Building Hope for a Better Future in a Challenging Age
The past year at the Center was spent developing the strength to build stronger communities and social and economic justice in rural America.
We built our network to engage fellow rural Americans in taking control of our destiny. We built greater capacity to bring the voice of rural America to the nation through the media. We worked smarter at delivering critical development services to rural people and communities. And we produced thoughtful analyses that secured our place at the table in setting rural policy and a course for rural America.
Engaging People to Influence Policy Change
We began building the National Rural Action Network to engage tens of thousands of rural people who care about their communities in speaking out to policymakers. Thirty years of policy advocacy has taught us a fundamental lesson. Our success in winning policy change is directly tied to how effectively we engage rural people in demanding a new direction. Ordinary citizens are powerful when they act together with commitment.
We launched an on-line petition – The Strengthen Rural America petition – as a tool for committed citizens to reach out to friends and neighbors to build the network and its power. Other organizations have used similar techniques to grow their membership by millions. We believe there are millions of rural Americans who care about their communities, and we are committed to inviting them into our network.
The network is the means by which we – rural people – can create the power to take control of our future. When asked, please do your part to bring in other people. We are counting on you. We’ll soon add a new staff person, in part to help push it out.
Preparing for the Farm Bill Debate
We added a new staff organizer to hit the road in preparation for the farm bill debate. We held listening sessions throughout the country to share ideas for the rural development title of the next farm bill and get feedback. We’ve focused on the states of key policymakers in the farm bill debate, including Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Utah.
We worked with farmers in Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Oklahoma to build support for closing loopholes in the farm program payment limitation. Efforts have ranged from educating the public on the need for reform to building support for reform within existing farm and commodity organizations.
We also did our homework for the farm bill by developing detailed policy options for investing in the future of rural America. We called for an historic one-half billion dollar investment – a four-fold increase – in local entrepreneurial strategies that work in revitalizing rural communities. We put together air-tight proposals for closing loopholes in the farm program payment limitations. And we refined options for strengthening sustainable agriculture research and conservation programs.
Policy Proposals Rely on Levelheaded Analysis
We back up our policy proposals with solid analysis. Last year we analyzed the failure of existing USDA programs to adequately serve small and mid-size farms. We analyzed the impact of the President’s budget proposal on rural America and the potential of the proposed federal New Homestead Act to revitalize rural communities.
We published a report on the implication of Nebraska school finance policy for rural schools and of a proposed state spending lid for both educational quality and property tax burdens. We completed an analysis of the potential for rural small businesses to band together to become suppliers of goods and services to large metropolitan based companies in our region.
Improvements in Federal and State Policies
We also won some victories last year. We won increased federal funding for the Value Added Producers Grants program. It makes grants to farmers and ranchers for value added projects, about half directly aimed at sustainable agriculture and family-size farms. We helped secure $5 million for research to strengthen small and mid-size farms and sustainable agriculture.
Our Conservation Security Program Hotline counseled farmers enrolling in the federal Conservation Security Program, which pays them to manage their land to protect the environment. We used what we learned from farmers and ranchers to persuade USDA to fix several problems in the program.
In Nebraska we won an expansion of the USDA organic transition incentives program to the entire state. And we worked with farm and education groups to help defeat Initiative 423, a rigid anti-state tax measure that would have weakened education and shifted the burden of financing schools onto the property tax.
Helping Rural People
We also worked on the ground with rural people to help them build better lives and stronger communities. We launched the “Windmills Across Nebraska” project. It will support community art projects in rural America that beautify communities and raise money for rural development.
The windmill is an important symbol of our past and future. As one artist put it, “The windmills sometimes occupied very lonely and desolate regions of Nebraska, but their vision was one of hope, life, and beauty.”
Our work with 12 Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota producers to establish the Family Farms and Ranches Meats cooperative reached a milestone. It achieved full legal status in three states and began negotiations with a major retailer to provide natural hogs and cattle produced humanely on family farms and ranches. It is poised to attract new members and make sales.
We advised four new farmer-owned value added marketing groups this past year, helping them develop legal structures, business goals, and financial plans.
There are great opportunities in value added agriculture. Over half of consumers say they’ll pay premiums for food produced on socially responsible small farms and ranches. That is an opportunity for family operations, but it won’t fall in our lap. It takes work and organization to build the supply chains and the relationships to turn consumer preference into genuine opportunity and better income for family farmers and ranchers.
The future of family farming and ranching lies in entrepreneurship. So we’re working to cultivate the entrepreneurial spirit and build entrepreneurial skills in beginning farmers and ranchers. We helped convene a Farm Beginnings training that enabled young farm families to put together farm business plans to improve their profitability and success.
Supporting Small Micro Businesses
Our Rural Enterprise Assistance Project (REAP) keeps supporting the entrepreneurial dreams of rural Nebraska. REAP provides loans, training, and technical assistance for rural microenterprise – generally businesses with five or fewer employees.
