Staff spotlight: a love of travel, food, and people brought Vanesa to the Center

“Good things don't come to you easily; if you want to achieve your goals in life, you better fight for them, and be prepared to compromise things you love.”

Vanesa Salgado-Perez says her parents’ words of wisdom get her through the days when she’s missing them the most.

Though her family lives in Spain, Vanesa makes her home in Vermillion, South Dakota. One of the newest members of the Center for Rural Affairs team, she serves as a community organizing associate.

A recent graduate of the University of South Dakota (USD) in Vermillion, Vanesa received her master’s degree in communication studies. Being a graduate assistant prepared her for her new role.

“I learned a lot about building relationships and communicating with a very diverse group of people,” she said.

Vanesa also had a childhood rich with food experiences. Both parents are chefs, and taught her that fresh foods and cooking were important. In addition, they grew their own vegetables.

“I come from a rural area, and my family has always been involved in farming,” she said. “I strongly believe the values that my parents taught me, such as the importance of hard work and family and the value of basic things and how happy they can make you, were shaped by their farming background.”

Besides being a food connoisseur, Vanesa enjoys getting to know different cultures, and languages. She was raised bilingual in Spanish and Galician, learned English and French in school and college, and studied Czech for a year while studying abroad in the Czech Republic. She has also started learning Italian and Portuguese and hopes to continue learning those languages when she has time.

Most of her family emigrated to Switzerland in the 1980s, and struggled in communities where they didn't speak the language. They learned how to survive in order to provide a future for their family.

“The importance of welcoming and diverse communities that help and respect newcomers is very important to me, and I want to help people achieve that,” she said.

Through her work at the Center for Rural Affairs, Vanesa hopes to be the force behind those open and welcoming communities. She’s focusing on designing, developing, and implementing a new food inclusion project called FoodSion. The goal of this project is to use food to bring people together and help communities be more diverse and inclusive.

Other responsibilities in her role include facilitating community engagement, collaborating with other organizations and small local businesses, and coordinating programmatic activities and events within FoodSion.

“With this job, I get to enjoy two of my passions: food and socializing,” said Vanesa. “I want to help people learn more about healthy and fresh foods, cooking skills, and spread the values my parents taught me. I am very happy to be able to share my culture with others and learn about theirs at the same time.”

Vanesa hopes to grow not only as an individual, but also as a professional.

“I believe that coming from a rural background makes you stronger and teaches you how to fight for your dreams no matter how hard that is,” she said. “I'm very grateful for having that opportunity, and I’m more than proud of my rural background. Thanks to that, I’m the woman I am today. Everyone should embrace rural!”

The Center is pioneering the FoodSion project in the Norfolk, Nebraska, area, and Vanesa works out of the Hartington, Nebraska, office. She can be reached at or 402.254.6893 or 605.675.9128. Read more about Staff spotlight: a love of travel, food, and people brought Vanesa to the Center

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Crafting our policy priorities from the roots up

Advocating for policy that builds a stronger, brighter future in rural America is no small feat. At the Center for Rural Affairs, we understand that, to craft this future, we must engage with rural people and communities in all aspects of our work. This principle is part of our core values and purpose; it’s why we work – and live – where you do.

Recently, nine members of our policy team attended a retreat in Ericson, Nebraska, a small, farming community in Wheeler County. For some of us, the visit was our first trip to Wheeler County, population 818, but for one of us, Jordan Rasmussen, it was just another trip to the farm. Jordan, a policy manager at the Center, and her husband operate a corn and soybean farm there.

The purpose of the retreat was to bring our team under one roof, develop new policy solutions, build stronger relationships, and establish a clear path forward for our priorities. We have team members in Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska, and took this opportunity to reconnect with each other and with those we serve. We were proud to do just that.

In the evening, we went to Nebraska’s Big Rodeo in Burwell, population 1,200. The rodeo arena was packed with what seemed like twice that amount. As our policy team enjoyed the event, we interacted and conversed with people from all over the world who came to rural Nebraska. For Burwell, the annual event offers economic stimulation, recreation, and a sense of pride for members of this rural community.

As we work to craft policy that helps rural communities realize their potential, we remain committed to working and living in the communities we aim to serve – they’re our homes, too. Through informed farm, clean energy, health care, small business, rural development, and conservation policy, we will continue engaging with you, and we welcome you to do the same with us.

