Center for Rural Affairs March and April 2018 newsletter

Since its inception, the Center for Rural Affairs has chosen to advance a set of values that reflect the best of rural America.

This month’s newsletter focuses on “CONSCIENCE that balances self-interest with an obligation to the common good and future generations.” Read more about Center for Rural Affairs March and April 2018 newsletter

Intercultural competent leaders are needed for strong communities

A couple decades ago, a movement for tolerance wove itself across the nation. A few years ago, everything needed to be “politically correct.” In 2016, implicit bias moved to the top of political conversations.

From political affiliations to spiritual beliefs, and from generational gaps to ethnic diversity, the one thing we have in common is that our conscious and nonconscious bias play a role in the choices we make every day.

From big cities to small towns, from corporations to small businesses, biases limit the potential of growth, innovation, and success:

  • Not hiring a candidate with skills needed for the job because of gender, skin tone, age, or other differences.
  • Boards, city officials, and other positions of power lacking representation of those they serve.
  • Missing the breakthrough idea by not trying things differently, because, “that’s how we have done it for the past 50 years.”
  • Not seeing immigration and bilingualism as an opportunity for economic impact.

Our experiences shape the lens we see life through. Challenging those assumptions tests our comfort zones and can lead to a deeper understanding of ourselves and others.

To create strong communities, we must develop intercultural competent leaders, willing to engage and work with differences. Leaders who are self-aware and authentic.

The reality is, we all have biases, and the good news is that cultural competence, self-awareness, and authenticity are skills we can develop. Read more about Intercultural competent leaders are needed for strong communities

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Weekly column

Small Business Week: Don’t Leave it at Just a Dream

By Mary Kuhlman, Nebraska News Service

Small businesses are a key element of Nebraska's economy, supporting the jobs of nearly half of the workers in the state. Many resources are available to help wannabe small-business owners make their vision a reality. 

Among them is the Center for Rural Affairs' Rural Enterprise Assistance Project, or REAP, the largest rural-only microenterprise program in the country. As a Latino loan specialist with the program, Griselda Rendon explains that owning a small business takes desire and drive. 

"Don't leave it just at a dream,” says Rendon. “There is some funding needed on their side because everything is an expense. But if they take the initiative and they've decided that's what they want, there's a lot of resources out there for small businesses. It's just knowing where to go."

REAP provides business training, technical assistance, microloans and networking opportunities. National Small Business Week runs through May 5, and there are about 172,000 small businesses in the state.

Rendon says with the shifting demographics of Nebraska, REAP works to ensure new immigrants are able to own their own businesses. She notes Latino borrowers account for 30 percent of their loan portfolio.

"Latino entrepreneurs are getting to know the program, they're feeling comfortable, they're able to borrow to start their business,” says Rendon. “So that has grown, but we welcome any immigrant in the community."

The U.S. Small Business Administration in Nebraska also offers resources to help entrepreneurs. SBA district office director Leon Milobar says small-business ownership is a dream worth pursuing.

"We have people who come to this country and they take the classes, they find a mentor and they do the homework, and it can be done,” says Milobar. “You do not need any advanced degrees to be successful in business; you basically just have to do your homework."

According to the American Immigration Council, immigrant business owners generated more than $65 million in business income in Nebraska in 2015. Read more about Small Business Week: Don’t Leave it at Just a Dream

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Rural Rockstars: Washington County farmers are stewards of the land

In 2013, Iowa launched the Water Quality Initiative, an action plan to meet the goals of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy to cut pollution and hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. The initiative urges farmers, landowners and city residents to voluntarily adopt conservation practices that fit their unique needs and landscapes. Five years after Iowa started the Water Quality Initiative, I traveled to the county with the most acres in cover crops to see what makes them different.

Compared to other counties in Iowa, Washington County has a wide lead in cover crop acres enrolled in cost-share, with 21,353 acres planted in fall 2016. Settled in southeast Iowa, between Iowa City and Fairfield, and south of Amana, Washington County is also a top county in the state for hog, poultry, and organic dairy production. Farmers balance high volume livestock production with conservation and high rates of on-farm solar energy.

At first glance, Washington County resembles much of rural Iowa. Rolling hills flatten out and are dotted with farms and small towns active with local businesses, schools, and a historic town square. Politically conservative, the county seat is led by a young mayor who runs a local restaurant that showcases live music on the weekends. But something else is growing here. Retail sales are up, unemployment is down, and the population is growing.

