While the nation has continued to focus on urban unemployment
rates over the past few years, rural communities have silently
suffered slow economic decline over the past two decades. As
covered in the last edition of FARM AID NEWS, the need for
comprehensive rural development is clear.
The Clinton administration is making attempts to address this need
as are hundreds of community-based organizations throughout the
Groups are working one-on-one with rural communities to develop
strategies that combat economic stagnation and consequent
outmigration from rural towns. These strategies include setting up
research facilities and implementing new technologies, lobbying for
policy reforms and working on long-term economic plans to
revitalize existing rural businesses.
COMMUNITY GROUPS ARE KEY LINK TO RURAL REVITALIZATION
Community organizations have been working "in the fields" with
people for years to develop programs that address rural America's
most urgent economic, social and environmental development needs.
The need for these groups to continue their work will grow as the
Clinton Administration begins "streamlining" the U.S. Department of
Agriculture and other agencies. Ralph Paige of the Federation of
Southern Cooperatives worries that the downsizing process will
place an even greater burden on rural community groups.
"I understand the downsizing, but it's going to create some problems
because it will force local community groups to provide most of the
technical, hands-on support for farmers and farmworkers applying
for USDA program benefits and for other rural business owners who
will lose access to federal support."
For example, Paige says the FmHA restructuring will remove field
offices and consequently leave community groups in charge of
working with farmers to fill out Farmers Home applications or other
program paperwork. "Community groups will need to help farmers
and other residents through group business training classes or one-
on-one sessions," Paige notes.
However most of these community organizations lack the funding or
technical support to implement comprehensive training and
Federal and state governments must look beyond funding rural
infrastructure improvements that provide economic incentive
programs to lure a single manufacturer to towns. Instead,
governments must support the efforts of community groups that
work directly with rural residents to implement programs specific to
towns' individual needs and to compensate for the removal of federal
PURSUING NEW MODELS OF RURAL DEVELOPMENT
Community-based organizations have been working directly with
rural residents and business owners, including family farmers,
farmworkers and minority groups, to generate viable economic and
social development programs. These programs are an important role
in overcoming federal and state gaps in job training, research,
infrastructure investments and economic policies.
Job Training, Research and Education
"We are losing jobs, property and communities to outmigration from
rural to urban areas, people have become trapped in a cycle of
poverty because rural communities are losing their trained
resources," warns Ralph Paige, director of the Federation of Southern
The Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a resource and advocacy
association for over 25,000 low income families, has worked with
minority farmers and rural residents since 1967 to overcome
financial and technical barriers to sustainable development.
The Federation has helped communities in the Southeast to organize
agricultural consumer stores and buying clubs, credit unions,
handicraft production and housing and health care improvements.
In addition, the Federation operates a 1,325 acre Rural Training and
Research Center in Alabama to provide training in cooperative and
credit union organization, management, accounting, agriculture,
marketing and other skills.
Whether a community is agriculture-dependent or manufacturing-
dependent, a critical factor affecting sustainable development is rural
America's ability to communicate with urban and other rural
More than 350 people attended a recent conference in Minnesota
that focused on the need to extend electronic information networks,
such as the Internet, to rural areas.
Adam Golodner, of the USDA's Rural Electrification Administration,
says by linking rural communities up to electronic networks "people
don't have to leave their communities to have economic
opportunities, people don't have to leave their communities to get a
decent education, people don't have to leave their communities to
have access to good health care."
The Rural Coalition, a national alliance of agriculture and rural
organizations, has made the linking of rural communities through
telecommunication a development priority.
The Coalition is working to implement a two-step program that will
enhance rural communities' communication links. First, the Coalition
plans to acquire telecommunications equipment either through
federal or independent contributions. Second, the Coalition will
create an internship program to train youth in telecommunications.
Trained youth will work one-on-one with communities to train and
educate those interested in learning and using electronic information
WHAT RURAL AMERICA DOESN'T NEED
Traditional state development strategies, or "old wave" approaches,
center on creating immediate employment opportunities at all costs.
This approach has, time after time, realized short-term jobs at the
expense of long-term, stable economic growth in rural communities.
Many state officials, in their zeal to create immediate economic
opportunities for rural residents, often spend their resources on
attracting a single, large employer.
Prairie Fire Rural Action has been conducting research to determine
the economic and social impact of state-subsidized meat packing
plants, for example, on rural communities in Iowa and Kansas.