Meet our team

Johnathan Hladik
policy program director
hometown: Valparaiso, Nebraska, population 570




Jordan Rasmussen
policy manager
hometown: Plymouth, Nebraska, population 409​




Anna Johnson
policy manager
hometown: Annapolis, Maryland, population 39,418




Lucas Nelsen
policy associate
hometown: Norfolk, Nebraska, population 24,348


Cora Fox
policy associate
hometown: Turin, Iowa, population 65




Katie Rock
policy associate
hometown: Muscatine, Iowa, population 23,914




Corbin Delgado
policy assistant
hometown: Papillion, Nebraska, population 19,597




Lacie Dotterweich

policy assistant
hometown: Monticello, Iowa, population 3,836




Cody Smith
policy assistant
hometown: Crawfordsville, Indiana, population 16,001 Read more about Crafting our policy priorities from the roots up

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Passion for rural entrepreneurs leads to award for REAP 2017 Friend of the Year

Seven years ago, when Sara Bennett began working for Nebraska Business Development Center (NBDC), she had no idea that her passion for serving rural entrepreneurs would lead to winning an award.

Because of her dedication, Sara has been chosen as the Center for Rural Affairs’ Rural Enterprise Assistance Project (REAP) 2017 Friend of the Year. She was recognized at an award ceremony on March 9 in Red Cloud, Nebraska.

The Friend of the Year Award is presented annually to an individual, organization, or institution that provides invaluable service to entrepreneurs by assisting Center staff in offering technical assistance, business training, loans, and networking across rural Nebraska.

Working for NBDC was how Sara first crossed paths with the Center. She says the two organizations work collaboratively to serve entrepreneurs.

“My experience working with the staff members of the Center for Rural Affairs has been nothing short of terrific,” she said. “The folks involved with REAP have such a heart and passion for helping small business owners. I’m encouraged by their willingness to help others succeed.”

Through her work with NBDC, Sara collaborates with businesses across the state to start, grow, and transition. She and her colleagues work with companies on critical areas such as financial management, business development, and operations management.

“Sara seeks out REAP for trainings and assistance for her clients, as well as financing, when she sees a need,” said Griselda Rendon, Latino loan specialist with the Center for Rural Affairs. “She is also a great resource to our businesses and assists them with such items as preparing for Small Business Administration Guaranteed Loan applications, market research, and helping them understand industry standards for their particular business.”

According to Rendon, Sara provides a “much-needed service to our aging business owners in Nebraska.” She assists area entrepreneurs, including REAP clients, with succession planning and valuation. Sara also helped implement the Grand Island Small Business Resource Team, a group of area business resources, to better assist entrepreneurs and business owners in the area.

Sara estimates that she’s referred at least 50 clients to REAP over the years, the majority for technical assistance and financing.

“Working with the REAP folks has been a pleasure,” she said. “Small business really is what drives the economy – in rural communities and all across the nation – it is very important. The REAP staff are phenomenal people who want to see small business owners be successful. It is a true joy seeing them go on to their journey. I appreciate the partnership and support from REAP.”

Rendon says Sara has been a huge asset.

“She is an outstanding referral source,” she said. “Sara makes herself available if questions come up, and is always willing to assist and provide additional resources to meet our clients’ needs.”

Sara says she’s very grateful to be named Friend of the Year.

“I am so honored to receive the REAP Friend of the Year award,” she said. “I enjoy working with small businesses in rural Nebraska and forming partnerships with area agencies to ensure the success of rural economies. What makes this award extra special is it is the ‘Friend of the Year,’ and I indeed have come to consider REAP staff members as friends."

Feature photo: Monica Braun (left), former Center for Rural Affairs' Women's Business Center director, presents Sara Bennett (right) the Friend of the Year award at an award ceremony on March 9 in Red Cloud. | Photo by Rhea Landholm Read more about Passion for rural entrepreneurs leads to award for REAP 2017 Friend of the Year

  • Small Business
  • Small BusinessREAP
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USDA extends Water Quality Initiatives through 2023

This July, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced plans to extend two landmark initiatives that have advanced water quality in Iowa. The Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watershed Initiative and the National Water Quality Initiative provide targeted funding and technical resources to farmers and landowners looking to improve their land.