Residents describe their current economy as one largely driven by choice. During the last few decades, farmers in the area have chosen to specialize in raising livestock due to their close proximity to a number of meat buyers and processing facilities. Within an hour’s drive is a hog processing facility in Columbus Junction, a poultry facility in West Liberty, and an organic dairy and meat processor in Kalona, plus butchers who do kills in four towns in the county. These sites provide market access to support different types of livestock production and agriculture in the county.

Livestock production thrives, however, farmers voice a desire to have a similar range of market access for crops, too. A local cover crop seed business acts as a resource while more farms work to keep roots in the ground year round. Large grain elevators exist within an hour’s drive, but a lot of the local crop, whether conventional or organic, feeds local livestock. When it comes to trying new crops, farmers held an “if you build it, [we] will come” attitude. They could fit a third crop into their corn-soy rotation, however, they have nowhere to sell it or buy seed. Existing small grains markets are small and do not attract large buyers looking to contract with growers. Some wonder if fruits and vegetables would sell better than small grains.

They take their role as stewards of the land seriously, and are well aware that neighboring communities see them differently. The growing political divide leaves Washington County more likely to try to feed the world than try to feed their neighbors. Sandwiched between Iowa City and Fairfield, Washington County farmers most often export their products rather than sell to neighboring communities. The perception is that such communities would rather see them regulated out of business. The result is a lost opportunity for everyone. Farmers could easily sell to both local and international markets.

What stands out is a community of farmers who are willing to share best practices and learn from, rather than compete, with each other. When they learn better, they do better. The high rates of on-farm solar reflect this. Farm by farm, people have learned that it’s a worthwhile investment that cuts costs. Following a manure spill that damaged waterways and led to penalties, a small group of farmers banded together to form a volunteer watershed group and the West Fork Crooked Creek watershed group was born. The watershed is located just south of the more formal English River watershed management authority.

While some farmers see the Nutrient Reduction Strategy as an opportunity, most farmers in the area don’t dwell too much on the issue of water quality. Farmers focus on making a living and doing what works best. They see themselves as building on their heritage and creating opportunities for others in their local communities.

Feature photo: Vintage gas station signs are featured on a farm in Washington County, Iowa. In the county, retail sales are up, unemployment is down, and the population is growing. | Photo by Katie Rock Read more about Rural Rockstars: Washington County farmers are stewards of the land

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RhinoSaurusRex Knits boosted with Business Plan Basics loan

RhinoSaurusRex Knits is an online store that specializes in whimsical hats and scarves for children and playful grown ups. Some of the hats resemble dragons, unicorns, or owls, and all are created from original patterns.

Christine Pfortmiller, the creative genius behind the business, makes these unique handmade creations. Her inspiration comes from fairy tales, folklore speak, and, most of all, from watching children at play.

Like many entrepreneurs, Christine began knitting and creating items for friends and family as a hobby, something she’s enjoyed doing for many years. In fact, she’s been making her own sweaters and accessories since high school.

After she became a mom, she noticed a lack of imaginative, high-quality clothing on the market. So, Christine began creating hats and scarves for her little ones, and the line where hobby became a business blurred.

In 2011, having identified a need for this product, she tested the waters at local and regional art markets and events across rural and urban Nebraska. She soon found that customers loved the distinctive products RhinoSaurusRex Knits had to offer. They would sell out of everything that was made for each show, so Christine began knitting again when she returned home.

Business has been good for RhinoSaurusRex Knits as more and more folks embrace purchasing local products. The business has rural roots and focuses on a Midwest regional presence. You can find its boothat events in cities like St. Louis, Denver, and Kansas City.

When Christine is not knitting or traveling to events, she’s busy expanding her artistic knowledge. She is not formally trained in art, nonetheless she has a passion for bringing accessories to life. This hobby also helps expand the business. She’s dabbled in recycled art, by knitting with videotape from obsolete VHS tapes. While this was a fun project, Christine said it was not practical because the tape is highly flammable, therefore making it art, instead.

Being a soloprenuer has its challenges; luckily, Christine was able to find support through the Center for Rural Affairs’ Rural Enterprise Assistance Project (REAP) Women’s Business Center. She attended a Business Plan Basics class where she developed a different perspective for her business, expanded ways of thinking, broke habits, and got out of the “soloprenuer” funk.

Christine said she found a true benefit being face-to-face and networking with other like-minded people, something a webinar or online learning can’t replicate. By attending the Business Plan Basics course, she was also able to access financing that helped her gain a more regional presence. All participants who successfully complete Business Plan Basics are eligible to apply for a small loan to use for their business. The only requirement outside of the class participation is completing and submitting a business plan with the loan application.

In the future, watch for RhinoSaurusRex Knits at even bigger shows and markets, where producers apply for acceptance. And, be on the look out for new creations online.