Prairie Fire found that in communities where tax abatements, utility
subsidies and other infrastructure incentives were offered to attract
large meatpacking and processing plants, communities suffered
economic and social costs in the long term.
In Holcomb, Kansas, for example, county officials gave the IBP
packing plant, which employs about 2,600 workers, a $3.5 million
reprieve from property taxes for 10 years. The county also assisted
in the construction of the plant with industrial revenue bonds
totaling almost $100 million.
"Ironically, because of the 'economic development' aid packages and
subsidies extended to the packers, and because of the low level of
wages that they pay, there are few places from which the town can
raise additional revenue to pay for [school and housing]
expenditures," Prairie Fire found after preliminary research.
Many more examples like this one exist for counties throughout the
nation. Unfortunately, according to Dave Baldwin of the Missouri
Swine Growers Association, "Once communities are tied into this type
of 'development' plan, they will be forced to come up with
permanent tax-draining incentives or face losing the plants
altogether ... I know it as sure as the sun comes up."
ADMINISTRATION ANNOUNCES RURAL
Earlier this year, the Clinton administration promised rural residents
that it would "elevate to a high level our goals for rural America"
through improved farm income, rural infrastructure, housing and
On June 10 Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy established a USDA
working group to focus on Rural Development and Protection (RDP)
under the 1995 Farm Bill. Espy outlined the administration's RDP
goals in a report titled New Visions of USDA's Rural Development
"The new vision of the Federal role in rural development should be
to assist communities, based on inclusive development initiatives and
to become more competitive in a world marketplace through creating
sustainable economic opportunities for all residents."
Lorette Picciano-Hansen with the Rural Coalition praises the
administration for its efforts to establish a "responsibility to the
community" through new development proposals. But she warns
that failure to devote enough resources toward the strengthening of
community-based organizations could undermine rural America's
long-term development success.
"If the administration wants to address rural poverty, it needs to
follow through on recent promises by assisting groups that are
willing to work directly with the people to develop economic
programs for a particular area," Picciano-Hansen cautions.
Sources: "USDA Sustainable Rural Development Issue Group," Rural
Sociology Discussion List On-Line, June 28, 1994; Peter Leyden,
"Rural America Risks Missing Info Revolution," MINNEAPOLIS STAR
& TRIBUNE, May 25, 1994; Andy Bernat, "USDA Sustainable Rural
Development Issue Group," June 28, 1994; Harlan Hughes, "As
Agribusiness Specializes, So Will Education Suppliers," FEEDSTUFFS,
January 17, 1994; "Committee Approves USDA Reorganization Bill,"
KIKA DE LA GARZA NEWS RELEASE, June 17, 1994; "House Panel
Approves USDA Streamlining," AGRI NEWS, June 23, 1994.
Telephone interviews with: Barb Grabner, Prairie Fire, June 28, 1994;
Ralph Paige, Federation of Southern Cooperatives, June 21, 1994;
Dave Baldwin, Missouri Swine Growers Association, June 28, 1994;
Lorette Picciano-Hansen, Rural Coalition, June 17, 1994.
"Rural Development, Biorefineries and the Carbohydrate Economy,"
David Morris, Irshad Ahmed, Institute for Local Self-Reliance,
September, 1993. 12 pages. 1313 5th St. SE, Suite 306, Minneapolis,
MN 55414-1546. (612) 379-3815. Fax: (612) 379-3920. $5.00.
"Rural development strategies must build on the existing strengths of
rural America. They must strengthen the interconnections among
rural sectors, minimize the disruption of natural systems and above
all, extract the maximum value from their human, capital and
scientific resources. The carbohydrate economy represents one
strategy of achieving these goals."
Capsules. Southern Rural Development Center, Box 9656, Mississippi
State, MS 39762-9656. (601) 325-3207. Fax: (601) 325-8915. Free.
"Published periodically by the Southern Rural Development Center
for educators, researchers, practitioners, local officials and private
citizens interested in improving the quality of life in small
communities and rural areas of the South."
"Helping Small Towns Survive," The Heartland Center for Leadership
Development, October 27-31, Jackson Hole, WY. Contact the
Heartland Center, (800) 927-1115.
"The Institute is designed especially for community development
specialists working with small towns and rural communities."