These initiatives work with farmers and landowners in targeted watersheds to implement on-farm conservation. Such practices prevent surface runoff of sediment and nutrients, like phosphorus and nitrogen, which can degrade water quality and protect soil from erosion.

These national initiatives align with the purpose of the Iowa Water Quality Initiative. In 2013, Iowa’s Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship kicked off its Water Quality Initiative to take action on the goals of the state Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Taxpayer funds from the legislature are leveraged to drive matching funds and public-private partnerships creating a multiplying effect.

Iowa’s Water Quality Initiative focuses on eight targeted watersheds for the following rivers:

  1. Floyd
  2. East/West Nishnabotna
  3. North Raccoon
  4. Boone
  5. South Skunk
  6. Middle Cedar
  7. Turkey
  8. Skunk

In addition to on-farm practices, Iowa’s WQI supports projects to address point-source pollution and provides funds for urban conservation efforts. Each year, the Water Quality Initiative must provide a progress report to the Iowa Legislature – you can read the 2018 report here. Despite farm income declining over the last five years, an increasing number of farmers have invested in new conservation practices like cover crops, buffers, wetlands, and more. The continued support from the USDA through 2023 will help to continue the implementation of these practices.

Our policy team has been traveling Iowa visiting with farmers who see the need for change to address our state’s water quality problems. Look for our upcoming blog series highlighting the efforts of these farmers through the implementation of new practices and new mindsets on farming. Read more about USDA extends Water Quality Initiatives through 2023

  • EnvironmentWater
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Nebraska Council works to strengthen local food systems

By Eric Galatas, Public News Service - Nebraska

LYONS, Neb. – Leaders from across Nebraska are ready to launch a comprehensive statewide food assessment, one goal of the Nebraska Food Council's new board of directors in gearing up for the big fall harvest.

Sandra Renner, project associate for the Center for Rural Affairs, said the assessment is a snapshot of Nebraska's "foodscape."

She called it a first step in strengthening the state's capacity to grow more food that reaches more residents, "and identify where there's some gaps, and where there's some really good examples that could be maybe implemented across the state – and what we can do to make our rural communities stronger, not only producers but small businesses and schools, and other institutions that purchase food."

The council was formed in part after a 2015 study found that while Nebraskans spend nearly $5 billion annually on food, nearly 90 percent of that money leaves the state.

Renner said the council's efforts should help local governments make even minor policy adjustments that can mean healthier foods for school cafeterias, or reducing drive times for rural residents who have to travel long distances to get groceries.

The council also plans to hold a series of community forums and workshops to help people connect the food-system dots. They'll discuss topics such as opening more land for community gardens, lengthening growing seasons with high tunnels and increasing food-distribution capacity.

Renner said they want to engage Nebraskans across the food system, including farmers and average citizens but also people who have a hard time getting nutritious food, "if they're struggling to access healthy foods where they live, or they're struggling to access food in general because of financial reasons, and people that have been historically under-served, folks that reside in areas that are considered 'food deserts.'"

With a large portion of Nebraska's food budget now headed to drought- and wildfire-prone California, she said, the current system is vulnerable. She said she hopes the Food Council can help the state turn some of its agricultural success growing export crops, into food that's grown, delivered and consumed locally.

The 2015 report is online at Read more about Nebraska Council works to strengthen local food systems

  • Small Towns
  • Small TownsCommunity Food
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From the desk of the executive director: Growing reach, growing impact

The Center for Rural Affairs makes its home office in Lyons, Nebraska. We built a new office in this northeast Nebraska community of 851 people in 2004.

Since our founding in 1973, putting down roots in a small town in the middle of the country has always been a radical demonstration of our commitment to rural America. Then – and now – rural places face profound challenges. Being part of rural America, and confronting these challenges in our daily life, is truly part of the makeup of the Center.

We recommitted ourselves to that vision when we invested in a new office. That vision drove staff and program growth in the 14 years since. Our office was built with future growth in mind. Empty offices were an expression of our optimism for increased future impact.

That optimism has been born out. Over the last 14 years, the Center’s staff has grown from 25 to more than 40. Today, our office is full. With plans to hire three additional staff, construction is underway to turn an underused conference room into five additional offices.

Over the same time period, our budget has grown from $1.9 million to $5.5 million per year. Every single aspect of our work has grown in scope and impact.