At a Glance

RhinoSaurusRex Knits
Online Store
Instagram: @RhinoInASweater
Call: 308.539.7333

Feature photo: Christine Pfortmiller creates hats, scarfs, and more, with products sold online and at regional events. | Photo submitted Read more about RhinoSaurusRex Knits boosted with Business Plan Basics loan

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Are we biased?

Are we biased? The short answer is yes – everyone is, like it or not. Our brains categorize people based on what we’ve learned from our family, community, television, social media, and other sources.

Our brains, in part, function like a filing cabinet where we store “information” – accurate or not.

For example, when I was a kid, I was certain the only way ice water would be cold was if it was stirred with a fork. Yeah, I know, not rational. But my dad always stirred his ice water with a fork, so it had to be true.

We do the same thing with people. When we see anyone, we immediately, and nonconsciously, rely on what we “know” – true or not. We classify people by gender first, then race. And, we react based on the “information” we have learned – accurate or not (think of my fork “knowledge”).

We’ve all seen nonconscious bias play out. Two friends, a Native American and an African American, walk into a store to make a purchase and are followed by the clerk because the assumption is these two people will steal something. Or, we’ve seen a woman clutch her purse and move to the side of the elevator when a man of color enters.

We can change this though, by simply stopping to ask ourselves why we react this way. Have I ever had a conversation with this individual?

That one question – the why – will take you a long way in addressing your own bias toward gender and race.

This article is the first in a series of three on nonconsious bias in rural communities. The next article will focus on how bias in small towns presents itself and what we can do about it. Read more about Are we biased?

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Weekly column

Fire enhances native plant community in prairie lands

I wanted to learn more about the practice of prescribed burn (sometimes referred to as controlled burn) as it relates to our work with women farmer and landowner learning circles.

So, I caught up with Karen Rathje, a learning circle participant from our series.

Karen owns land in Nance County, and read about the conservation learning circle for women farmers and landowners in the paper. She cash rents her ground – the original plot has been owned by her family for 104 years.

I asked Karen why she joined the learning circle. She marveled at how traditional practices, like burning, were becoming new again, and felt the knowledge she gained from the circle would help her have better conversations about conservation practices with her renter.

“The big thing for me is to take care of the land properly,” she said. “The cost of improvement and implementing practices is worth it to increase profitability.”

Historical records suggest that until the turn of the 20th century, grasslands in the Great Plains were typically exposed to fire every 1 to 10 years, initiated by lightning strikes, Native Americans, and early settlers. Fire is a natural disturbance that shapes many ecosystems, and, when applied under the right conditions, can improve rangeland conditions, enhance native plant community in prairie lands, increase agriculture production, and improve wildlife habitat.

I visited with Ben Wheeler, Nebraska Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) coordinating wildlife biologist at Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever in Ord, Nebraska. Wheeler worked with the Center on the learning circle near the Nebraska Sandhills.

According to Wheeler, the three most common reasons for using prescribed fire in this part of the country are 1) to control invasive eastern red cedar, which is problematic for both wildlife and livestock; 2) encourage plant diversity for improved forage or wildlife habitat; or 3) Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) mid-contract management.

“We help landowners interested in starting a burn association address logistics that can often be barriers for them, such as the number of people required, the equipment needed for a burn, and how to become proficient,” said Wheeler.

Wheeler’s NRCS team holds public trainings each year to address these barriers. The team also assists landowner burn associations with approximately 12 burns per year and advises on topics beyond fire learning, such as wildlife management and other conservation practices. Once a burn association is formed and proficient, they have access to an NRCS equipment trailer which has all of the equipment needed for a prescribed fire.

Karen and the rest of the circle participants toured a burn site that Wheeler and the local burn association had recently done. They learned what invasive plants had taken over prior to the burn, and how that is beneficial to growing lusher forage and other plants that can be more useful for grazing cattle or attracting natural wildlife to the area.

“By keeping current with conservation practices, I’ll know more about the conditions my renter faces, too,” she said.

To learn more about future women learning circles, contact Sandra at

For more information, visit the resources below:

Working with Prescribed Burn Associations - a webinar by USDA NRCS Central National Technology Support Center

How to Perform a Prescribed Burn - a toolkit prepared by Iowa State University Forestry Extension Read more about Fire enhances native plant community in prairie lands

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Josh Nelson has better yields due to cover crops

Josh Nelson, of Belmond, Iowa, has used cover crops for three years. In that time, he has witnessed better yields and water filtration on his land. He also learned a few lessons, which he shared at a recent field day hosted by Practical Farmers of Iowa.

