Difficult times test our mettle and our character.
Rural America is facing difficult times. We are losing farms and ranches, small businesses, churches, schools, and many of our young. Our challenge is to find the spirit, character, and perseverance of our pioneer ancestors, who lived through more hardships than we face. Our test is whether we, like them, can persevere through difficult times, working with our neighbors to create new farms, new businesses, and a new basis for strong communities.
That’s hard work. It requires us to do things that make us uncomfortable. It requires us to balance self-interest with a commitment to the common good. To create the kind of communities we really want, we must be guided by values that reflect the best in rural America – responsibility, citizenship, fairness, opportunity, widespread ownership, and stewardship.
When I came to the Center for Rural Affairs more than 27 years ago, I saw our work as saving family farming and rural communities as we knew them.
But now I see it differently. The question is not what we save. It is what we build; whether we will build a rural economy that provides genuine opportunity and a fair stake for rural people.
That question can never be answered for good because every time we find the answer, greed ultimately takes over and we have to relearn the lesson. That is the Old Testament story. It began with the promise to deliver Israel from slavery to a land where each family would own the land they worked and enjoy the fruits of their labor.
But when the promise is fulfilled, the prophets must constantly remind the people of Israel that those who gain their own land must not seek to accumulate more and more at the expense of others. Those who were the oppressed must not become the oppressors.
Their story is similar to our story – the descendents of the pioneers who came to the prairies of the American Heartland in search of opportunity. They began in Europe as serfs working the land of feudal lords. They came to America for the opportunity to own the land they worked.
The farms and communities they built are fading. The decision we face is what we build to take their place. Will we stand by and allow the emergence of a corporate system much like the feudal system they left behind, but with a modern face?
Or will we build a system that reflects the values of the family farms and rural communities they built, where those who work the farms and business have the opportunity to own them and enjoy the fruits of their labor.
History is cyclical. Over and over people decided that long-standing trends had gone too far – did not serve the common good – and they have taken steps to create something new.
It has happened over and over. And we can do it too.
Highlights of the Year
The year marked the 30th anniversary of the Center for Rural Affairs. And though it was challenging, we kept moving forward.
Funding was tight. The falling stock market significantly reduced giving by foundations. We tightened our belts and scoured the country for new sources of support. We replaced no departing staff, so our policy staff shrunk by two. Nonetheless, we continued to make a difference for Rural America.
Support Rural Entrepreneurship
Our Rural Enterprise Assistance Program reached $2 million dollars in rural small business lending. It has assisted nearly 3,000 businesses with loans, technical assistance, and business training. We are extending our small business development services to the growing Hispanic community in rural Nebraska. We are exploring creation of a rural small business network to market goods and services to metropolitan businesses. Our Land Link program will begin helping beginning farmers acquire breeding livestock.
Reverse Bias toward Bigness in Public Policy
We helped save the USDA Value Added Producer Grants Program and the Conservation Security Program from the budget knife. These programs help farmers and ranchers establish marketing, cooperative, and processing ventures to increase their share of the food dollar.
We won greater emphasis on family-size farms in USDA value added and research programs. We successfully fought state budget cuts to small business development programs. Our analysis drew national attention to the need for a federal rural policy, including National Public Radio, The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor.
Citizen Action for Community Improvement
Our Project HOPE brought people together in over a dozen rural communities to develop leadership skills
and strategies to strengthen their community. For the first time, we reached 15,000 people reading our newsletter, responding to our action alerts on critical policy issues, and drawing on us as a source of new ideas for rural revitalization.
Turn Concern over Food into an Opportunity
We are working with half a dozen grassroots cooperatives. One of them – the Small Farms Cooperative – is exporting beef at a premium price to the European Union even as U.S. beef exports have elsewhere come to a standstill in the wake of the mad cow scare. The cooperative offers the product the European consumer wants, hormone-free beef, from a source it trusts.
We are building a multi-state farmer cooperative to bargain for premium prices for natural livestock produced on environmentally responsible family farms and ranches. With our assistance, 10 farmers in Northeast Nebraska are demonstrating innovative ways to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels by building soil organic matter – providing a model for how society might pay farmers to help counter global warming. By next year, as many as 70 farmers will be involved.
A Year of Transition
After 30 years in Walthill, we built a new building and moved 14 miles south to Lyons – a northeast Nebraska farm community of about 1,000 people. We had outgrown our turn-of-the-century building in Walthill. Though we launched this project prior to the economic downturn, we knew we had to go forward in spite of tight funding to ensure our capacity to serve Rural America in the long term.
The new building gives our staff the space they need, and it gives us room to grow our staff to take on new challenges for Rural America. Most important, our new building makes a statement. We will be here for the long haul, right in the heart of Rural America, fighting for a better future for rural people and their communities.
The Center is organized into four core programmatic areas to accomplish our work. We also have administrative and communications and development teams which are closely intertwined with the programs to carry out the Center’s mission.
Rural Enterprise Assistance Project
The Rural Enterprise Assistance Project (REAP) delivers core business development services to help small businesses develop in Nebraska on a statewide rural basis. The program provides:
· Business management training
· A loan fund
· Networking opportunities
· Technical assistance
· Loan packaging opportunities
REAP businesses include all types – start-up and established, home-based and storefronts, full and part-time, and farm and town-based. The program cooperates with banks, economic development agencies, the Small Business Administration, the Department of Economic Development, the University of Nebraska, cooperative extension, and many others to extend support for rural small businesses.
Rural Research and Analysis Program
The Rural Research and Analysis Program (RRAP) is the newest program at the Center, created in 2002. The Center has a traditional commitment to research and analysis, and created this program to provide timely information to the public and policymakers.
Staff conduct in-depth research and analysis on emerging and critical rural issues and disseminate the information through reports and studies. The aim of our analysis is to enhance understanding of emerging and critical rural issues among the general public and relevant audiences.
Rural Opportunities and Stewardship Program
The Rural Opportunities and Stewardship Program (ROSP) works with rural people to create genuine opportunity and hope for a better future. Services include:
· Finding opportunities for new farmers
and ranchers to become established in agriculture.
· Assisting family farmers and ranchers
to access high-value markets that reward stewardship
· Demonstrating agricultural practices
that improve profitability and protect
· Assisting rural communities to cultivate leaders and entrepreneurs
The program engages individuals, groups of farmers and ranchers, and rural communities to develop the strengths that will lead to economic and social vitality.
Rural Policy Program
The Rural Policy Program gives people a voice in issues that will shape their future. At the federal level the program takes on national issues. At the state level, it advocates for balanced economic development policy. Elements include policy development, organizing, advocacy, and education.
Making government make sense is at the core of the policy program. From developing new options to checking up on implementation of policy, the program works to improve rural life and reinvigorate the democratic process.