Half of the team is in Lyons. We also now have an office in Nevada, Iowa, with three staff members. Additional staff are remotely located around the state of Nebraska. A contract organizer in Kansas rounds out the map.

As our staff grew, we took on new work, often prompted by your feedback. The Center played a major role in health care and energy policy in the last 10 years. At both the state and federal level, we are active on a broad set of issues today. Our small business assistance work doubled and doubled again. We also added major focus on Latino small business development in direct response to need in the field.

Our work with small towns now spans from community-based art strategies to a large-scale effort in Nebraska to create more welcoming communities as immigration reshapes rural places. Our engagement with farmers reaches from hands-on assistance with low resource producers to engagement with conservation, beginning farmer, and crop insurance policy.

None of this would have been possible without you – our grassroot supporters, community advocates, donors, and funders. We know that if we are persistent, we can create a better future for our communities, ourselves, and future generations. That is the vision and the ethic that our team commits itself to each and every day.

What will the future bring? That depends on what you think the needs are, and what you will help us create. We will create the future together. As we do, our commitment to rural America will remain at the center. Read more about From the desk of the executive director: Growing reach, growing impact


Your help is needed to save small business assistance program

We need your help. However, before I ask, I’d like you to think about a few questions.

Do you live or work in a small town? Or, did you grow up in a rural area?

Do you support local businesses, or would you like to see more local businesses in your community?

Do you miss seeing busy main streets in small towns?

If you answered YES to any of those questions, please keep reading.

The farm bill is headed to conference, and an important program that supports rural small businesses is at risk of expiring: the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program (RMAP).

How does RMAP help rural America?

RMAP provides grants to organizations that help small businesses in rural communities access loans, training, and technical assistance.

Since the program’s implementation 10 years ago, RMAP has helped more than 2,100 small businesses across the nation. Chatterbox Brews illustrates RMAP dollars at work in a rural community: Tekamah, Nebraska, pop. 1,730. Owners Cindy Chatt and Britney Hansen (pictured right) relied on RMAP support for one-on-one counseling and technical assistance to secure financing to start their business. They revamped a building on Tekamah’s main street and turned it into a thriving restaurant that features daily specials, craft beers, and a seasonal farmers market.

And, RMAP is at work in other ways across the United States. For example, in Minnesota, five organizations receive RMAP funds to distribute to small businesses throughout the state. Southwest Initiative Foundation in Hutchinson, Minnesota, is one of those entities. In fiscal year 2018, they dispersed $100,000 to four new loan clients in their region. With the help of these funds, Minnesota businesses are investing additional resources in their communities that can help reinvigorate rural economies.

But, RMAP is at risk of losing its funding completely if we don’t act now. Small businesses throughout rural America are counting on you.

Will you call your representative today to ask them to support rural small businesses?

Call the switchboard in Washington, D.C., at 202.224.3121.

Here’s what you can say:

  • State your name and where you are from.
  • Share why rural small businesses are important to you. Feel free to share what you’ve learned in this email.
  • Ask your lawmaker to support funding for RMAP in the farm bill.

Thank you for taking action to support small businesses in rural America. If you contacted your representative, please let me know at Read more about Your help is needed to save small business assistance program

  • Farm PolicyFarm Bill
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From a military career to sustainable agriculture: Hoops can handle it all

Veteran. Farmer. Business owner. Father.

These are just a few of the titles Brent Hoops holds. He’s also a conservationist who utilizes environmental preservation and protection practices on Good Earth Farms, his commercial soybean and corn operation, near Hastings, Nebraska.

Hoops shared his conservation experience at the Center for Rural Affairs’ Veteran Farmer Conference in March.

“I thought the conference was a great opportunity to meet other veterans who want to farm,” said Hoops. “It was nice to see what other people are doing, and I learned a lot about smaller scale, more localized market production. I really appreciate the effort that the Center has put forth in trying to bring veteran farmers together, and make it an accessible career path for people getting out of the military.”

Jordan Rasmussen, senior policy associate for the Center, works with veteran farmers, and says Hoops, along with other conference attendees, are prime examples of how military and agriculture can work well together.

“Oftentimes, traits needed to excel in military service, like initiative, organization, dedication, and creative problem solving, are also necessary when starting and growing a farm,” said Rasmussen. “Participants [of the conference] got to see firsthand how their fellow veterans have translated the duty and drive of military life into rewarding second careers in farming.”