Nelson’s farm is located near environmentally sensitive land and runs alongside rivers, which makes improving soil health very important. During his first year of implementing cover crops, he received funds from the local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which allowed him to experiment with what worked best for his farm. He now is able to fund the project himself.

First-year lessons included developing a plan for management before planting, knowing general time windows for applying and terminating cover, and remembering that poor termination can lead to headaches. Nelson learned the latter the hard way. He sprayed to terminate, which was followed by cool temperatures. This caused an inconsistent kill for his rye. Later on, a friend shared a piece of wisdom: wait to spray until you mow your lawn twice, to make sure the higher temperatures are here to stay.

At the event, over a lunch of turkey and cheese sandwiches, I chatted with one farmer from northern Missouri who has years of experience planting winter rye with his corn. He came looking for information on good cover crop options to plant after his beans.

Another farmer, new to cover crops, found that after only one year of planting oats and radishes, the water absorption in his soil had already improved. He shared that, after a heavy rainstorm, a neighbor who doesn’t plant cover crops had standing water in the fields, while his own fields had no standing water, even in the low spots.

According to the NRCS, cover crops drastically reduce the amount of erosion in cropland. These plants improve soil structure, stability, and increased moisture and nutrient holding capacity for plant growth. Runoff is reduced through improved infiltration, which keeps the water in the soil and roots rather than running off the top of the soil.

Also presenting at the field day was Humboldt County NRCS employee and local farmer, Doug Adams, who has planted cover crops for six years. He used a rainfall simulator to “rain” two inches of water into two types of soils ‒ one from a field with cover crops and one from a field without. The soil from the field without cover crops barely held any water, while the soil from the field with cover crops retained nearly all of the water. Healthy soil should hold together instead of falling apart; it should have good compaction, roots should be growing deep, and there should be worms.

With all of the benefits, why don’t farmers plant more acres in cover crops? Field days, like this one, are a vital piece of the puzzle. Policy, including the farm bill, plays an important role, too.

The current farm bill expires Sept. 30, 2018, so it is on Congress’ to-do list. Several elements within the farm bill could help farmers better access the tools they need to plant more cover crops. For example, working lands conservation programs like the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) supports farmers in planting cover crops, and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) supports planting cover crops as part of whole-farm conservation plan.

A major barrier to planting cover crops is existing crop insurance rules. This is why the Center for Rural Affairs supports changes to crop insurance that would better encourage cover crops and other conservation practices. For example, farmers who plant cover crops must follow complicated termination guidelines to retain crop insurance eligibility. Treating cover crops like any other “good farming practice” would go a long way in encouraging farmers to plant more acres. Another fix would be to offer higher crop insurance premium subsidies to farmers who adopt conservation practices such as cover crops.

With robust funding for working lands conservation programs in the farm bill, and loosened termination guidelines, more farmers have the option to plant cover crops. With more acres of cover crop plants, we will see positive changes in soil and water health.

Feature photo: Humboldt County NRCS employee and local farmer, Doug Adams demonstrates water retention in soil from a field without cover crops and soil from a field with cover crops at a recent Practical Farmers of Iowa field day. | Photo by Lacie Dotterweich Read more about Josh Nelson has better yields due to cover crops

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Center for Rural Affairs Board endorses Medicaid expansion ballot campaign

The Center for Rural Affairs Board of Directors voted to back the Nebraska Medicaid expansion ballot campaign at their recent quarterly meeting.

Insure The Good Life, a collection of local health care stakeholders, organizations, and individuals, is leading an effort to gather 85,000 signatures by July 6. This will add Medicaid expansion to the ballot for November’s election.

“During the last six years, nearly 90,000 Nebraskans have fallen into the health insurance coverage gap, as the legislature stood by and failed to extend Medicaid coverage to these seniors, parents, and hard-working residents,” said Melissa Florell, Center for Rural Affairs Board of Directors president and a registered nurse. “Now, Nebraskans will have the opportunity to decide the future of this expanded coverage for their neighbors.”

Nebraska is seeking to join 32 other states and the District of Columbia in expanding Medicaid. Idaho and Utah also are currently in the midst of Medicaid expansion ballot initiatives, and voters in Maine passed a similar initiative last year.

“For rural Nebraska, this expanded coverage is critically important,” said Brian Depew, Center for Rural Affairs executive director. “Residents of the state’s rural communities are already at a disadvantage in their ability to access health care coverage. The limited availability of health care providers and facilities, greater travel distances, and limited financial resources make access to care challenging. Expanding coverage will help stabilize the entire rural health care delivery system.”

