and rural communities, beginning farmers, and small rural businesses are left twisting in the wind.

The good news is that we will get a shot at fixing this disaster in coming months. We will again need all of you engaged in the debate moving forward. Read more about Farm Bill Extension Slashes Investment in Rural America’s Future

  • Farm PolicyFarm Bill
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Corporate Farming Notes

Groups Oppose Meatpacking Giant’s Purchase
On December 21, 43 livestock, farm, and consumer organizations urged the US Department of Justice to undertake a vigorous review of meatpacking giant JBS’s proposed acquisition of beef packing plants in Nampa, Idaho, and Omaha, Nebraska. Specifically, their letter called on the Justice Department to “undertake an expanded, probing, and in-depth investigation into the proposal by JBS USA to acquire two US-based beef packing plants owned by Canadian-based XL Four Star Beef.”

JBS is already the largest cattle feeder and packer in the US, not to mention globally. And given that the four largest beef packers already control over 80 percent of US beef packing, we’d all be well served in joining these organizations. Contact me to learn how to urge Justice to oppose this merger (402.687.2100 or johnc@cfra.org).

Meat Labeling Law Scrutinized
The World Trade Organization (WTO) has directed the United States to modify its country of origin labeling (COOL) law for red meat no later than May 23, 2013. Last June, a three-judge appellant panel appointed by the WTO that included a Mexican national ruled against the US over the America meat labeling law.

The case, brought by Canada and Mexico, was supported by multinational meatpackers. The WTO tribunal insisted the labeling law be rescinded or revised in half the time necessary under US law.

Citizen Action Stops Mega-Dairy
At the close of 2012, attorneys for California dairy magnate A.J. Bos recorded the sale of the last parcels of a mega-dairy site near Nora, Illinois. Bos originally purchased 1,401 acres of prime farmland in 2008. He had sold all but the nearly unfarmable 326 acres involved in this sale.

It’s worth noting that this represents a final and absolute victory of local citizens and their organization – HOMES – over Bos and his mega-dairy.

The HOMES website is www.StopTheMegaDairy.org. It offers a timeline of events and links to resources for other communities facing similar issues. Read more about Corporate Farming Notes

  • Farm PolicyCorporate Farming
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A Perspective from Mexico: La Milpa Maya

I recently returned from two weeks of vacation in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. Although it was tempting to spend that time laying on the beach - something we lack here in Lyons - I was there to participate in the 13th annual International Agroecology Short-course.

In a small university town in Quintana Roo, graduate students and professionals from all parts of the western hemisphere converged to discuss food and farming systems, their ecological and cultural functions, and challenges to sustainability.

Although I didn't get much of a suntan, I did learn a lot about traditional agricultural systems in Mesoamerica, namely the milpa.

The word milpa in Mexican Spanish means "field." It is based on the ancient agricultural methods of the Maya peoples and other indigenous groups. Simply explained, milpa agriculture describes when farmers clear a field to plant dozens of crops at once, most famously "the three sisters": maize (corn), beans, and squash.

Milpa crops are nutritionally and environmentally complementary. Beans grow using corn as a trellis; when eaten together they provide the body with the right combination of amino acids to make proteins.

In addition to crop scientists, we also heard from Mexican anthropologists who described the milpa as an important socio-cultural concept as well. The milpa binds together the family, the community, and according to Mayan spirituality, the universe.

Okay, so maybe here in the midwest we don't always relate our agricultural pursuits to the universe. But believe it or not, standing in a field in the tropics - within sight of bananas, dragon fruit, and papaya - I found myself thinking about the thread connecting rural Yucatan, Mexico to rural America: Family farms are the basis of vibrant rural communities.

And that's why the Center for Rural Affairs works to make family farms viable every step of the way - from providing resources for new farmers, to Land Link, to larger food systems, and policy work.

There's no doubt that rural Mexico and rural America have distinct problems and pressures that threaten small, sustainable farms - land tenure structures, subsidies, issues of the global economy -- it's a complicated story.

But simply put, I'm glad to be part of an organization and a larger movement that makes a connection between the milpa, the fields, the pasture - and the well being of the surrounding community.

(I'm not however, terribly excited to leave 80 degree weather for snow).

Read more about A Perspective from Mexico: La Milpa Maya

  • Farm PolicyFarm and Food
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