Hoops had a distinguished military career, including graduating from West Point, leading a platoon in Iraq, becoming captain, and serving as a company commander for an Army Reserve basic training command.

After leaving the Army in 2011, getting into agriculture seemed like the best next step.

“I look back on my time in the military with some very exciting and rewarding experiences,” Hoops said. “But, Nebraska has always felt like home, and it was especially appealing as a great place to raise a family.”

The veteran has been able to carry work ethic and discipline into his farming operation. He’s also a big believer in the use of conservation practices, and has enrolled his farm in the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

Hoops says the biggest benefit of incorporating conservation and sustainable agriculture practices into his farm has been being able to reduce water usage by 50 percent. He achieved this by converting a gravity-irrigated farm to pivot irrigation through funding from EQIP. And, CSP has helped him get started in strip-till farming, which allows for reduced tillage, emissions, dust, and more.

“The only burden [to enrolling] is a little extra paperwork, so I think it’s kind of a no-brainer,” he said. “I think many famers shy away because they are concerned about the NRCS ‘telling them what to do,’ but that has not been my experience. NRCS programs have helped improve my bottom line, while hopefully making the farm more environmentally friendly, so it’s a win from multiple angles.”

Since last fall, Hoops has managed his farm while running his grain marketing business, Cutting Edge Commodities. Hoops says this kind of business can be complex, but he thinks he can help his customers make wise decisions as well as a profit.

“I think seasonal trends are a great friend of farm marketers, and it’s important to look at the marketing strategy from a risk management perspective rather than just profit maximization,” he said. “Healthy utilization of futures contracts and options on futures for early price protection will boost an operation’s bottom line in the majority of market environments.”

He also stresses the importance of recognizing that there is no perfect marketing plan, and farmers should lock in profitable prices when they’re available, while being aware those prices may go up at a later date.

Though running a successful business and managing his farm are of great significance, Hoops says his most important role of all is husband and father.

Hoops’ wife, Sarah, and their five children are his top priority.

“We cherish family road trips during the slow farming times (mostly winter). We enjoy traveling all over the country to visit friends, relatives, national parks, and big cities,” he said. “At home, we like be outside and spend most of our time trying to keep up with the kids, probably like most families.”

Feature photo: Brent Hoops, center, talks with Jordan Rasmussen, Center for Rural Affairs policy associate, at the Veteran Farmer Conference on March 24, 2018, in Hastings, Nebraska. Earlier in the day, he shared his conservation experience with attendees. | Photo by Rhea Landholm Read more about From a military career to sustainable agriculture: Hoops can handle it all

  • Farm PolicyBeginning Farmer & Rancher
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Corporate farming notes: increased FSA loan limits benefit large operations

Even though farming has become increasingly expensive, from land value to input costs, some farm groups have demanded an increase in Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan limits. Recent farm bill proposals from Congress responded to those demands. However, nearsightedness regarding farm loans can cause more harm than good, as there are pitfalls. These may severely impact those who need FSA farm loans the most: our beginning and historically underserved farmers and ranchers.

Beginning and historically underserved farmers and ranchers often look to the FSA for help in accessing much-needed capital for operating expenses and to purchase land. Guaranteed loans generally exceed the dollar amounts of direct loans, and are financed through U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved commercial lenders. Since larger, more established operations are often more capital-intensive, and seen as less risky than the average beginning small- or mid-size operation, commercial lenders are less likely to lend to beginning and historically underserved producers.

Under current law, the FSA direct farm ownership loan limit is $300,000, and the guaranteed loan limit is set at a healthy $1.39 million per producer. One proposal called for the doubling of direct loans to $600,000 and guaranteed loans to a hefty $2.5 million per producer. Another proposal advocated for an increase in guaranteed loans to $1.75 million. The proposed increases to loan amounts are poised to provide financing to larger, more established farming operations, but with no change in available loan funds – meaning more dollars will go to fewer producers, and funds will run out more quickly.