Depew said more than a quarter of the uninsured Nebraskans who would qualify for this expanded health care coverage reside in the state’s rural counties. These are residents who earn too little to qualify for subsidies to purchase insurance from the health insurance marketplace while also earning too much to qualify for Medicaid.

To learn more or to obtain a petition to sign or circulate, visit

Feature photo: The Center for Rural Affairs Board of Directors met at the Red Cloud Opera House for its most recent quarterly meeting. | Photo by Rhea Landholm Read more about Center for Rural Affairs Board endorses Medicaid expansion ballot campaign

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Upcoming white paper focuses on risks and barriers farmers face in addressing water quality

The goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) focus on both point and nonpoint sources of pollution. Point sources likely come from industrial or sewage treatment plants, and nonpoint sources are dilute and come from water runoff.

Yet, many outreach efforts of the NRS are focused on engaging the agriculture community to reduce nonpoint source pollution. Rates of conservation practices have increased with these efforts, but are still nowhere near where they need to be to meet the goals of the NRS. And, though the total acreage of cover crop adoption is increasing, the adoption rate declined 10 percent from 2016 to 2017.

Many farmers feel they are under attack from urban stakeholders and environmental advocates. The threat of regulation seems to drive a rise in farmer knowledge and engagement on farming techniques to address water quality. But, farmers may encounter real or perceived risks when adopting a new practice. To balance those risks, technical and financial support can help.

Last year, Center for Rural Affairs staff administered a survey to explore how Iowa farmers perceive risks from transitioning to new farming systems, and any social risks of failing to transition. We also conducted interviews with watershed leaders to further understand what risks and barriers farmers face to adopt new on-farm practices to address water quality.

The farmers tended to be conservation-oriented, and mostly owned and/or managed smaller than average farms. They indicated their most serious barriers to engagement in a watershed effort, or adoption of a conservation practice, are limited cost-share funds, poor access to technical assistance, and lack of awareness or knowledge. Not surprisingly, respondents indicated practices that return value to the farm are most likely to be well-received.

A majority of farmers stated they do not feel social pressure to manage for water quality. Yet, one of the most important questions they consider when deciding whether to try a new management practice is, “Do I know other people who have successfully used this practice?” Farmers may look to each other for advice and knowledge, and gain insights by learning from others’ experiences. Farmers also clearly listed soil health and erosion as top priorities to address risk in their operations.

As Iowa continues to expand its watershed approach to water quality, understanding the needs, risks, and barriers farmers face will be critical to meeting the goals of the NRS. Our upcoming white paper dives deeper into these questions and offers insights into best approaches to engaging farmers in watershed planning.

The white paper will be released on our website soon. Follow us on social media or check our home page for the latest rural news. Read more about Upcoming white paper focuses on risks and barriers farmers face in addressing water quality

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Transmission line development: the benefits, effects, and how to prepare yourself

Three development projects in Kansas, Wisconsin, and Minnesota show how states manage revenues and tax assessments from transmission lines in different ways.

Center for Rural Affairs policy associate, Katie Rock, and policy associate, Lu Nelsen, recently discussed these examples on the Rural Matters podcast with host John White. They also gave tips on how best to communicate with developers, as well as advice for community members on how they can educate themselves about development projects.

Benefits and opportunities

Tax revenue

In each state, revenue from transmission line development projects are used differently. Counties in each state choose how they utilize the revenue.

In Minnesota, revenue is used to decrease property taxes.

Wisconsin receives environmental impact fees. While different than tax revenue, $9 million has been distributed in three counties. The money is used for a variety of conservation and community improvement projects.

“Providing that choice allowed each county to tailor how they wanted to use that revenue, which is essential for small towns where there aren’t universal needs,” said Nelsen. “Every small town is different, and having that choice available allows you to make the best decision for your community.”


Revenue from transmission projects in Kansas are tax exempt for the first 10 years. However, a small amount of revenue is collected through taxes assessed on substations, which was then shared with county agencies. The state legislature placed a cap on tax revenues that could go to schools, which became the focus of this example.

“The schools missed out on any tax revenue from this transmission development,” said Rock. “That's where these state policies impacted the revenues that could be spent at a local level.”

Job opportunities

Transmission line development brings in accessible jobs to rural areas. Community colleges and technical schools often offer training programs for this kind of work.

“Students right out of high school can go into these programs,” said Nelsen. “They can get on the fast track to some of the fastest growing jobs in the U.S.; jobs that pay well for a rural area.”

People looking to switch careers may have luck in this field. Retraining or training new technicians, especially those with overlapping skills, is common.