Last year REAP placed 40 loans and worked with lenders to leverage additional loans, together totaling nearly $2 million. REAP counseled 1,300 businesses and helped prepare 219 business plans. REAP launched an online lending system to supplement its standard system and help us extend its services into every corner of rural Nebraska.
Our new REAP Hispanic-Rural Business Center served over 100 Hispanic entrepreneurs and our Women’s Business Center hosted over 200 hours of training sessions for women entrepreneurs. REAP was recognized with the “Excellence in Microenterprise Work with Women Award,” which provided equity funds to 14 women entrepreneurs.
We expanded our efforts to engage rural people in strengthening their communities. We partnered with the Nebraska Community Foundation, Center for Rural Entrepreneurship, and Heartland Center for Leadership Development in HomeTown Competitiveness to support local communities in building new leadership, engaging youth, supporting entrepreneurship, and mobilizing local charitable giving to support community development. We spearhead efforts in Knox County and brought together six communities, including our home base of Lyons, in a joint development effort called the Logan Valley Initiative.
Carrying the Rural Story to America
These efforts on the ground are critical to our national effort to create federal rural policies that invest in rural America. They give us the insight to develop realistic policies. These projects demonstrate practical strategies that work to revitalize rural communities – strategies worthy of federal investment.
We bring that message to all Americans through the news media. The Center was featured in two Associated Press stories run in hundreds of publication across the nation and numerous other stories in national publications including The New York Times, Washington Post, Farm Journal, Successful Farming, USA Today, and American Prospect.
We published scores of stories and guest opinions in influential regional publications including The Denver Post, Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Des Moines Register, Omaha World Herald, Daily Oklahoman, Fargo Forum, and others. We dramatically increased our coverage by the nation’s radio stations, with three national stories carried on 2,100 stations. These stories bring the voice of rural America to the nation and frame the debate over its future.
Unified and Committed Staff
All of these efforts depend on a committed and talented staff. The expertise and quality of Center staff is demonstrated by the variety of board and advisory bodies on which they have been asked to serve.
Members of the Center staff serve on the USDA Beginning Farmer Advisory Board, USDA Sustainable Agriculture Network Steering Committee, Sustainable Agriculture Coalition Coordinating Council, National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture Board, Farm and Food Policy Project Coordinating Council, Midwest Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Research and Extension Committee, Rural Committee of the National Association for Enterprise Opportunity, Nebraska Microenterprise Partnership Fund Advisory Board, Nebraska Enterprise Opportunity Network Executive Committee, Nebraska Cooperative Development Center Board, Nebraska Carbon Sequestration Task Force, and the Nebraska Rural Development Commission.
Each of our staff makes a vital contribution to our work. The behind-the-scenes performance of our administrative department ensures we all have what we need to do our work well. They have taken the lead in upgrading computer and communications technology to enable us to work efficiently.
At the drop of a hat, they pull out the stops to get thousands of action alerts out quickly, so you can act effectively on critical issues before the Congress. And they provide the financial controls to ensure that every dollar we spend is spent appropriately. Strong financial controls and flawless audits are essential in demonstrating to funders that we are worthy of their investment.
In many respects we rely on each other to do our work well. A unified staff is a more effective staff. The staff Unity Council has fostered cohesiveness within the staff and between Board and staff. It has enhanced our morale and the vigor with which we attack our work.
Dedicated Board of Directors Guide our Work
We depend on a dedicated board of directors to guide our work – 20 Nebraskans with a deep commitment to our mission and work. Last year the Board was chaired by Don Reeves of Central City, Nebraska, who brought a wealth of experience including farming, work as a policy analyst in Washington for Bread for the World and Interfaith Action for Economic Justice, and administrative experience as Interim General Secretary of the American Friends Service Committee.
With board leadership, we are undergirding the long-term financial strength of the Center. We are in the planning stages of a new fundraising effort to build the Granary Foundation through charitable gifts from supporters. The Granary holds and invests major gifts, with income used to support Center programs. Its assets currently stand at $6 million, sufficient to potentially contribute earnings of $300,000 annually toward the Center’s $2.4 million operating budget.
Building a Better Rural Future
We are asking our supporters to work with us in building a better rural future by helping however they can best help – with their time, money, and influence. We ask with the conviction that our cause is just and right.
America is strongest when all of its communities are strong and all of its people have access to genuine opportunity. Rural America is a valuable part of America, but many rural people and communities are not sharing in the nation’s prosperity. The place of rural communities in the nation’s future is at risk. When rural America is a risk, all of America is at risk. So we are building the capacity of the Center, with you who embrace its values and vision, to set a new course that offers a better future.
Contact: Chuck Hassebrook, firstname.lastname@example.org or 402.687.2103 x 1018. Audited financial reports are available on request.
Building Hope for a Better Future in a Challenging Age