The farm bill will have a major impact on the future of agriculture. As we progress in the farm bill process, Congress must work to ensure FSA loan dollars are prioritized for the next generation of farmers and ranchers. We need to stop lining the pockets of big ag, which ultimately fosters an environment conducive for farm consolidation, and focus on building an agricultural system that is fair for all. Read more about Corporate farming notes: increased FSA loan limits benefit large operations

  • Farm PolicyCorporate Farming
  • Farm PolicyFarm Bill
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Latino-owned businesses in Nebraska almost doubled in five years, according to report

Husband and wife business partners, Diego Leon and Jenny Lopez, rely on their memories of Colombian fruit and juice stands to recreate the vibrant and unique dishes of their homeland. These thoughts inspire their restaurant, FRUIT, in Grand Island, Nebraska.

The couple immigrated to the U.S. in 2014, and opened their business in January 2016. Diego says starting their venture was an intensive process, but a labor of love.

With financial assistance from the Center for Rural Affairs, the business owners made improvements and upgrades, including moving the restaurant to a location with more customer traffic, creating advertising campaigns and marketing strategies, and increasing menu options. These changes have led to growth and prosperity for their business.

Diego and Jenny’s success is one example of the many Latino-owned businesses thriving throughout Nebraska. Financial assistance through the Center has helped countless entrepreneurs, too.  

The Center for Rural Affairs’ Latino Business Center exists to create new economic opportunity, higher incomes, asset growth, and improved skills for rural Latino entrepreneurs, like Diego and Jenny.

Our Latino loan specialists pride themselves on delivering comprehensive business development services for these business owners through technical assistance, loan funding, and training opportunities.

The hard work done by those in this organization is paying off, according to a new report.

Recently, the Latino Business Center, alongside the Nebraska Latino American Commission, published their findings on Latino-owned businesses in the state of Nebraska.

Written by Dr. Juan Paulo Ramirez, of GIS (Geographic Information Systems) & Human Dimensions, the report highlights and summarizes results from the 2012 Nebraska Survey of Business Owners, published by the U.S. Census Bureau in December 2015. For this report, the survey was filtered with "Hispanic" ethnicity.

Report findings demonstrate positive growth in the number of Latino businesses from 2007 to 2012. This is especially important to remember, considering this growth took place during years of recession and with limited access to credit lines by Latino entrepreneurs.

The report disclosed that more than 4 out of 10 Latino firms are owned by Latino women, and two-thirds of Latino-owned firms are of Mexican origin, which is 7 percent lower when compared to the previous census.

During this time, the number of Latino firms nearly doubled (97.5 percent), from 3,063 to 6,048, while non-Hispanic firms grew only 2.8 percent. There was 50 percent employment growth over those five years, despite the economic recession.

Center for Rural Affairs Latino Loan Specialist Veronica Spindola says these numbers are very encouraging.

“Latinos are a business-oriented society, and as they gain better understanding of rules and regulations, and better access to financial resources, the number of businesses will continue to grow at a rapid pace,” she said.

Spindola continues, saying this report offers vital information that will help communities grow from the inside out.

“I visited several chambers of commerce around northeast Nebraska, and I was shocked by the lack of information about Latino business numbers in every city,” she said. “When I asked about these business numbers, I never got definite answers. With this report, now every organization and economic development representative will know where Latino businesses stand and how important these numbers are.”

Other highlights of the report include:

  • More than $1 billion in sales by Latino firms.
  • Average of $1.5 million in annual sales per Latino firm.
  • “Construction” is the economic sector that concentrates most of Latino
  • ownership (22.4 percent), followed by “Health Care and Social Assistance”
  • (13.9 percent).
  • More than 8 out of 10 Latino owners in “Health Care and Social Assistance”
  • are females, and more than 9 out of 10 Latino owners in “Construction”
  • are males.
  • Male participation in “Construction” increased from 20 percent in 2007
  • to 42.8 percent in 2012, while female participation in “Health Care and Social Assistance” decreased from 42 percent to 27.3 percent during the same time
  • period.
  • Douglas County has the most Latino-owned firms, at 38 percent, followed by Lancaster County with 13 percent.

Diego and Jenny’s accomplishments are just one of many in Nebraska, proving Latino-owned businesses are thriving in our state. For more information, and to view the full report, click here.