“In Iowa, wind energy alone supports 8,000 to 9,000 jobs,” said Rock. “Many of which don’t require a college degree.”

The best ways to educate yourself about transmission line development

“People shouldn’t be afraid to advocate for what they want to see in their communities,” said Rock. “Residents of rural communities play a major role in the development process, which should be open and transparent.”

Early outreach

These projects work best, and are developed best, when the developer of the project and the community are working in tandem, trying to identify how to best build the project, how to site it in the best possible way, etc.

Maintain an open dialogue

Along with early outreach, a continued conversation with the developers can make a big difference. Talk to them about what the project will be like, where it will be, and how it will be built. Take them on a tour of your property; point out electric fence lines, large ponds, or other potential obstacles.

Be informed

Be involved in the process. Attend meetings and open houses, be present at hearings, and do what you can to make sure your voice is heard. When you go to meetings, speak out about things that are most important to you and your community.

Meeting times and locations are generally published in a local paper or through direct mailers to landowners who are on project routes.

Use your voice

Voice your concerns and be honest. Honest conversations, conflicts included, only get resolved one conversation at a time.

Questions to ask developers

What steps will the developer take to identify important areas?

The first round of a transmission line development project usually starts with a broad general study area, which includes where the line begins and ends. Next, the developers will narrow it down to corridors, and those corridors will give better ideas of where the final route could be placed. Third, they’ll map out a route on paper, as well as alternate routing options, which are required in most states.

Who will the developer communicate with in the first round of the project?

A developer may communicate with special interest organizations regarding conservation areas or historical areas where the route cannot be placed.

How do you keep focus on the issues most important to you?

Double checking with the developer on things that are important to you is critical to keep communication open throughout the process.

Questions about tax assessments or revenues generated should be directed to your county supervisor and county auditor.


For more on transmission development in Wisconsin, Kansas, and Minnesota, check out the report, “Generation and Delivery: The Economic Impact of Transmission Infrastructure in Rural Counties,” recently published by the Center for Rural Affairs. Read more about Transmission line development: the benefits, effects, and how to prepare yourself

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SNAP, a critical asset for rural America

Food that feeds the world is grown in our nation’s small towns, where food insecurity is endured by millions of children, seniors, and hardworking, rural Americans. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), helps stave off hunger in one in six rural households.

Formerly known as the nation’s food stamp program, rural America’s SNAP participation rate rose from 12.5 percent to 16 percent from 2010 to 2015. The rate is higher than enrollment nationally, and in metropolitan and micropolitan areas. The rural SNAP participation rate follows the percent of population at or below the federal poverty line.

Given the socioeconomics of rural America, the importance of SNAP is heightened.

SNAP exists as a resource to help negate concerns of food security for seniors with fixed and limited incomes as they care for themselves and balance expenses.

In rural households with a resident over the age of 60, 10.9 percent of households participate in SNAP, compared to 10.1 percent nationally.

Rural families with children under the age of 18 similarly have the highest SNAP participation. In 2015, 27.3 percent of rural households with children received SNAP assistance, as opposed to 21.9 percent nationally. This access is critically important for children as they develop.

Beyond the direct benefit of SNAP is the impact it has at the community level. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that every SNAP dollar generates $1.79 in economic activity. SNAP is a critical asset helping keep community grocery stores open, maintaining this amenity for all residents.

As policymakers deliberate the funding and future of SNAP in the 2018 farm bill and broader entitlement reforms, consideration must be given to the asset and investment SNAP provides to rural communities. SNAP is, and needs to be, maintained as a critical safeguard against food insecurity and poverty for rural residents.


SNAP in Nebraska

Nationally, SNAP participation in rural areas exceeds participation for the nation as a whole. In our home state of Nebraska, the opposite is the case. SNAP figures in rural areas of the state are consistently lower, falling below metropolitan and micropolitan area percentages. 

As consideration is given to the 12.4 percent of rural Nebraskans in poverty, and state levels of food insecurity, significant gains are needed in rural SNAP participation and reach.

This inconsistency is explored in further detail in a recently released report, “A Discrepancy in Rural Nebraska’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP),” found on our website at Read more about SNAP, a critical asset for rural America

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House agriculture bill makes the wrong kind of sweeping change

The House Agriculture Committee released its first version of the farm bill on April 11. Unfortunately, the proposal included steep cuts to conservation, ignored the need for capping crop insurance premium subsidies, and made very distressing cuts to many programs that support innovation and investment in rural communities. 

This is the opening round of this year’s farm bill debate. We’re reporting on this troubling bill so you understand the stakes of the fight ahead. You can orient yourself to where we are in full farm bill process by reading our previous blog

Below, we outline several unfortunate proposals, as well as some positive but comparatively small changes.


The draft bill makes very upsetting changes to working lands conservation. First, it proposes steep funding cuts to working lands conservation programs, by nearly $5 billion over 10 years. The 2014 farm bill cut the entire conservation title – including easement and conservation set-asides – by only $4 billion over 10 years. 

Within these cuts is the elimination of the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). CSP currently protects over 70 million acres nationwide. Farmers and ranchers must demonstrate an existing level of conservation in order to be eligible. CSP offers a path for farmers and ranchers to increase their stewardship level for their whole operation while still maintaining production on their land. By eliminating the core of CSP, the draft bill sends the message that conservation should be a low priority for rural America. 

We previously endorsed several other bills that would have instead improved our working lands conservation programs and strengthened the handshake between conservation and crop insurance. We are disappointed that almost none of these provisions were included in this draft farm bill. 

Finally, there were a few positive proposals. The draft bill proposed to increase the number of acres eligible for enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program – Grasslands Initiative, which offers another important avenue for farmers and ranchers to improve their conservation. The draft bill also eliminates the requirement that 60 percent of Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funding go toward livestock operations, which would decrease the amount used to support Confined Animal Feeding Operations. 

Crop insurance and payment limitations

While our agricultural system needs a strong safety net, the current crop insurance system provides unlimited support to the largest farms in the form of premium subsidies. The passage of a new farm bill is an important opportunity to bring greater fairness to agriculture and level the playing field for farmers and ranchers. 

Instead, the draft bill only includes proposals that backtrack on crop insurance and payment limitations, while throwing a few crumbs to beginning farmers. 

First, the bill does nothing to cap crop insurance premium subsidies to the largest farmers. Under current law, one operation could farm the entire state of Iowa and the federal government would subsidize their crop insurance on every single acre. The draft bill fails to correct this. 

The draft bill also reverses wins made in the 2014 farm bill to limit farm program payments. First, the bill would remove subsidy payment limits for corporate farms, allowing any farm with this business structure (approximately 10 percent of farms) immediate access to unlimited subsidies. The draft bill also adds cousins, nieces, and nephews to the list of eligible family members that already includes siblings, children, and grandparents. Expanding this list would allow each of these family members to newly receive payments up to the limit of $125,000 and dramatically increasing the level of subsidy that some farms would have access to. These changes practically guarantee a return to unlimited farm program payments. The country needs a farm safety net, not handouts to the largest and wealthiest operations. 

One small point of progress is that the bill would make the crop insurance product Whole Farm Revenue Protection Program available to greater numbers of beginning farmers. But, at the same time, the bill would eliminate the Risk Management Education Partnership Program, including $17 million in mandatory funding, which supports organizations in educating farmers and ranchers about managing risk. 

Beginning/local/regional food/rural development/organic production

The Center for Rural Affairs has been fighting for rural communities for decades. We are proud to have helped win programs that create new opportunity for small towns and family farmers. The draft bill proposes to completely eliminate the funding for several of these valuable programs. For instance:

The Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program (RMAP) supports rural entrepreneurs with access to loans and business assistance. The draft bill proposes to completely eliminate $15 million in mandatory funding for the program.

The Value Added Producer Grants Program (VAPG) provides a path for farmers and ranchers to diversify their income streams by building a “value-add” portion to their operation. This can include making milk into cheese or fruit into jam. The draft bill proposes to eliminate the $58.5 million of mandatory funding for the program. 

The Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program supports farmers to create new enterprise and develop new local and regional markets. The draft bill proposes to eliminate $150 million in mandatory funding for the program.

Organic agriculture offers an important economic opportunity for many rural farmers and ranchers, particularly during times of low prices. However, the cost of certifying can be prohibitive for some. The National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCS) offers farmers and ranchers support for that certification cost, thereby allowing farmers and ranchers to access the higher income stream from selling organic products. The draft bill proposes to eliminate $58 million in funding for NOCCS. 

Renewable energy offers a vital economic opportunity in many rural communities. The Rural Energy for America Program provides grants and guaranteed loans for energy production and efficiency projects. But, the draft bill proposes to eliminate $250 million in funding for REAP. 

With all of these eliminations of funding, it was a happy surprise to see that some important programs did receive funding under the draft bill. The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program, and the Conservation Reserve Program – Transition Incentive Program all would receive funding equal to the level they have under the 2014 farm bill. While these are not the increases we maintain are necessary for true investment in rural communities, these are programs where we won’t have to fight back from zero.