Feature photo: Neil Robles and Xiomara Yamileth Robles (pictured) own Variedades La Union, a small, Latino business in Schuyler, Nebraska. The store holds a variety of items ranging from children's clothes to shores, and more. | Photo by Kylie Kai Read more about Latino-owned businesses in Nebraska almost doubled in five years, according to report

  • Small Business
  • Small BusinessREAP
  • Small TownsInclusion
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Building a path to connect renewables

Renewable energy continues to expand across the United States. For example, wind energy has achieved some notable landmarks, like the recent feat of supplying more than 30 percent of the energy for four states – Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. Solar, likewise, is experiencing its own transformation as panels become cheaper and easier to install, and more options for ways to invest in solar energy become available to consumers and communities across the nation. But, as more of our power comes from new renewable generation in places around the country, it’s important we confront some of the challenges renewable energy still faces.

One key roadblock to increased renewable generation is our outdated electric grid. The grid was designed in a time when power came from centralized generating units, like coal plants, and was focused on connecting those units to larger population centers around the country. In the Midwest and Great Plains, where there is a boom in the development of wind and solar, we also have a serious lack of suitable electric infrastructure to connect new renewable energy to the electric grid. That’s because renewable energy generation is distributed over a wider area than older, single units, and many of these new projects are located in rural areas.

The development of renewable energy brings a lot of benefits to rural communities. Wind energy especially brings new opportunities to small towns in the form of new tax revenue that supports schools and roads, new jobs in construction and long-term operations careers, and annual payments to landowners who host turbines. These benefits, however, only follow if a wind project is able to be built and get its energy to market. To accomplish this, renewable energy generation needs connections to the larger electric grid.

Investing in new energy transmission infrastructure allows for renewable energy to continue thriving, and allows rural communities across the region to access the benefits of renewable development. Recent examples include the Multi-Value Projects (MVP) which provide new, crucial links for the electric grid across upper Midwest and Great Plains states like Iowa and Wisconsin. One of the MVPs that seek to meet the needs of new renewable energy in the Midwest is the Cardinal-Hickory Creek project, which would run from Dubuque, Iowa, to Middleton, Wisconsin. Like other MVPs, the Cardinal-Hickory Creek project would create new capacity for renewable energy, and allow consumers in Iowa, Wisconsin, and other Midwestern states to access cheap and clean renewable power.

As this project continues to proceed through the development process, it is essential that landowners and communities engage through discussions with the project’s developers and participate in open houses and public hearings. Communities have an opportunity to form partnerships with the developer and pursue new, innovative techniques for siting and building transmission projects. Partnerships like these have been used to expand conservation areas, avoid impacts on agricultural operations, and include new pollinator-friendly habitat along the routes of projects. Local stakeholders have unique insight that helps to form a final route and ensures a project is built in the best way for all involved.

If communities hope to take full advantage of their renewable energy resources, a necessary step is to improve the electric transmission infrastructure allowing for renewable energy to be developed and accessed across the region; no state has to be an island. The Midwest is rich in renewable energy potential, which can translate to cheap and clean energy for rural homes and business as well as other local perks. We just have to make the connections to that potential to realize the benefits of renewable energy. Read more about Building a path to connect renewables

  • Clean Energy
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Rural farmers markets harvest demand for healthy food

Large, hand-painted signs lean against a tent, the buzz of friendly conversation cuts through the humid air, and the smell of fresh produce drifts in the breeze – you’ve found yourself at a farmers market.

Farmers markets are common in urban and rural communities around the nation. In urban areas, they provide an authentic, natural alternative for consumers to connect with those who produce their food.

In rural areas, farmers markets provide these same opportunities among many others – they serve as a stimulant for local businesses and farmers, an attraction for strangers and locals alike, and, perhaps most importantly, they offer direct, secure access to nutritious food for rural Americans.

Food security – defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as having access to enough food to maintain an active, healthy lifestyle – is an ever-present challenge in rural communities. According to Feeding America, 12.9 percent of Americans were food insecure in 2016 and three-fourths of counties with the highest rates of food insecurity were in rural areas.

There are programs designed to help alleviate food insecurity, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). However, research suggests that rural participation in SNAP is significantly lower for eligible recipients in rural areas than in urban ones – especially in states like Nebraska. Policies that support SNAP acceptance at more farmers markets are a proven way to make progress.

As we celebrate National Farmers Market Week from Aug. 5 to 11, we praise these events that serve a key role in feeding rural communities nationwide.  Read more about Rural farmers markets harvest demand for healthy food

  • Farm PolicyFarm Bill
  • Small TownsCommunity Food
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Harding receives George Norris Policymaker Award

Mary Harding has strong feelings about public power and rural advocacy.