This isn’t over

This bill – the initial draft of the farm bill offered by the agriculture committee in one of two chambers of Congress – is the first step on our country’s path to passing the next farm bill. A bad bill at this initial juncture just gives us – and you – more reasons to stay engaged. 

We want to see a positive, bipartisan farm bill passed that supports our farmers, ranchers, and rural communities. Do you share this vision? Let us know how you would like to help, at and Read more about House agriculture bill makes the wrong kind of sweeping change

  • Crop Insurance Reform
  • Farm Policy
  • Farm PolicyBeginning Farmer & Rancher
  • Farm PolicyFarm Bill
  • Farm PolicyFarm and Food
  • Small BusinessSmall Business Policy
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Staff Spotlight: Community and family are top priorities for Lizzie

Native communities, such as Santee, Nebraska, the principal village of the Santee Sioux Reservation in Knox County, often lack access to the fresh fruits and vegetables necessary for healthy living. Because of their size and rural location, these communities can also get left out when considering funding opportunities for these essential foods and other development projects.

Lizzie Swalley hopes to change that.

“As Native communities, we are very much rural and are, for most of the time, left out of planning or any type of inclusion,” Swalley said. “Competition for grants and funding to develop areas are targeted for larger areas with larger numbers, and that leaves out small communities like ours, which need improvements and assistance in many areas.”

Recently hired at the Center for Rural Affairs as a community foods specialist for the Santee Sioux Tribe, Swalley joins Farm and Community program staff in their efforts to aid in rural community development.

“I’ll be organizing and presenting educational workshops for community members to learn and develop small business and marketing through food production or arts production,” said Swalley. “I’m looking forward to getting started on projects, and to have them running well enough to see positive outcomes.”

Swalley is familiar with the work on food access, led by the Center, Nebraska Indian Community College, and community members. Previously, she was a contractor with the Center for the Santee Community Foods Project. Our contractors and community food specialists work alongside members of the tribe to improve access to fresh, nutritious food grown in their own communities, often in their own backyards.

In Santee, Center staff have provided demonstrations with garden tilling, seeds and starter plants and have supported a new farmers market. They regularly make garden visits throughout the growing season, and host various workshops, focusing on nutrition, food preservation, and small business skills.

Lizzie’s previous experience and her new position have helped her gain momentum in helping to expand access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

“I want to achieve awareness for the fresh produce our community members need in their diets, and to become self-sufficient by learning to grow fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Swalley. “I also want to increase participation in the food projects to grow the number of small businesses in the Santee community, whether that be through sales at a farmers market or personal catering within the community.”

When she’s not advocating for her community, Swalley spends time with her husband and their three children.

“Our life revolves around basketball – I can’t begin to tell you the amount of miles we have traveled to watch my husband or one of our kids play in a basketball game,” said Swalley. “As a family, we love to be outdoors, stay active, and have ‘family fun,’ like playing card games or eating together as a huge family with my brothers, sisters, mother, nieces, nephews, great-nieces and nephews, and cousins.”

Swalley works out of her home office in Santee, and can be reached at 605.857.1063 or Read more about Staff Spotlight: Community and family are top priorities for Lizzie

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Business Plan Basics offered to entrepreneurs in Cozad

Release Date: 



Nancy Flock, southwest loan specialist,, 308.534.3508; or Rhea Landholm, brand marketing and communications manager,, 402.687.2100 ext 1025

Cozad, Neb. - Existing, transitioning, and startup small business owners have an opportunity to examine their ventures in “Business Plan Basics,” a workshop organized by the Center for Rural Affairs’ Rural Enterprise Assistance Project (REAP) Women’s Business Center and Cozad Development Corporation.

Five sessions will be held on Wednesdays starting May 2 to May 30, from 6 to 9 p.m., at Cozad Development Corporation, 121 W. 9th St., Cozad, Nebraska.

The workshop series will focus on marketing, promotion/advertising, financial management, customer relations, and goal setting. REAP uses the Business Plan Basics NxLevel Guide for microentrepreneurs curriculum.

"Planning is key to success in business, and these five hands-on exploratory sessions are designed for those thinking of starting a business, businesses that need a boost, and business owners considering exiting the business," said Monica Braun, REAP Women’s Business Center director. “Sessions will cover important information to complete a business plan.”

The course will be facilitated by Lorre McKeone, who has a background in business, finance, and communication. She is the founder of The Executive Extra, which specializes in customized training and facilitation services tailored to the specific needs of their clients.

To register, visit or Cozad Development Corporation. For more information, contact Nancy Flock at 308.534.3508 or

Center for Rural Affairs’ REAP provides business training, technical assistance, microloans, and networking to small businesses in Nebraska.



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