Her passion for these issues has become the focus of her work, as she has been a member of the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) Board of Directors since 2003. And, until recently, served as the only woman on the board.

Mary’s dedication has not wavered over the years, which has led the Center for Rural Affairs to bestow upon her the 2017 George Norris Policymaker Award. She was recognized at a ceremony on March 9 in Red Cloud, Nebraska.

The George Norris Policymaker Award is given to an individual who employs bipartisanship, compromise, and consensus to improve policy outcomes for family farms and rural communities.

“The award is reserved for policymakers who truly rise above our expectations in advocating for issues that matter to rural communities,” said Johnathan Hladik, policy program director for the Center. “Mary urges staff and management to carefully consider the long-term impact of proposed actions, and notes alternatives that aim to reduce carbon emissions in Nebraska.”

Mary has also been an invaluable resource for environmental and renewable energy advocates in the state, providing useful insight on NPPD and alerting the Center to opportunities for engagement.

“She remains one of few directors who have been an advocate for greater investment in renewable energy resources,” Hladik said.

“I remember creating this award; I wanted it to go to someone who would fight for an issue, and that is true about Mary,” said Lu Nelsen, policy program associate for the Center. “She has been an advocate for renewed energy, even though it has been an upright fight, but it’s paying off. Mary sought out the hard questions and has never stopped working to get more answers from management.”

Mary says she’s humbled by receiving the award.

“I am struggling to say the right words to express how much I appreciate it,” she said. “Never have I worked in an environment where we are more committed to our customers than rural Nebraska, and it’s a tremendous honor to have received this award.”

In addition to serving on the NPPD board, Mary has held the position of executive director of the Nebraska League of Conservation Voters, as well as executive director of the Nebraska Environmental Trust Fund. She’s also served as a legislative representative for manufacturers, retailers, agricultural production organizations, and environmental/public interest groups.

Mary is a seventh generation Nebraskan. She and her husband, Richard Erickson, make their home in Lincoln, Nebraska, where they also operate a residential rental property business.

Feature photo: Mary Harding receives the George Norris Policymaker Award from Lu Nelsen, Center for Rural Affairs policy associate. | Photo by Rhea Landholm Read more about Harding receives George Norris Policymaker Award

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Staff spotlight: Gladys cares about community inclusion

Gladys Godinez knows firsthand what it’s like being an immigrant in America.

A native of Guatemala City, Guatemala, Gladys’ experiences over the years sparked a passion for inclusion work. She’s spent her entire adult life helping bridge communities through civic engagement, and goes out of her way to include others as community members, students, and clients.

Recently hired by the Center for Rural Affairs, Gladys works as a community organizing associate. She said she was drawn to the organization after hearing about our work with beginning Latino farmers and our small business lending program, the Rural Enterprise Assistance Project.

Gladys focuses on continuing the Center’s inclusion work, and expanding those benefits to more communities in rural Nebraska.

The middle child in a very education-driven family, Gladys is grateful that she and her siblings have found success. She credits their parents’ sacrifices, forward-thinking, and motivation.

“I’ve carried that gratitude throughout my life – from my youth in Guatemala, to growing up in different places across the United States, all the way to Lexington, Nebraska, where I make my home today,” she said.

Gladys has big plans for her role at the Center. She aspires add to existing inclusion work, and develop a mentorship program. She would love to eventually learn more about agriculture and how it impacts rural communities.

“The Center has focused on various projects and programs that are so important in my community, and I’m so glad to be a part of it,” she said. “I am truly excited to be able to help equip rural communities with their ever-changing demographics. I feel lucky that I get to meet various individuals who are ready to make their communities more inclusive, and help build bridges within their communities.”

Not only does Gladys have a passion for helping small towns, she also says she wouldn’t want to live anywhere else; her heart lies in the Great Plains.

“Rural America has so much to offer; the most important thing for me being peace of mind,” she said. “I love walking down the street and feeling safe. I plan on living the rest of my life in rural Nebraska.”

Outside of work, Gladys says she enjoys spending time at the lake or pool with her husband, Chris, and their two children, Esperanza and Cannon. They also have fun participating in parades as a family, and have every year since their children were babies.

Gladys works out of her home office in Lexington, Nebraska, and can be reached at 402.318.3689 or

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